After the Wave

As part of the extraordinary outpouring of aid to post-tsunami Southeast Asia, Jewish and Israeli relief efforts are making a difference on the ground



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, March 7, 2005



The sea that devoured Chai's home and killed several of the 3-year-old Thai Muslim boy's relatives lies invitingly placid in the sweltering tropical sun, like a reformed criminal. Hardly a ripple ruffles the water lapping at Phuket's pristine Kamala beach.

Until six weeks ago, Chai played all day long in the shallow eddies on this beach, and the ocean provided his mother and grandmother with modest incomes as they hawked snacks of barbecued shrimp and iced drinks to sunbathing foreign tourists. But now the little boy, his 21-year-old mother Sirilat and 44-year-old grandmother Jinda won't go anywhere near the treacherous sea. Instead, along with some four dozen other penniless Thais whose homes and simple lives were washed away by Southeast Asia's killer tsunami, on December 26, they're living as tolerated squatters, crammed into one of three makeshift corrugated-iron shanties erected uphill on a better-off local's dung-littered grazing land.

Zalman Shneur, a newly ordained ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the Lubavitcher sect from New York, gives a toy bicycle to Chai, a three-year-old Muslim boy, who lost his home in the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 in southern Thailand during Chabad's relief mission to survivors in early 2005 (photos: Tibor Krausz)

They can count themselves lucky. A third of the more than 9,000 people (half of them tourists) killed in Thailand died on Phuket, the region's most popular beach resort, among nearly 300,000 victims of the giant wave. But if the tsunami caused massive death and destruction in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean , it also triggered an unprecedented outpouring of global support. Some regional Jewish organizations, such as Chabad of Thailand, have been at the forefront of on-the-ground relief operations and were among the first to respond to local survivors' most immediate needs.

While memories of death and destruction still haunt the grownups, Chai is ready to play. He's just been given a shiny red tricycle, which he pushes around with wide-eyed zest, stopping just long enough to take a closer look at his benefactors - two bearded young men dressed, despite the enervating heat, not in sandals and shorts like everyone else but in black trousers with fringes dangling at the hips and immaculate white T-shirts with "Chabad Tsunami Relief Effort" emblazoned front and back. The two strangers urge Chai on jovially in English, while bare-chested Thai men unload the six-wheel rental truck that came with the foreigners. Sacks of rice, cartons of instant noodles, boxes of oyster sauce, thick mattresses, tarpaulin sheets, new rice cookers, hot-water kettles, charcoal grills and myriad other items are now enriching the penniless locals' meager provisions.

Residents in this camp for tsunami survivors, one of dozens along Thailand's ravaged southwestern coast, are gladdened by the arrival of these benefactors yet clearly mystified by their exotic appearance - and they're about to get still more bewildered. Zalman Shneur and Yosef Zaklos, both newly ordained 23-year-old Chabad rabbis from Montreal on leave from Brooklyn’s Central Lubavitch Yeshiva, slip into black hats and jackets and fetch tefillin from their chauffeured car. One of the five volunteer relief workers (tourists turned helpers), who have dropped by to evaluate residents' specific needs, Aaron Roots, 25, a lanky soft-spoken Californian in Hawaiian shorts with a furry chinstrap of a beard framing his clean-shaven face, turns out to be a Jew who has never donned tefillin.

So here's a chance for another mitzvah. Zaklos puts tefillin on Roots and leads him in a recital of the Shema. Then the three men dance in a circle, holding hands and singing. "We're on a spontaneous humanitarian mission of kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God's name]," Zaklos explains. That's Rabbi Yosef Kantor's way, too. Melbourne-born Kantor, 36, head of Chabad's ministry of six resident rabbis in Thailand, is a perpetual-motion machine who has turned his decade-old Bangkok-based mission into a powerhouse of Judaism, with outposts as far away as India and Nepal. On an annual operating budget of $1.8 million, Chabad of Thailand runs two centers in Bangkok and one each in the northern trekking hub of Chiang Mai and the diving paradise of Samui Island. Their mission: to give Jewish backpackers a dose of Judaism and a home away from home.

Chabad's relief center in Phuket may turn into another permanent outpost. Six weeks ago, in the deadly aftermath of the tsunami, Kantor phoned Chabad headquarters in New York, seeking two volunteers to help local Thais. Two days later, Shneur and Zaklos were on a plane.

