Tearing along Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail on a motorcycle going 30 miles per hour through dense brush and thick darkness is not my idea of adventure, but it was one of my younger brother Chaim’s countless thrilling experiences on one of his many trips around the world.
Chaim, 29, was a graduate of Baruch Business College and had been working in real estate for a number of years already. He had dreams to open his own business at some point, but preferred to gain experience in an established company first. A few years earlier, he had served in the Israel Defense Forces in an infantry unit and even extended his service because he loved the experience so much.
He was a giver. Whether at home or traveling abroad, Chaim was always giving something of himself to others. Recently, a friend of his had to watch his children alone as his wife was traveling. Chaim immediately moved in and stayed for a few days, helping with the shopping, dinner and school drop-offs.
Chaim wasn’t a desk-job type of person. He yearned to travel and see the world. Ever since he was a child, he was fascinated with nature. He loved finding bugs and salamanders, and more than once brought home an abandoned kitten. He loved the outdoors and could always be found outside, busy on an adventure of some sort.
So it was no surprise that when he grew older, he began to look beyond the confines of America and yearned to travel the world. But he was no ordinary traveler. He took no interest in Paris, London or Tokyo. Chaim chose to visit the off-the-beaten track countries and even then, while he was there, he would search out the rural areas that most travelers avoided. He journeyed to the outlying villages and towns, where he unabashedly introduced himself to the locals, joined them in their homes and broke bread with them. He yearned to mingle with the townspeople and understand their way of life.
With his selfie stick in hand, Chaim filmed everything. His many photos and GoPro videos show him interacting and eating with families and their children in muddy villages and primitive huts. His endearing smile and catchy chuckle helped win over pretty much everyone who met him. His friendly personality—coupled with his charm and flair—helped him befriend the natives and, in turn, they welcomed him.
Chaim’s many adventures were, without a doubt, unique. He distributed oranges to villagers in Malaysia and he played basketball with children in Cambodia. He joked with native Peruvians and danced with Amazon natives. He climbed the ancient temples of Myanmar, posed with mountain gorillas in Congo, swam with whale sharks in the Philippines, and he even, allegedly, had to dodge rebel militias in Africa.
He often sent us videos and photos during his travels around the globe. Usually, they were simply an update as to his whereabouts and where he was headed next. But sometimes, he would send a video of himself, seemingly about to die, on a mountaintop where he claimed to be surrounded by tigers, or on a hillside, lost and dehydrated.
Then, when we hadn’t heard from him for an alarming few hours, the procedure would go as follows: I would get a phone call from one of my siblings who would say Chaim is missing. I would then open a WhatsApp group titled something like, “Is Chaim really dead?” We would start calling around trying to trace him down and, usually, after our efforts turned fruitless, he would resurface online, completely intact and oblivious to the fact that we had all been about to plan his funeral. Somehow, he always managed to extricate himself from those supposedly precarious situations, and we would all breathe a sigh of relief and move on with our lives.
We learned thereon in that whenever he announced an upcoming trip to jokingly warn him not to die on us and to take extra caution to stay out of life-threatening situations. He himself often joked about his own death.
So when I received a phone call (again) on that fateful April night that Chaim was missing in India, I proceeded to open yet another WhatsApp group titled, “Another Chaim Adventure.” This time, however, it was real. While one sibling in New York was on the phone with a Chabad-Lubavitch representative who was on the ground in India, I was on the phone with the hostel Chaim was staying at. It didn’t take long to confirm that our worst nightmare had come true: Chaim drowned off the coast of India while swimming in the Arabian Sea. His world travels had come to an abrupt end.
The next four dreadful days were a whirlwind of activity as we worked to retrieve Chaim from India and bring him to Israel. In the meantime, the family flew in from America. When Chaim finally arrived in Israel, we were greatly relieved, and we buried him in a beautiful cemetery just south of Jerusalem in Kfar Etzion.
The meaning of his full name, Chaim Natan, very much embodied who he was: a man full of life who often devoted his time to others. Chaim will no longer travel the world, and he will no longer give of himself, but we knew we wanted to do something to keep his legacy alive. Because Chabad was so heavily involved in assisting us in finding Chaim and because they were looking to build another Chabad House in India outside Mumbai, we decided to raise money in Chaim’s memory to build a “Beit Chaim”—a place aptly named for him that would assist travelers.
To donate to the building of Beit Chaim or see pictures of his world travels, including a video, visit: www.chaimkasnett.com
Israel Kasnett is a reporter for the Jewish News Syndicate.