Two epiphanies have shaped Erin Zaikis’ life.
No. 1: At 19, when she was in college, she watched “Slumdog Millionaire,” the Oscar-winning love story/adventure set in the slums of Mumbai. Upset by the depiction of poverty she had never experienced, she decided to travel there and help. Using the money saved from her bat mitzvah, she booked a one-way flight that night and spent the summer working with an anti-trafficking NGO.
Which led to …
Epiphany No. 2: A few years later, she was in a village in rural Thailand. After going to the bathroom, she washed her hands. “Where’s the soap?” she asked a group of teenage girls. “What’s soap?” they answered. Zaikis realized that the teens, typical Thai residents, had no idea about basic hygiene and cleanliness.
To change that, she founded Sundara (Sanskrit for “beautiful”), a small-scale organization that provides free, recycled soap (donated from hotels) in three countries (India, Uganda and Myanmar), reduces the amount of discarded soap in landfills, provides jobs for underprivileged women, and offers hygiene lectures, mostly to mothers and young girls.
Zaikis picked the name Sundara, she says, because her activism has changed her view of beauty. “There’s a dignity when you’re clean. That’s beauty.”
A one-time astronomy major, the “crazy soap lady,” as some people call her, says her work, supported by the Chabad-affiliated Gabriel Project in Mumbai, has improved the lives of 60,000 people.
Some 70 million people in India have never used soap, Zaikis says. “This means that one Indian child under 5 is dying every 30 seconds from diarrhea or another preventable hygiene-related disease.”
She works with Hindus, Buddhists and Christians.
“It’s a Jewish initiative because I’m Jewish,” says Zaikis, a Chelsea resident who grew up in a Reform household near Boston. Her parents, both professionals, instilled in her the obligation “to give back.”
She raises Sundara’s annual budget from soap companies, a handful of philanthropists and crowd-funding. “Fundraising,” she says, “is the hardest part of my job.”
Rap fan: Zaikis is a dedicated follower of Drake (Aubrey “Drake” Graham), the Canadian-born, Jewish rap star. “I’m fascinated by all things hip-hop” … and food blogger: During her travels, she’s become an aficionado of Asian desserts. Until recently, she described and rated her favorites on a blog.