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Nonprofit founded by Australian Jewish family changes lives in Cambodia

Five young Cambodians assisted by the nonprofit recently spent time in Australia, including attending a Shabbat dinner.

A Cambodian woman takes her kids to school on a motorbike in a small village at the Angkor Wat temple complex, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Feb. 26, 2016. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
A Cambodian woman takes her kids to school on a motorbike in a small village at the Angkor Wat temple complex, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Feb. 26, 2016. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.

If an Australian Jewish high school student hadn’t missed a deadline in 2009, her family might not have gone on to found a nonprofit, which is helping young people some 4,300 miles away in Cambodia.

After Stephanie Palti filed her paperwork too late, the then-14-year-old’s high school principal told her she had missed out on a volunteer project building houses in rural Cambodia. Her parents decided to make it a family mission. Six months later, Stephanie, her parents Aviv and Michelle, her sister Jessica and two others set out for the Southeast Asian country’s second-largest city to volunteer for two weeks in a rural school and orphanage.

“Two weeks that changed our lives,” according to the website of Cambodia Rural Students Trust, which, after subsequent volunteer trips, the family founded in 2011.

In 2023, the nonprofit is covering tuition, health and dental insurance, and other expenses for 104 Cambodian students. It also operates “social enterprise” projects, including a tree-planting mission, university scholarships and a bicycle-donation project to help students commute to school.

Late last month, the nonprofit brought five of the Cambodian students to Australia. They shared their stories with supporters of the nonprofit—including David Southwick, a member of the Victoria Parliament, and his wife, Hayley—at Melbourne’s West Brighton Club.

Lita Seng, one of the five students, told JNS that the nonprofit empowers students by giving them a quality education and the chance to contribute to their community.

“I strongly believe that education is the only key to achieving life’s goals,” she told JNS.

‘More meaningful than imagined’

The five visiting Cambodian students experience a Shabbat dinner at the home of the Palti family.

Seng found the Friday-night dinner “a lot more meaningful than imagined,” and she particularly appreciated the peaceful and restful atmosphere, she told JNS.

Shabbat dinner in Australia
Young people from Cambodia, who are part of the Cambodia Rural Students Trust, attend a Shabbat dinner in the home of the Jewish family that founded the nonprofit. Credit: Courtesy.

“I must say that it is a life-changing opportunity because we have explored lots of things, and it really opened up our eyes to lots of worlds through meeting with new people who are from different nationalities,” she added.

Doeb Chhay was a student whom the nonprofit helped in 2011. Now he is CRST’s executive director.

Chhay told JNS he was surprised to see that conversation continued as people ate. “In Cambodia, we tend to be quiet and communicate later after finishing the meal,” he said.

“Over the last 12 years, with the support of CRST, my life has rapidly changed—from a country boy to an educated man living with a dream and passion to bring more change to my society,” he said.

Like Seng, Doeb found the Shabbat dinner to be “a relaxing time with family and friends.”

‘Charity a part of Jewish life’

Jessica Palti, whose sister missed that 2009 deadline, told JNS that faith is at the center of her family’s philanthropy.

“From a young age, we were taught that charity was a part of Jewish life and that we had a responsibility for others, not just ourselves,” she said.

Her father, a Melbourne businessman, cited the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who described levels of charity, culminating in helping people help themselves.

“Today, we call that ‘sustainable development,’ and in Cambodia, we achieve that through education, empowerment and inspiration,” he told JNS.

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