oa, India, is a popular tourist paradise that ranks sixth in National Geographic Travel’s top-ten list of nightlife destinations worldwide. One visitor to Goa, about a year ago, was my brother Chaim Kasnett (known to his friends as “Kaz”).
From the time he was a kid, Chaim loved nature and the outdoors. When our family went on camping trips, he’d be the first to explore the territory and jump in the lakes. He was the one who brought home bugs, salamanders, and abandoned kittens.
As he grew older, his adventures became more daring. He yearned to travel the world, but he had no interest in “ordinary” tourist destinations such as Paris or Tokyo. His travels took him to places like Uganda, Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, and Peru.
While Chaim had grown up frum, as a teenager he chose a different path for himself. Even so, he remained on good terms with everyone in the family, and was always very respectful of our frum lifestyle. He was actually the one who united the family for Shabbos and Yom Tov, insistent as he was that the family get together frequently.
Although our lives were very different — I was a frum wife and mother working as a nurse practitioner, while he served in the Israeli army, earned a degree in finance, and took a job in real estate, with plenty of globe-trotting adventures in between — he was very close to me as he was to all of his seven siblings. He was the favorite uncle to his nephews and nieces, the beloved brother who showed up to help in a pinch and could schmooze with me for hours. Each time I gave birth, he came to the hospital to visit me and ooh and aah over the baby.
Chaim never went anywhere without bringing gifts or goodies. When he visited poor countries, he’d buy bags of sweets or fruits to hand out to the children he met.
“It’s so easy for me to do this, Tsivia,” he explained to me. “Why not make their day special if I can?”
Ever a people person, he would seek out the indigenous residents of the places he visited and try to understand their way of life. When he traveled to remote areas, he would stay with local villagers and assist them with their farming tasks. He didn’t want to stay in hotels; he wanted to experience and live the culture. He played basketball with children in Cambodia, danced with villagers in the Amazon, and distributed oranges to kids in Malaysia, in between swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines and posing with a mountain gorilla in the Congo.
When my father asked Chaim how he could put himself into such danger by standing just a few feet away from a wild gorilla, he answered, “Abba, you just have to show the gorilla that you respect his personal territory, and the gorilla will respect you back.”
That answer was classic Chaim. I think the reason he was so beloved to such a variety of people is that he was genuinely interested in connecting with all the people he met, regardless of their background or lifestyle, yet he still managed to respect their personal territory and avoid infringing on their space.
Vietnamese farmers and Peruvian children weren’t the only ones at the receiving end of Chaim’s kindness. He was consistently there for his own family and friends, too. Once, when Chaim heard that his good friend Mordechai Shapiro was watching his four kids on his own — his wife had gone to Florida to visit her grandfather — he decided to move into Mordechai’s house and help him out until his wife returned. He fed the kids breakfast, drove them to and from school, did the grocery shopping, and cleaned up the house.
During his travels, Chaim often sent us videos and photos. Usually, these were breathtaking images of his latest destination, or endearing clips of his interactions with the natives, or simply updates as to his whereabouts and plans. But sometimes, he would send us a video of himself, seemingly about to die, on a mountaintop where he claimed to be lost and dehydrated, or surrounded by tigers. Somehow, he always managed to extricate himself from these supposedly precarious situations, and each time this happened, we would all breathe a sigh of relief and move on with our lives.
About a year ago, before starting a new job in Manhattan, Chaim, then 29, decided to take a trip to India. The very last page in his passport, the 29th, was stamped as he entered India; the 28 other pages were already filled with visas and stamps from all over the globe.
On Wednesday, April 25, 2018, my youngest brother, Nechemia, received a terrifying call from a stranger, who said that he had befriended Chaim at a hostel in Goa, India, and that Chaim had drowned in the Arabian Sea off the Indian coast a day earlier. Chaim, a strong swimmer, had been sucked in by a riptide at the picturesque Morjim beach. His world travels had come to an abrupt end.
Before we could even begin to process the loss or grieve, we had to find a way to retrieve Chaim’s body, which was being held at the morgue in Bambolim, Goa. We soon learned that standard procedure in India is that if a body is not claimed by an immediate family member within 48 hours, it is handed over to the local authorities, who generally perform an autopsy and then dispose of the body as they see fit. This meant that unless we managed to claim Chaim’s body by the following day, we might never be able to bury him.
