Jewish organization steps up to aid hurricane victims in Haiti

The humanitarian organization American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is providing medical assistance, basic provisions and other aid to Hurricane Matthew victims in Haiti.

“Our response to this crisis is especially poignant during the Jewish High Holidays, when we examine carefully our actions in the last year and recommit to our obligation as individuals and a global people to aid those in dire need,” JDC CEO Allan Gill said in an Oct. 5 statement. 

The hurricane made landfall Tuesday in Haiti and resulted in, among other things, the collapse of a critical bridge that connects the capital, Port-au-Prince, with southern Haiti, the hardest-hit area of the storm, which has affected the transport of emergency goods, according to various news reports.

Ariel Dominique, director of community affairs at the Haitian Embassy in Washington, D.C., citing the latest statistics from the Haitian Ministry of Interior, said on Thursday afternoon that 108 people have been confirmed dead, 28,000 houses have been damaged and 21,000 people are living in shelters as a result of the hurricane.

“The devastation in the south had homes and infrastructure collapsing,” Michael Geller, director of media relations at JDC, said in a phone interview from New York. “A very big concern is farmland and livestock supplies that were completely destroyed. There has been quite a bit of reporting of livestock put into shelters and then the shelters collapsed.”

JDC assistance to Haiti dates back to the Holocaust, when the JDC provided relief to Eastern European refugees who were fleeing Nazi persecution and were welcomed in the island nation, according to Geller.

“We’re very proud of the history and the role Haiti played,” he said.

Today, the world Jewish community — Israel, in particular — maintains warm relations with Haiti, which supported Israel’s bid for statehood in the United Nations in 1948. In 2010, the Israel Defense Forces provided extensive relief to Haitians in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in the Caribbean region.

A partner agency of the Jewish Federations of North America, JDC is providing assistance in more than 70 Jewish communities worldwide. In addition to disaster relief efforts, “our main focus is helping Jews in Jewish communities,” Geller said.

JDC does not not have any representatives currently on the ground in Haiti but is providing aid through several organizations it describes as partners, including Heart to Heart International, which began operations in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake there; Prodev, a Haitian-led nonprofit focused on education; and Partners in Health, known in Haiti as Zanmi Lasante, which operates clinics and hospitals in Haiti.

Hurricane Matthew also has struck Cuba and the Bahamas, and was threatening Florida, South Carolina and the Atlantic Coast of the United States, as of Thursday afternoon. The National Hurricane Center described Matthew on Thursday as a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which says Category 4 storms cause “catastrophic damage.”

For information about how to contribute to the JDC effort in Haiti, visit

JDC aiding Hurricane Matthew victims in Haiti

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization, is responding to Hurricane Matthew's widespread destruction in Haiti, focusing on medical aid and other basic needs provision for beleaguered storm victims. JDC – which deployed extensive relief and rebuilding efforts aiding hundreds of thousands in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010 – is providing medical supplies and medical team assistance through its partner on the ground, Heart to Heart International. Donations for JDC's efforts can be made at

“Our hearts go out to the people of Haiti, and the wider region, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s devastation. All too familiar with the acute needs facing Haitians, JDC activated its network of international and local partners and is mobilizing relief efforts in an expression of humanitarian solidarity and Jewish values,” said Alan H. Gill, JDC’s CEO. “Our response to this crisis is especially poignant during the Jewish High Holidays, when we examine carefully our actions in the last year and recommit to our obligation as individuals and a global people to aid those in dire need.”

JDC’s relief work in Haiti will focus on the hardest-hit areas in the south of the island where reports of torrential rains, flooding, and strong winds were accompanied by damage to homes, farming stock and land, and infrastructure like bridges. JDC is in communication with its local civil society and NGO leadership contacts and long-term partners in Haiti to assess needs and ensure the most vulnerable victims are cared for in an expedient manner.

JDC has provided immediate relief and long-term assistance to victims of natural and manmade disasters around the globe, including Ecuador, Macedonia, Italy, Nepal, the Philippines, Japan, and South Asia after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and continues to operate programs designed to rebuild infrastructure and community life in disaster-stricken regions.

JDC's disaster relief programs are funded by special appeals of the Jewish Federations of North America and tens of thousands of individual donors to JDC. JDC coordinates its relief activities with the U.S. Department of State, USAID, Interaction, and the United Nations.

