For most Americans, the familiar images of the towering tsunami tidal waves that destroyed large parts of Southeast Asia and took more than 150,000 lives two weeks ago are shattered villages and grieving relatives.
For one American, a rabbi from Manhattan, who saw the wreckage with his own eyes, there is another memory: merchants still selling merchandise.
Rabbi Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side has spent a few weeks this month in India as a volunteer with a non-governmental organization that assists destitute children. The rabbi, a board member of American Jewish World Service, had previously scheduled the sabbatical stint with Jeeva Jyothi, the NGO in Chennai that receives support from AJWS.
The New York-based organization also sends the occasional volunteer to help Jeeva Jyothi’s housing and educational activities in the southeast Indian city formerly known as Madras. Rabbi Matalon wanted to join them.
Arriving in Chennai the week after the tsunami struck — it killed an estimated 10,000 people in India — the rabbi has worked with Jeeva Jyothi, “doing ‘a little tsunami’ on the side,” assisting a group of 15 Indian NGOs that are trying to rebuild a string of destroyed fishing villages along the southeast coast, on the Bay of Bengal. By late this week or early next week he also plans to help distribute 7,000 pounds of medical supplies sent by AJWS.
“Now I’m doing a lot of paperwork,” said Rabbi Matalon, who was reached by phone Tuesday from his hotel in Chennai. He calls his administrative duties “very fulfilling.”
Chennai, whose port was deepened by the 9.0 earthquake’s immense tidal wave, largely escaped direct damage, the rabbi said. “In the city, there was no damage.” But in a rented car Rabbi Matalon toured several villages south of Chennai. “I saw some of the destruction. Communities of people living in tents, in little huts. Homes that have been destroyed. Furniture, utensils, the clothing that had been washed away. Trucks distributing some basic needs.”
The rabbi, on an inspection tour, didn’t have time to get out and talk with the tsunami survivors. “I looked around and moved on,” he said.
And in one “tourist place,” about 35 miles from Chennai, along the bay that was redrawn by the tidal waves, he saw tourist shops where there are no tourists. Shops offering little local souvenirs, “tchochkes,” as the rabbi calls the stock. Shops whose products were swept away by chest-high waves.
The shop owners were sitting outside the shops, waiting for customers, “in a very somber mood,” Rabbi Matalon said. “You see the people sitting there. They’re selling, but there’s nobody to buy.”
“They’re not giving up, he says. “They’re rebuilding their lives.”
In Chennai, Rabbi Matalon sees residents, unaffected by the tragedy, reaching out to the victims. “Everywhere you go you see people collecting money for the tsunami relief.”
Rabbi Matalon, who says he witnessed worse damage four years ago in the aftermath of an earthquake in El Salvador, says the tsunami’s does not raise any challenge to his religious faith.
“I don’t attribute this to God,” he says. “I see God in the people trying to rebuild their lives, trying to help [the victims].”
A lone Jew in a community of Hindus and Christians, a member of the clergy, he hears no discussions about religions in his NGO circles. “There’s no theology about God punishing you.
“No one asks, ‘Why?’ ” Rabbi Matalon says. “I see it more in the American media.”