BANGKOK (May. 15)
The unrelenting drizzle turned clean-pressed shirts into sodden rags and transformed the potholed asphalt ground below the open-air festival into an archipelago of ankle-deep wading pools. But no amount of water could dampen the spirits of the 500 or so children from southern Thailand’s tsunami-ravaged villages who gathered one day in early May for fun and games at a festival sponsored by Chabad of Thailand on tsunami-devastated Phuket.
They clambered aboard carousels and zipped down slides. They cavorted with clowns, posed for photographs with cartoon mascots and tested their aim with popguns at shooting galleries. No matter what, they kept playing.
In the past six months, fun and games haven’t been priorities for most of these children. On Dec. 26, towering waves triggered by a 9.3-magnitude underwater quake off Sumatra, in Indonesia, flooded shores along the rim of the Indian Ocean, obliterating seaside communities and killing an estimated 225,000 people in 11 countries.
More than 10,000 people died along Thailand’s southwestern seaboard, and tens of thousands more lost their homes and possessions. About one-third of the dead were children.
In Khao Lak province, Thailand’s worst-hit area, as many as 5,000 people died, including both locals and tourists, and a whole fishing village was reduced to rubble.
Soon after the tsunami, Yosef Kantor, Chabad’s head rabbi in Thailand, walked down the beach by a devastated Khao Lak fishing village called Baan Naam Khem. That’s when the full scope of the disaster began to sink in for him.
“As I walked down Khao Lak beach, I was stunned by all the broken toys lying around,” he said. “It breaks your heart to realize how many children must have died.”
Kantor decided to try to help children who had survived. While Chabad volunteers were comforting Jewish survivors of the disaster and looking through makeshift morgues for Jewish victims, Kantor talked to Chabad headquarters in New York, asking officials to mount a toy drive in Jewish schools.
Headquarters called Mendel Druk, 23, a newly ordained rabbi from Detroit who was working at a camp in Arizona. Druk got in touch with Jewish and public schools across the United States and also responded to unaffiliated people who were offering their help through Jewish associations.
Soon, Chabad’s tsunamitoydrive.com was coming up first on Google’s list of Web sites collecting toys for tsunami victims. Meanwhile, schools from around the world were organizing their own toy drives, and individual children did what they could to help. Daniella Seidl of South Africa, for example, decided to use her Bat Mitzvah as an occasion to collect toys for Thai children.
“Children live in a sheltered environment, with their every need provided for by parents,” Druk said. “Yet when children see a great tragedy like the tsunami, you can explain to them that they can help other children 10,000 miles away.”
Adults often don’t think of children as being charitable, but they’re wrong, Druk said.
“A parent told me that his daughter who dragged him to go shopping for toys to Thai kids wasn’t old enough to play with those toys herself,” he said.
Chantal Keypour and Ayelet Hematian have discovered the joys of tzedakah. The girls, sixth-graders at the Chabad Academy of Science and Humanities in Port Washington, N.Y., were chosen to go to Thailand to represent children who participated in the toy drive.
The girls donned T-shirts designed by Chabad of Thailand and emblazoned with the words “A World of Good: Children Helping Children,” then disappeared into the crowds of frolicking Thai kids, who wore shirts with the same motto in a rainbow of colors. The American girls handed out kosher lollipops.
“When I heard about the tsunami I felt very bad about the children who lost their parents and their homes. I tried to imagine that if I was in their position, how would I feel,” Chantal said. “My mom, me, and my brothers, we went to buy crayons and coloring sets and other toys. I felt very bad for the Thai children that they had no parents to do it for them.”
Most other kids in her school were doing the same.
“Everyone was just bringing and bringing toys. You could see kids coming off the bus each morning bringing bags of new toys.”
Ayelet searched drawers, closets and cubbyholes at home.
“I went through the whole house and looked at everything I thought the Thai children would need,” she said.
Helen Greenblatt, a teacher at the Chabad Academy who came to Phuket with Chantal and Ayelet, remembered her students’ response to the tsunami as a “teachable moment.”
“If there is a lesson from the Holocaust it’s that we are all responsible for one another, regardless of race and religion,” Greenblatt said. “That’s why we teach our students that even a single person can change the world for another person by an act of kindness.”
It’s for children like Kwang that Chantal, Ayelet and other Jewish kids were collecting toys.
When the tsunami swept ashore in Baan Naam Khem, Kwang, 14, already had been an orphan for years. That morning she was away from her simple beachside home, so she survived.
But half of the 5,000 villagers died, including Kwang’s grandfather, who had cared for her and her siblings. Her house was destroyed.
Months later, the village is still in ruins. The only reminders of a neighborhood that once stretched to the water’s edge are piles of debris and festering pools of refuse.
Scrawny men, naked to the waist, scavenge for useable materials. Scattered underfoot, unwanted even by the scavengers, are pieces of broken toys. A soiled Winnie-the-Pooh school bag lying abandoned beside a mangled doll probably marks a child’s bedroom.
For a few hours at the Chabad festival, however, the children were able to forget and have fun.
“I’m so happy,” one child said to a journalist as she hopped up and down in a rubberized castle. “It makes us feel so happy that foreigners care so much about us.”
But she admitted that she didn’t really know who were the jovial, bearded foreigners in the black coats and hats who had provided the festival.
Were the strangers associated with Phuket Fantasy, the island’s funfair-cabaret, wondered one Thai woman who was watching her young son play in the castle.
No, she was told, they’re Jews. That only puzzled her more: She had never heard of Jews, Israel or Jerusalem.
That didn’t bother Kantor, the Chabad rabbi, in the least.
“It was not meant to be a PR event for Jews or Israel,” he said. “It was an event to promote goodness, kindness, and generosity. These are universal humanistic principles.”
But Chabad did use the festival to teach the Thai kids about charity. Each child was handed three coins, each worth around 10 cents. Two were for the child to spend; the third was to be put into a charity box, to be used for other tsunami victims.
Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Shlomo Amar, flew in for the occasion.
“We have come here today to join in the humanitarian efforts to gladden your hearts, with a tremendous amount of goodwill, and to bestow our blessing upon you from the depth of our hearts,” he told the children and their parents.
Soon after the official comments, the kids went back to play, eagerly awaiting their share of the toys.
“I’m so excited to get new, interesting things,” said Aew, 11, who is living at the Tap Tawan camp, a temporary shelter for homeless tsunami survivors. “I’ve never seen so many toys before in my life.”
Then, beaming, she grabbed a big teddy bear.