On arrival in Phuket, the two set up shop in a rented apartment in the middle of hard-hit Patong Beach's rowdy gay district - next door to Uncle Charlie's Boys, a flashy cabaret showcasing human-size art-deco statues of homoerotic cherubim and prancing girlie-boys bedecked like preening peacocks - and began their non-stop relief work. They scouted survivor camps in a 100-mile radius, quizzed Western volunteers about local Thais' needs and set about procuring for survivors what Zaklos calls required "enhancement necessities." Using funds from the $300,000 that Chabad of Thailand has raised for tsunami relief from international Jewish aid agencies like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as well as through its own charity network, Shneur and Zaklos purchased supplies from Super Cheap, a sprawling provincial market under corrugated roofs supported by logs and bamboo canes, acquiring and distributing mosquito nets, wash buckets, futons, stoves, bottles of fermented fish sauce and even new bicycles and tricycles.

In Tap Tawan Camp, they saw large heaps of Western-style clothes donated by foreign relief agencies lying unwanted by residents who preferred their own tattered but more traditional garments. So they bought a large quantity of Thai sarongs at a local store. "You should have seen this old lady clutching a new sarong as if it was a long-lost relative," Shneur remembers. An estimated 10,000 Thais, a third of them children, still live in temporary shelters, and Chabad's Tsunami Relief Effort hopes to reach as many of them as it can.

A large fishing boat lies beached a mile or so inland among the debris of houses that once belonged to a local community in tsunami-ravaged Phang Nga province in southern Thailand. The man in the foreground looks for salvageable materials

Rabbi Kantor, who has flown down from Bangkok today to escort an American Jewish financial consultant around Phuket while they brainstorm ways to underwrite new rehabilitation projects, drives onto Kamala Beach, and a contented smile steals across his face as he watches villagers eagerly unpacking the boxes of supplies that Chabad has just brought them. "OK, on to the next case!" he says, summoning Shneur and Zaklos. The next case is a 15-minute drive uphill on a winding asphalt road whose outside lane has collapsed into a ravine, most likely shaken loose by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the tip of Sumatra Island that triggered the tsunami. Scattered around the woody backyard of a portly Thai woman's homestead are a dozen brand-new camping tents housing some 50 people. Here, too, the Jews unload large cardboard boxes from their rented truck and give kids kosher lollipops taken from supplies at Chabad's school in Bangkok. Then they're off to the next makeshift survivors' camp.

The government of Thailand has refused to accept any substantial financial help, insisting the country was more than capable of getting its six ravaged southern provinces back on their feet. But if tsunami camps in Phuket are any indication, it's Chabad and other volunteer groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, that are doing most of the heavy lifting in aid and relief.

* * *

It was a different tragedy that launched Mark Weingard, 38, on a charity mission, but the tsunami changed his direction. In 2002, Weingard lost his British fiancee in the Bali Al-Qaeda bombing. A cabdriver's son from Manchester who earned a fortune as an on-line stock broker, Weingard, who now divides his time between homes in Bangkok and Phuket, pulled himself out of his "big black hole" by establishing - and raising $1.65 million for the Annika Linden Foundation, to mount educational and community projects in Bali. After the tsunami struck, the foundation earmarked $500,000 for relief, and Weingard in early February staged an "Out of the Darkness" fundraiser at Bangkok’s classiest nightclub that brought in another $100,000.

But Weingard's primary aim is not more money but rather sensible allocation of existing resources. To keep the torrent of relief programs from wasting their resources through mismanagement and disorganization, Weingard has set up Thai Together, a command center and think tank to keep grass-roots relief agencies in Thailand (such as business associations, wildlife funds, dive operators, schools and universities) from working at cross purposes.

A child's backpack lies in the dirt of where a humble dwelling once stood

Amy Ellenberg is one of those volunteers whose boundless energy and goodwill Weingard hopes to channel most efficiently. Ellenberg, 42, a professional masseuse and trained health therapist, was due to return home to Santa Cruz, California, on December 27 after a few months on Phuket. Already in Bangkok when she learned of the tragedy unfolding in the south, she flew back down to pitch in wherever she could help. She's visited emergency wards to hold hands with tourists lying in agony on the operating table, raised $12,000 from friends in the United States for buying necessities for Thai survivors, and helped Shneur and Zaklos map out tsunami camps, gauge residents' needs and buy supplies.