Some of my siblings began calling the American and Israeli embassies in India in an attempt to obtain more information, while I chose a different course of action. My sister-in-law had spent some time in India, and she gave me the number of an Israeli couple living there. They put me in touch with Rabbi Yisroel Kozlovsky, the Chabad shaliach in Mumbai, India’s largest city and the site of a 2008 terror attack that claimed the lives of Chabad shlichim Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg. Unfortunately, Rabbi Kozlovsky happened to be boarding a flight to Israel just then and was unable to travel to Goa. Until the moment he took off, however, he worked feverishly to locate someone who could help us.
Much to our dismay, we learned that not only was there no Chabad house in the northern Goa area, but even the Chabad house in Mumbai — some 300 miles away from where Chaim was — was devoid of staff at that time of year due to the upcoming monsoon season.
The prospects of retrieving Chaim’s body were quickly fading. “This is a process that can take weeks, or even months,” a number of people, including staff at the American and Israeli embassies, informed us. In fact, we were told, a famous actor had recently died while visiting the same region of India, and it had taken a month for his body to be returned to his family — his celebrity status notwithstanding.
Under pressure to locate Chaim before the 48-hour deadline, several of my siblings began making arrangements to fly to India immediately.
Within two hours of contacting Chabad, however, we were connected — through a series of phone calls with Chabad representatives in New York, Israel, and India — with a young American Chabad shaliach named Reb Simcha, who had arrived in Goa just a few days earlier with a completely different mission in mind.
Many Jewish tourists — mostly Israelis — pass through Goa each year but have no access to religious services. Reb Simcha had been dispatched to Goa by the Holtzberg family, relatives of Gabi and Rivky Hy”d, to find the right location for a new Chabad House and produce a documentary film that would be used to raise the necessary funds. He was accompanied by an Israeli filmmaker named Oren, who had worked on other film projects in India and knew how to deal with the locals. But the film the two produced would turn out to be wildly different from what they originally envisioned.
When I spoke to Reb Simcha for the first time, it was 11 p.m. Wednesday night in India. Despite the late hour, despite the fact that he did not know Chaim or our family, and despite the fact that our family had no connection to Chabad, he decided without hesitation to race over to the morgue in Bambolim to try to identify the body based on pictures I sent by WhatsApp. He understood that his mission now was to bring an unknown Jew to kever Yisrael. Not knowing what to expect, he quickly packed a bag with some clothes and his tefillin, and he and Oren got into a taxi and made the hourlong trip to Bambolim.
Initially, the morgue did not allow Reb Simcha to see the body, as its official policy is that only family members are authorized to identify a body. But Reb Simcha claimed that he was a cousin of ours, and that claim, along with a generous bribe, convinced the morticians to allow him in.
After seeing the body, a shaken Reb Simcha called me and said, “I don’t think it’s him.”
I described Chaim’s features over the phone as precisely as I could, and then I sent him a picture of a tattoo Chaim had on his left arm. Reb Simcha looked at Chaim’s body again and then called back. “Baruch Dayan HaEmes,” he said.
Overwhelmed with a jumble of grief and relief, I started to cry.
“There’s only one thing you have to know right now,” Reb Simcha told me, “and that is that right now, more than ever in your whole life, Hashem is right next to you. If you can just hold on to that feeling, that you’re going to walk this whole thing with Hashem really, really close, then it’s gonna go good.
“You didn’t sign up for this and I didn’t sign up for this,” he added. “Now, we just have to hold on to Hashem’s hand.”
All of this was caught on film by Oren, who managed to capture details as poignant as Reb Simcha washing netilas yadayim after leaving the morgue.
Once the bad news was confirmed, my sister and I drove to Monsey together to inform our parents in person.
Yet the ordeal of obtaining Chaim’s body was far from over. Knowing that families would do anything to get their deceased loved ones out of the country, the Indian authorities involved — including the morticians, the police, and the undertaker we hired to get Chaim’s body out of the morgue — leveraged that advantage by demanding more and more money, sums that were paid by Reb Simcha and Oren without questioning whether or how they would ever be reimbursed.
On Friday, the undertaker arranged for Chaim’s body to be flown from Goa to Mumbai, from where we planned to send it to Eretz Yisrael for burial. Simcha and Oren hurried to the airport to follow the body to Mumbai.
