The man from Finland won’t go back until he finds his wife and children. He saw them being carried out to sea by the tidal wave, he told the Chabad rabbi, and he needs help finding them. Or their bodies.
Chaos and confusion are rampant on the island of Phuket, as the magnitude of Sunday’s tidal wave registers with survivors and relief workers. Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm, who has spent the last four days searching and helping to identify bodies—many that have deteriorated in the water—is in the vortex of this turmoil. Since Monday morning, he’s navigated the extremes of grief and gratitude, with each confirmation, respectively, of death or recovery.
Rabbi Wilhelm, a Chabad-Lubavitch representatives in Bangkok, says that at present, some 30 Israelis are yet unaccounted for, but he is hopeful that they are alive. To help in the task of identifying bodies, Israeli rescue units, forensic experts and ZAKA members arrived yesterday to Phuket, where they will be working with Chabad volunteers. Amid the bedlam, Chabad is also making preparations for Shabbat services and dinners at the Bangkok Phuket Hospital for Jewish survivors and the Israeli relief workers.
“All of our resources,” says Rabbi Yosef Kantor, director of Chabad activities in Thailand, from where cases of food and clothing are being sent daily to Rabbi Wilhelm in Phuket, “are now focused entirely towards assisting survivors, counseling families of missing ones, and helping the support teams that have come from Israel to do the gruesome work of identifying bodies.”
As the only Jewish service agency in Thailand, and a well-known address for Israeli tourists, Chabad was the first place to which thousands of Jews have come to since the disaster. “We are giving this our very best response,” says Rabbi Kantor. “All of our representatives—the men and the women, our rabbinical students and post-graduate students, are doing whatever is necessary.” This includes making rounds through the various hospitals to help search for survivors, providing food and lodging, helping with travel arrangements and grief counseling.
Chabad of Thailand’s website–www.JewishThailand.com posts regular updates, a missing persons procedure with forms and contact information for facilitating searches, and instructions for DNA testing which has become necessary to confirm many of the bodies.
In Ko Samui, Rabbi Gaon Maatuf has turned his Chabad House into an all-purpose relief center. More than 2,000 Israelis have come into the Chabad House since Sunday, looking for help, he told lubavitch.com. Many have come from abroad to search for their loved ones, and have come straight to the Chabad House. Rabbi Maatuf set up a communications center at the Chabad House, putting phones and computers with internet connections out for people to make contact with family. Chabad’s kosher restaurant has been feeding the hungry, dozens are sleeping at the Chabad House, and hundreds have been put up by Chabad at local motels until they are able to leave back home. “Many have survived without a shirt on their back,” he explains. “They have no papers, no funds, no clothing.”
Rabbi Maatuf is gearing up for a Shabbat of at least 500 people, among them the teams of Israeli rescue workers. “We’ll do what we do here every Shabbat,” he says, “only for many more people, and I expect with greater intensity.”
Contributions for relief efforts in Thailand can be made directly to Chabad of Thailand by clicking on their website Tsunami Relief Effort.