For Donations to JDC's Hurricaine Matthew Relief Work:


By Phone: 212-687-6200

By Mail:

JDC Hurricane Matthew Relief Fund
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
P.O. Box 4124
New York, NY 10163
United States

Please make check payable to: JDC’s Hurricane Matthew Relief Fund

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters. For more information, visit

The real story of immigration in the Dominican Republic

Recently, Ruth Messinger wrote an op-ed about the immigration and citizenship policies of the Dominican Republic and how they affect people of Haitian descent.  

While I  agree with Ms. Messinger that we should care for and support those of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, I strongly disagree with her assessment of what is happening and find her rhetoric troubling. I think it’s her responsibility as a respectful Jewish leader to do the necessary research before writing an opinion that is so far from the present truth.

I am proud of being both Jewish and a Dominican citizen.  I have lived my entire life in the Dominican Republic and am glad to see that the Dominican Government is taking steps to remedy a citizenship system that for decades left hundreds of thousands of people undocumented and vulnerable.  The current policy has the laudable goal of guaranteeing a regular status to every person living in the Dominican Republic.

In every country, people who are undocumented live in fear because they are outside the legal system and the smallest mistake or problem can have unfortunate consequences.  Bringing undocumented persons out of the shadows and into a legal framework that provides rights should be regarded as a positive step.  

It is important to note that the Dominican Government has worked with many well-known international organizations and foreign governments in developing and implementing its citizenship and immigration policies.  They have also pledged to allow all members of the international community to visit and report on what is happening.

Like any sovereign country, the Dominican Republic has deportation policies.  The Dominican Government has pledged to observe international norms; that they will not deport anyone born in the Dominican Republic; and will determine each person’s citizenship on an individual basis. 

Our president, Danilo Medina, has invited members of the international community to inspect and observe deportations. I find this commitment to transparency significant and hope the international community will do as much as possible to hold the government accountable. 

I agree with Ms. Messinger that the US should help and I would go even further to call on other developed countries, the UN, NGO’s, aid organizations and the Jewish community to help everyone on the Island of Hispaniola, including the Haitian Government.  Many countries and organizations—especially those that have resources that the Dominican Republic does not have—are not doing enough to help those in need.

As a resident of Santo Domingo, I invite Ms. Messinger and members of the Jewish community to come to Hispaniola.  I think the story of those who gain regular status is uplifting.  Hundreds of thousands of people—especially those of Haitian descent—are gaining rights in the Dominican Republic through fair and transparent policies.   

Yours Truly;

Jose Singer

Response to Ruth Messinger

I have just read the article posted by Ruth Messinger titled “American Jews Must Speak out for Haitians in the Dominican Republic”. It is obvious that Ms. Messinger has never been to the Dominican Republic, knows nothing about the Dominican Republic and is totally ignorant on the subject of which she gives opinions. I was born in China; my father was in Buchenwald for 6 months and I have lived in the Dominican Republic practically my whole life.

I will not deny that there are individuals that discriminate, just like in the US, Israel and most other countries. I will categorically deny that it is government policy. There are an estimated 2 million Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. For whatever reason they are here, many of them have no identity papers, but the large number that do, have them because the Dominican Government provided them free of charge, something that the Haitian government won’t do, not even at a price.

Some Dominican public hospitals are overwhelmed by the number of Haitian women who cross the border without papers, just to give birth without any of them being denied that service which these hospitals can ill afford. The public university has large numbers of Haitian students and in any aspect of Dominican life, Haitians are involved. These examples are not a justification for anything, but just a contradiction of the ridiculous comparison made by Ms. Messinger to the situation here to the Holocaust. She obviously doesn’t even know about the Holocaust. Dominicans are no like those Germans. Dominicans are human and humane and for Ms. Messinger to imply otherwise only depicts her total ignorance on the subject. I would expect more from a Jew or for that matter from any other intelligent human being.

She repeats outright lies without bothering to search for truth. I say to her: come and visit. Live among Dominicans. Research their faults and benevolences and you will become a different human being. If you need to criticize, pick your own country which ever you consider it to be. You’ll find more there than here and don’t involve the Jews in your agenda. We do speak out and try to be righteous, but not based on your ignorant perceptions.

Joe Benjamin

American Jews must speak out for Haitians in Dominican Republic

Fewer than 800 miles from our shores, a deeply disturbing crisis is unfolding as tens of thousands of citizens of the Dominican Republic face deportation from their country simply because of their heritage.