In the meantime, family members in America, including me, were scrambling to arrange flights to Israel so that we could be present at the funeral. But then we encountered another glitch: The undertaker demanded to be paid for his services in cash by midday Shabbos afternoon; otherwise, he threatened, he would not release the body. And the amount he demanded was equal to the average Indian salary for a year.
That day happened to be a legal holiday in India, however, and the banks were closed, so we had to wire the money through Western Union. The withdrawal limitations of our own banks made it impossible for us to obtain the amount of cash necessary to perform a wire transfer through Western Union, but as hashgachah had it, a neighbor happened to have the exact amount of cash we needed in an envelope in his house. He took that envelope, drove to the post office with five other friends, and proceeded to send all the money in six individual money transfers to Simcha in India.
The receiving Western Union locations did not have enough cash on hand, however, so Simcha had to run around Mumbai Friday afternoon collecting the necessary funds in order to pay the undertaker.
The wire transfers were completed late Friday afternoon. Simcha and Oren managed to rush to a nearby hotel just minutes before Shabbos, with no time for even a shower, despite the 95-degree heat and suffocating humidity. Simcha had not eaten a morsel all day.
Since it was Shabbos, Simcha was unable to deliver the money to the undertaker. An Indian friend of an Israeli consulate employee we had managed to contact went to the hotel Shabbos morning to pick up the money, which he delivered to the undertaker with just one hour to spare before the midday deadline. We didn’t want to find out what would happen if we missed that deadline.
Much to our relief, the undertaker finally released Chaim’s body, and we arranged for it to be flown to Eretz Yisrael on Sunday morning. When we learned that Reb Simcha had never been to Eretz Yisrael before, we decided that it was only right for him to accompany Chaim’s body from India. Interestingly, the ticket we purchased for him came to $613.
When the plane touched down in Israel Sunday evening, we faced additional complications. My oldest brother and sister had gone to the airport to accompany Chaim’s body to the cemetery, but for some reason — possibly because it originated in India — the coffin was flagged as a weapons shipment, and the customs department at the airport would not release his body to the chevra kaddisha.
Finally, a burly customs officer looked at my siblings and asked if Chaim was an Israeli citizen. They shook their heads no and watched in dismay as he made a face that indicated that there was nothing more he could do. But then he asked, “Yehudi?” (“Is he Jewish?”) When they replied in the affirmative, he barked, “Go!”
Chaim was laid to rest in the Kfar Etzion cemetery in the presence of his parents and siblings. Mordechai Shapiro, who made a special effort to be present at the levayah, recited a heartrending Keil Malei Rachamim.
Later, a tombstone was erected above Chaim’s grave with the epitaph, “It is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years.”
The film that Reb Simcha and Oren later produced turned out to be mostly a depiction of their dramatic quest to bring Chaim’s body to kever Yisrael. “This neshamah, and this event, taught us that life is all about helping another person,” Reb Simcha said on the film. “You need to come to the morgue at two in the morning, you come to the morgue at two in the morning.”
Unable to imagine life without Chaim, our family felt compelled to do something meaningful to ensure that his impact on the world would still be felt. What to do was a no-brainer. Chaim’s life was all about creating connections, building friendships, and exploring exotic locales, and what better way to commemorate his legacy than by establishing a Chabad House in a far-flung site in his memory? Weary travelers and searching Jewish souls would then come together at the Chabad House to recharge themselves, rediscover their heritage, and form connections with one another.
Originally, we planned to build a Chabad House in Goa, near where Chaim had died and been found through the heroic efforts of Reb Simcha and Oren. After extensive research and meetings with senior Chabad representatives, however, we decided to help build a Chabad house in Pai, Thailand, where the need is more acute.
Reb Simcha’s trip to Goa to document the need for a Chabad House in the area certainly accomplished its mission, albeit in a way he could never have imagined. As a result of his presence in Goa, India at precisely the time of Chaim’s death, a new Chabad House will be established in a different part of Asia that, like Goa, is a magnet for searching Jews.
To Reb Simcha, a true shaliach of the Ribbono shel Olam, how he accomplished his mission was irrelevant.
“I felt like I was doing what Hashem wanted,” he said simply.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 757)
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