Juval Porat, cantor of LGBT synagogue in Los Angeles Beth Chayim Chadashim, traveled to Thailand to to volunteer at the Elephant Nature Sanctuary. Upon his return, he shared about his experience, and how it integrates beautifully with this week’s torah portion.
About a month ago I traveled to Thailand to volunteer at the Elephant Nature Sanctuary’s program titled Journey to Freedom. It seems appropriate to share my experience on Journey to Freedom on this Shabbat in which, next to the challenging assertion that God might not be the God we think or want to pray to and believe in, one of the most famous verses is being brought up by Moses to Pharao: Let my people go.
Elephant Nature Park was founded in 1995 by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, perhaps the best-known conservationist of the biggest land mammals on the planet and unlike other tourist outfits in Thailand, ENP delivers something unique — a chance to interact with elephants without exploiting them.
These gentle giants, while revered in the country, are not free from human made abuse, suffering and cruelty. Every day, wild baby elephants are captured and taken away from their mothers (who are often killed) and forced to undergo a torturous training to domesticate them, the phajaan. The Phajaan essentially breaks the spirit of the elephant, using fear of pain to train them to accept riders on their backs, perform tricks and paint. However, ENP provides a sanctuary for these creatures broken by tourism and the illegal logging industry. All elephants living in the park have been rescued, one at a time, from harsh lives. Their purchase, negotiated by Lek, can take months or years. Many of them come to the park untrusting, ailing, and alone.
The Journey to Freedom project, which started in 2010 has grown into a nearly independent sanctuary for Asian elephants managed and maintained by Karen people whose population in Thailand resides mostly on the Thailand-Myanmar border. Their long history of working with elephants used to be centered around the logging industry – a cruel and abusive exploitation of the elephant as a log carrying animal.