Tragically, people of Haitian descent who were born in the Dominican Republic have been stripped of their rights and their citizenship, and are living in a state of legal limbo. These people are not all recent immigrants, as the Dominican government would have you believe, but come from families that have been living in the Dominican Republic for up to a century.

I cannot help but see this crisis through Jewish eyes, and I call on the United States government to do all it can to stop it.

People with lifelong roots in the Dominican Republic as well as more recent arrivals are facing possible exile in Haiti. But for many born in the Dominican Republic, Haiti is a country in which they have never lived, whose language they don’t speak and which does not recognize them as legal citizens.

For some, exile is already a reality. In fact, a recent Human Rights Watch report documented more than 25 detentions in which Dominicans of Haitian descent were forcibly taken to deportation points along the border, despite having valid documentation of being born in the Dominican Republic.

Without any recognized citizenship, these people would be without a home, have no guaranteed civil rights, no right to due process in any court in the world.

Taking this all in, I cannot help but feel a sense of deja vu. We have seen this tragic movie before.

In 1939, in waters not far from the island that Haiti and the Dominican Republic share, Jewish refugees aboard the Saint Louis — people whose rights had been stripped from them in Europe — were denied access to Cuba and the United States. Throughout the 1930s, Jews found their rights being whittled away across Europe and most dramatically in Germany. When the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws, they stripped Jews of all of their rights as the terrible first step of their genocidal campaign.

Further back in history during the Middle Ages, Jews were frequently expelled from countries such as England, France and Spain for spurious reasons, including causing illness and pestilence.

In the Dominican Republic, where there is a prevalent culture of racism and discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent, the situation is sadly reminiscent of very difficult chapters in Jewish history. For generations, politicians have used Haitians as scapegoats, blaming them for problems such as poverty and disease. Now the situation is getting worse, including a sharp increase in attacks. A February lynching of a Haitian immigrant and other recent assaults reflect a culture of violence against people of Haitian descent, and it is common to see racist depictions of Haitians in Dominican newspapers.

As we have seen in the past, institutionalized hate and mass violence unfortunately feed off one another. This fear of violence is forcing thousands of Dominicans from their homes — a practice that the Dominican government has given the Orwellian name of “successful self-deportation,” but which in truth is forced migration.

One more complex layer of history must be acknowledged. In the 1930s, when very few countries would accept Jewish refugees from Europe, the Dominican Republic offered to open its doors, but for tragic reasons. At the time, the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, did this both to divert attention from a recent massacre of 25,000 Haitians and, perversely, to increase the number of Europeans on the Island.

Given this history, Jewish-Americans must join the outcry and speak out about the horrific treatment of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. We have a unique understanding of the horrible consequences when people remain silent in the face of government actions to strip communities and individuals of their rights. We therefore cannot stand by while governments do to others what has been done to us.

We must insist that the United States do all it can to ensure that the Dominican government immediately restores citizenship for all Dominican-born individuals who have been denied their nationality and upholds international human rights for Haitian immigrants, including not splitting up their families. Moreover, the Dominican government must vigorously respond to popular violence against people of Haitian descent, including the mistreatment and abuse of Haitian immigrants.

As Jews, the details of the persecution are intolerably familiar. We must not and cannot let history repeat itself.

Ruth W. Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service, which works to end poverty and protect human rights in the developing world.

Michael Oren wanted Obama to credit Israeli rescuers in Haiti — before they arrived

UPDATE: This version of a blog post JTA sent yesterday updates with an interview with Amos Radian, who at the time was the Israeli ambassador to the Dominican Republic with responsibility for Haiti. Radian, now retired, arrived in Haiti overland with a security guard on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010, and was joined the following day by a small Israeli advance team, which was not directly involved in any rescue or relief. Radian confirmed that Israel's major teams did not arrive until after President Barack Obama's speech — on Friday afternoon and evening, in two planes  and that its field hospital was in place by Saturday morning.

It’s a compelling hero-takes-the-fall narrative: Valiant little country takes the lead in rescuing a battered people and gets snubbed when it’s time for kudos.

It’s the picture that Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., paints of Israel’s 2010 Haiti rescue operation in “Ally,” his book excoriating President Barack Obama’s treatment of Israel. Haiti’s devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake, which struck outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed hundreds of thousands (though the official death toll is disputed) comes at a pivotal moment in the book, when Oren believes the U.S.-Israel relationship is on a downward trajectory.

There’s a problem, though: Except for the part about the uncommon valor of Israeli rescuers, none of it appears to be based on anything that actually happened.

