Elephant Highway

Elephant Highway

Englewood brothers use Jewish values to save animals

Max Kauderer and his brother Josh started the nonprofit Elephant Highway. All elephant photos by Josh Kauderer

Elephants aren’t particularly human-looking. They don’t appear to be cuddly – no one would mistake a baby elephant for a kitten or a fawn – and they are too odd to be easily anthropomorphized.

But they have … something … some huge majesty … that makes people fall in love with them, especially if they are lucky enough to see them in the wild.

That’s what happened to Max and Josh Kauderer of Englewood, who were lucky enough to go to East Africa with their family two summers ago.

Max, who is now 17, was particularly taken with the massive mammals. Once he had been enchanted by the elephants he saw, he learned more about them. Beneath their entirely alien-to-human appearance are some very human characteristics. “Before, I knew that they were amazing, but I didn’t know that they were unique,” Max said. But then he found out “that they can live up to about 80 years. They can relate to humans, and they can show emotion.

“They have burial ceremonies when a member of their family dies. They grieve; they can play with other elephants. They show signs of grief, passion, humor, cooperation, self-awareness, gratefulness. They can use tools.

“You can see an elephant building tools out of basic items – leaves and branches. It can build a shovel, and a ball, and then throw it to play with their kid.

“I throw a ball for my dog to fetch. They can do that too, throw a ball, but it’s a ball they’ve made.”

“They are amazing creatures.”

And then he learned more.

“One day, we get back to the lodge, and two park rangers come running into the main room,” he said. “They both yell that there had just been an elephant killed, just a mile away from there.”

He had not realized that elephants were endangered, but he learned quickly. Guides took him close to where the one the rangers had told him about had been killed. “It was partially closed off, but you could sort of see the elephant carcass,” he said. “It was horrible.”

“Then I did some research,” he continued. “About 30,000 elephants are killed each year. That’s one every 15 minutes.”

Elephants are killed for their ivory tusks. “A poacher in Africa will get about $350 to kill an elephant,” Max said. That is about $2 to $3 per kilo. By the time the tusks are smuggled to Asia, now its main market, “a kilo will sell for over $8,000.

“The profit margins are unbelievable.”

The countries where the elephants are killed are desperately poor, and although ivory smuggling is illegal enforcement is lax, so the trade continues.

Max is not judgmental about the poachers, though. “The people in the villages who are killing the elephants have nothing,” he said. “They are choosing between their babies and these elephants. If only one can survive, it’s a no-brainer what they will pick. Or what they should pick.”

The blame should be assigned to the consumers who buy the ivory, he said; meanwhile, the way to deal with this situation is to offer microfinancing. “Invest in a village, and that investment will expand to the whole village, and then to the region,” he said.

This explanation seems fairly typical coming from Max Kauderer; it is a combination of the emotional and the well-researched, the subjective and the objective, that has propelled him and his brother to create Elephant Highway. The organization, named after the wide elephant-made path the creatures take through the bush, works to save African elephants.

It is based on a combination of Max’s passion and Josh’s technical expertise. Max is the frontman, and Josh, 16, who is more technically oriented, puts together the website, www.elephanthighway.org, and handles most of the back-office work.

The brothers go to high school at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, N.Y., but both went to the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County through eighth grade; their 10-year-old twin brother and sister are students there now. Part of their drive for Elephant Highway comes from what they learned at Schechter about tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to try to change and better the world. They learned as well about the human obligation to take good care of animals.

The brothers researched how to set up a nonprofit; Elephant Highway is now waiting for the IRS to finalize its 501c3 status. The website takes donations. It also sells t-shirts, which the brothers arranged to have printed in Orlando, Fla., as well as beaded elephant-shaped key chains, handmade in a village in South Africa. “We also buy artwork from villagers in Tanzania and Zambia,” Max said.

The brothers also encourage theoretical elephant adoption. The money they make, both from sending real objects and overseeing the exchange of symbolic ones, is “donated to organizations in East Africa and South Africa that basically will save the elephants in those regions,” Josh said. The brothers have partnered with four larger groups in this effort, he added. One of those groups, the Kenya-based Big Life Foundation, “employs 280 rangers. They have outposts and vehicles to protect 2 million acres of wilderness. Their job is not easy, but with our funds they can set up cameras.”

The two young men have pressed their case “by working at local private homes in Riverdale. We go to local schools and do some lessons. We go to nursing homes. We help organize carnivals; through Elephant Highway we set up assemblies at schools across the area,” Max said.

“I am very involved in film and video,” Josh added. “I make videos for Elephant Highway that show the problem; I go to assemblies about it with PowerPoint presentations.”

They also tell the elephants’ story through social media, according to Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities, one of the two synagogues to which the Kauderers belong. (The other is Temple Emanu-El of Closter.)

“It takes kids who know how to harness technology and social media and put it to good use, beyond just their own social use,” to begin such a project, Rabbi Lewittes said. “It’s a distinguishing mark of kids today, who can see the power of social media. One of the things I was most taken with on their website is the list of organizations they were coordinating with. It shows an awareness that none of us is saddled with the responsibility of being the only answer.

“We’re all part of the answer, and part of that is partnering with other people, and seeing ourselves as part of the puzzle.”

The work the Kauderer brothers have been doing also is very Jewish in many ways, Rabbi Lewittes said. “It’s rooted in our tradition.”

They grew up in a family culture where the parents “instilled in their children the sense that when there is something you see that needs attention, no matter who you are, you can find a way to make a difference.” In fact, you must do so.

Next, there is the question of personal responsibility.

“We are not responsible for everything, but we are responsible for those things that we have the capacity to do,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

Max and Josh’s parents are Shari Levinthal and Steven Kauderer. “They have always been kids who tried to do stuff,” Ms. Levinthal said. “When they went to Schechter, they saw all the tikkun olam that went on there, and it became a part of them.”

She was not surprised that her sons came home from Africa appalled by the way elephants were being killed off. “What really impressed me is that Max and Josh actually sat there and figured out what to do.

“It was amazing.

“They filled out the forms for the IRS 501c3. They did it all themselves.

“I’m a lawyer, but that’s not the kind of law I do. They just did it – they showed it to me days after it was done.

“And they sourced all the t-shirts. The funniest part was to watch them try to figure out which colors go together. For teenage boys, that was amazing.”

She also has watched her sons make presentations at fairs. “At the fair in Tenafly, I saw Max had a crowd of people around the booth,” she said, “They sold a ridiculous number of shirts and bracelets. They made $1,200 that day alone.

“You can see their passion. They draw crowds because they’re so excited,” she said.

read more: