Ever since my bar mitzvah, I wanted to do something that would connect me more to my Jewish identity. One way was to take the Jewish notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) more seriously. So every summer I have spent two weeks helping out less fortunate communities.
On the summer of my 15th birthday, I joined the Rustic Pathways camp, a 25-year-old community service group that takes students to impoverished communities in Third World countries. Our group of 15 American students went to Thailand to help out on an elephant reserve.
The elephant population is at risk in Northern Thailand due to the constant poaching and attacks from angry villagers. In the past, elephants rampaged through the villages, which made for an unsafe situation for both the elephants and the villagers.
Wanting to protect the elephants, the local people have made a conservation reserve in the elephants' natural habitat. And because keeping elephants well fed and healthy is an expensive enterprise, the elephants' lifelong trainers (mahouts) teach the elephants tricks so they can perform in local shows to raise money for their upkeep. Without such programs, the elephants' lives would be in great jeopardy.
The mahouts work all but three days every month. By helping them, we would take some of the menial work from their exhausting schedule.
The elephant reserve was filled with native Thai shrubbery of every color. Hours after I arrived, a mahout showed me his elephant, Yom. Her eyes, immense and brown, showed a deep level of love and serenity. Her hair, which is almost invisible from afar, felt as sharp as nails. And Yom's giant ears drew attention away from her enormous nose.
It is remarkable how smart elephants are. After a couple of days, Yom flapped her ears in excitement every time she smelled me coming. And those flapping ears acted as an automatic seatbelt when I rode her, always holding my legs against her neck to make sure I didn't fall off. At the conservation camp, I learned how to take an elephant's temperature (you don't want to know) and how to shoot a rampaging elephant with a homemade dart gun (very carefully).
Every day I gave Yom two baths. I rode her into the nearby lake once in the morning and once at night. There she submerged herself in water for up to 15 minutes at a time, with only her trunk sticking out like a snorkel.
After Yom's morning bath, I took her to either the feeding grounds or the training area. On every occasion that I took her out to eat, she would pile food in her mouth like it was her last meal. We passed areas that looked as if a logging company had recently come through the forest. With all that eating going on, I wondered how there was even a forest left at the end of the day.
Once Yom had her fill of leaves and branches, I led her to her daily activities. One of these activities included a miniobstacle course. I steered her through poles, instructed her to bow her head and made her walk backward. Yom was exceptionally good at the course because she'd had more than 48 years of training at the camp.
Time always flew by when I was working with her. Before I knew it, the sun was ready to set and I had to put Yom back in the forest for the night. I rode her into the forest for miles to find the perfect spot. Once I decided on a place to leave her for the night, I tied her down to a nearby tree sturdy enough to hold her back, or she would have been able to leave the forest and walk right back to the city of Lampang.
Before I left, I always looked at all the surrounding trees and took note of the fact that they would not be there when I would return the next morning. Yom would make sure to take down every tree or bush she could reach for a midnight snack.
Then, just as I would leave, I would look back at her standing amid the trees. I would stare in awe of Yom's beauty in her native habitat, standing half hidden in the foliage looking perfectly peaceful. This sight was the highlight of my trip.
I spent the evenings with the Thai counselors and staff members. They introduced me to their native dances that they had learned as children and their favorite Thai bands.
At nightfall, silence took over the forest, and the only sounds I heard came from the mahouts' singing and drumming on paint cans. There was no TV, no electricity and no running water. We were just 15 kids, a herd of elephants and a breathtaking forest.
It was there in that dark forest that I realized that if I give to a cause that I am passionate about, I will get so much more in return.
Phillip Nazarian is a 10th-grader at Brentwood School.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.