The passage appears on pages 132-133, in a section punningly headlined “Tremors” and that describes tensions over Israeli-Palestinian peace, “as the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office pitched toward collision”:

“My foreboding only deepened on January 15, when Obama issued an official statement on Haiti. ‘Help continues to flow in, not just from the United States but from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic,’ the president  declared. Omitted from the list was Israel, the first state to arrive in Haiti and the first to reach the disaster fully prepared. I heard the president’s words and felt like I had been kicked in the chest.”

• Israel was not “the first state to arrive in Haiti.” Israel arrived on the evening of Jan. 15. According to this CNN timeline, the United States, Iceland, Canada, Spain, China, Argentina, Cuba and Brazil had rescue teams in place by Jan. 13 and 14. The Dominican Republic was first. I’m also not sure what Oren means about Israel being the first to reach the disaster “fully prepared.” According to the CNN timeline, an Argentine field hospital had treated 800 people by Jan. 13. Amos Radian, the Israeli ambassador to the Dominican Republic whose responsibility included Haiti, said in an interview that the Israeli hospital, launched Saturday, was the first among those countries sending teams in. The Argentine hospital was already in place.

• Obama delivered his remarks between 1:08 and 1:14 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 15. The Israeli rescue teams arrived on Jan. 15 — in the evening, according to Walla News and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And, according to multiple news sources, including JTA, the Israeli army’s field hospital was not set up set up before Saturday morning, Jan. 16.

So why would Oren have “felt kicked in the chest”? Israelis did not rescue or treat a single Haitian until after Obama delivered his remarks. Radian and a small Israeli advance team were on the ground prior to the speech, but there was no Israeli rescue or medical team in place when he spoke. What would have led Obama to cite Israel that Friday afternoon? 

Dozens of countries had pledged assistance to Haiti, in addition to the seven cited by Obama — should he have mentioned all of them? The countries he mentioned all have longstanding relationships with Haiti by dint of being neighbors, or because of a post-colonial relationship (France) and a substantial Haitian Diaspora (Canada). Why would Israel be in that group?

• Finally, Obama did nod to the broader effort — but the clause ending his sentence applauding the seven countries, “among others,” is dropped from Oren’s text.

I asked Oren’s aides and his publisher about the Haiti anomaly. I got a one-sentence reply from the publisher: “Penguin Random House does not comment on its editorial and vetting processes.”

I don’t doubt Oren felt “kicked in the chest,” as he describes it — it’s just that I can’t help but wonder why. An explanation would be relevant to understanding how he arrived at his thesis that Obama deliberately created daylight with Israel, which others have challenged.

The Haiti episode has already been picked up in columns in the New York Post and The New York Jewish Week; it is a potent tale.

Incidentally, at least two others berated Obama within weeks of the earthquake based on the same erroneous premise: Martin Peretz in his column then carried by The New Republic, and the Zionist Organization of America, which cited Peretz.

I asked Peretz what led him to his conclusion that Obama was snubbing Israel. I also asked him if he and Oren had spoken in real time about the purported snub.

Peretz said he did not consult with Oren at the time, and he cited a CNN report describing American embarrassment at the relative efficacy of the Israeli operation and another in the Christian Science Monitor noting that Israel sent the team on Jan. 14.

Which is true, and verifiable in this Foreign Ministry release, but beside the point. The team did not land until after Obama spoke and was not in operation until the next day.

For a rebuttal from The Tower, click here.

As Nigeria is declared formally free of Ebola, Israel preps for domestic readiness

Israeli officials welcomed the World Health Organization announcement on Oct. 20 that Nigeria has been declared formally free of Ebola following six weeks with no new cases of the deadly virus.

“This is an important development for Nigeria and highlights their swift and effective response,” said Dr. Roee Singer, deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Health in Jerusalem. 

“It’s also a relief for us, because Nigeria is not only the biggest country in Africa, Nigerians comprise the largest group of tourists who visit Israel from the continent,” Singer said.

[Related: Jews at the helm of U.S. Ebola response]

Recent years have seen a marked deepening of ties between Jerusalem and Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, with Israelis advising Nigeria on security measures to combat the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, as well as in development of water and agricultural resources and in the signing of a civil aviation agreement.

Singer added that the defeat of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria will alleviate the need to put into effect the most stringent level of screening protocols for airline passengers, many of whom are Christians on pilgrimage journeys.