No natural disaster in recent memory has brought a comparable outpouring of global support, as donor nations and organizations worldwide have pledged billions of dollars in relief and reconstruction aid. But two months after the calamity, homeless locals are not moving into shiny new homes. Rather, most of them continue eking out precarious existences as mendicants living in makeshift shanties. In Thailand’s south, locals have received 8,000 baht ($200) each in compensation from the Thai government, but that's all, several say. So Ellenberg sees Chabad's and her own role as making a difference between hope and desperation. "All the help that's supposed to be on its way is fine, but people need to eat and brush their teeth today, not tomorrow," she insists. "What the rabbis are doing is happening today. Sure, we can't build homes for everyone, but let's buy scrubs, pots, sanitary napkins for people right now."

Or buy boat motors, like Yariv Rozen. In late January, the 30-year-old handicrafts merchant from Tel Aviv came to Khao Lak, an old fishing village with a new upscale resort town beside it in Phang-Nga province, which bore the brunt of destruction in southern Thailand. Thousands were killed; another 1,000 are still missing. A mile inland, as an indication of the wave's power, a large blue junk rests on the concrete porch of a stone house, its nose wedged into the living room.

A Muslim man sits outside a makeshift dwelling for survivors

The entire neighborhood in front of it has been wiped out. A child's soiled Winnie the Pooh schoolbag lies abandoned among a wreckage of plastic toys where a bedroom must once have been. Scrawny men scavenge for usable materials, sifting through rubble and pools of seawater festering with rotting refuse and animal flesh. "Locals are afraid to go back to the sea with bodies still lying about out there," says Rozen, who volunteered to assist the Royal Thai Army's recovery operations. A former officer in a paratroop unit of the IDF, he scoured fetid ponds, mangled cars and wrecked buildings in search of corpses. "I've found half a female body and four fingers," he reports.

But it's the living who need help. In Ban Nam Kem, the fishing village beside Khao Lak beach where half of the 5,000 residents perished, the tsunami obliterated wooden shacks and smashed fishing vessels to smithereens. "We've lost nets, boats, everything," laments Saicheo Khetkling, who is 52 but looks 10 years older, in the nearby Buddhist temple where she is being sheltered. "Fishermen here only know how to fish, but now they have nothing to fish with. Many are going crazy; they drink and fight and wish they'd died, too." Through a network of Jewish friends in the United States , Rozen is now spearheading an individual initiative to raise $16,000 to buy eight new motors for local fishermen's patched-up vessels. He's pitched his case to Zaklos and Shneur, who are now buying several engines of their own for villagers.

Cathy Wienburg, a 46-year-old Jewish jewelry retailer, booked a ticket to Phuket when she could no longer bear watching the horrifying news reports at home in Cape Town, South Africa. She and Rozen ran into each other in Khao Lak and are now making common cause. Wienburg has just bought a boat engine for one of the fishermen out of her own pocket, and she is dedicating all her time to victims, helping out at a nearby volunteer center, where foreign aid workers prioritize and apportion tasks among themselves. With money sent by Jewish friends in South Africa, she has bought bicycles, toys and dolls, and though not a teacher, helped out in a school where several teachers were killed by the tsunami.

"I'll dedicate five years of my life to this if I have to!" Wienburg pledges. "We should all do more to help non-Jews, because the world sees us as insular people who take care only of their own," she adds.

Like Wienburg, Rabbi Kantor is particularly concerned for the children. "As I walked down Khao Lak beach right after the disaster, I was stunned by all the broken toys lying around," remembers Kantor, a father of six. In response, he initiated a toy drive in several Jewish and some public schools across North America and elsewhere. By now, enough toys to fill a shipping container, donated by students in dozens of schools, are waiting in Chabad's New York warehouse to be dispatched to Thailand. He proudly shows me an e-mail from Daniella Seidl, a 12-year-old American girl who has decided to use her upcoming bat mitzvah as an occasion to collect toys for Thai children.

Daniella's toys will be among those Kantor plans to distribute during a Chabad-sponsored carnival for tsunami survivors in Phuket at Purim, in late March. While the children are playing, Kantor plans to engage the adults in carpentry workshops to equip locals with the tools and skills to rebuild their homes and to offer no-interest loans to kick-start small businesses. While providing physical help, he too feels he is introducing Thais to "Jewish concepts of morality in a non-invasive way." He explains with the words of a Hasidic master "who asked, ‘Where is God?’" The answer: “’Anywhere you let Him in.'"


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