In Israel’s own effort to prevent the disease from entering the country, Ben Gurion Airport held an Ebola defense exercise on Oct. 17 with Immigration and Health ministry officials conducting a drill on how to locate passengers from high-risk countries, practicing isolation and preliminary medical treatment measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed Israel’s National Security Council to lead staff work on Israel’s domestic readiness to deal with the epidemic, even as the government dispatches three emergency clinics to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

“These fully equipped emergency clinics include personal protective gear for medical workers, and we are assisting the governments in operating them with help from Israeli civil society volunteers,” said Ambassador Gil Haskel, head of MASHAV — Israel’s Agency for International Development.

Other officials involved in the country’s Ebola response planning told the Jewish Journal that the prime minister is facing “tough choices” on the scope of Israel’s participation in the front line effort against the epidemic.

Israeli media reports claim Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had urged rejection of an American request for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to deploy army field hospitals to affected African countries similar to those sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Ya’alon is in Washington this week, and his spokeswoman declined to answer an inquiry from the Journal about the decision not to bring the IDF in on the Ebola response effort. Ya’alon has recently expressed strong dissatisfaction with the 2015 defense budget and has complained that non-military-related items eat up to a quarter of his ministry’s available funds.

“The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] have defined the next six months as the emergency phase,” said Yotam Politzer, a disaster response director for IsraAID who headed back to Sierra Leone on Oct. 21.

IsraAID is the nongovernmental organization designated by officials to recruit and train the Israeli volunteers who will operate the medical and psychological response to Ebola in West Africa.

“We are bringing at least 30 mental health specialists from Israel to do psychosocial training for medical workers, and we hope that at any given moment we will have at least a team of five or six professionals from here on the ground,” Politzer said.

“There are many organizations and institutions involved in the medical field, but no one is really taking care of the mental health aspects of the disaster, which is crucial, we think, to stop this outbreak,” Politzer added.

Despite the good news from Nigeria, Sierra Leone is still battling the epidemic, and Politzer’s team from IsraAID is making its base in the capital city, Freetown, where between 40 and 60 new cases are being reported daily.

At the Kenema Hospital, about 185 miles east of Freetown, 35 doctors and nurses died from Ebola in August.

The remaining staff, Politzer said, “didn’t receive any kind of counseling or emotional support. Many of them just don’t want to go back to work because they are scared and traumatized, having lost their colleagues, so providing support for the medical teams is extremely important.” Politzer added that IsraAID teams have drawn up plans to reach remote towns and villages on a consistent basis.

Navonel Glick, a 27- year-old program director at IsraAID, said the organization’s specialization in providing programs and therapy to traumatized communities comes from the experience the Jewish state has had in regrouping after wars and terror attacks.

Glick will be in Sierra Leone by the end of the week, having just returned to Israel from Iraqi Kurdistan, where the organization runs a program for Christians and Yazidis who have fled from the penetration of ISIS into the region.

“I would not say that my parents are thrilled, [and] all these situations have their own risks, but they’ve come to terms with the life that I’m leading,” Glick said.

“We have quite a lot of social workers and therapists volunteering to do the trainings. Yes, there are some people who have come for other missions that aren’t participating in this one. But, on the other hand, there are quite a number of people who feel this is important, and they are joining us because they understand that Ebola is something that really has become a global threat.”

IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi believes his group has the credibility and connections to raise the funds required for the kind of response the world expects from Israel and the global Jewish community.

“I can tell you that our partnership with the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and the Southern California Jewish community at large is supportive. They are very open-minded, and they see the global picture,” Zahavi said. “They supported us in Haiti and Japan and the Philippines.”

“IsraAID has approached all its Federation partners, from the West Coast to the East Coast, asking them to open a disaster relief fund for this Ebola epidemic so we can show the world that Israel and the Jewish people are at the forefront of disaster relief and helping communities around the world.” (At present, according to an email sent on Oct. 21 by Mitch Hammerman, spokesman for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the L.A. Federation is “not doing anything related to Ebola.”)

Haiti legacy project recognizes U.S. anti-Semitism envoy

Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department envoy on anti-Semitism, was recognized for her work by the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project.

Rosenthal received the project’s Tikkun Olam Award for her efforts to combat hate and intolerance.

The award, which Rosenthal received on Aug. 3, is given to individuals or organizations that have dedicated themselves to Holocaust or World War II research.

The Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project was founded in January 2010 to document and commemorate Haiti’s role in providing refuge to 100 to 300 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II. The project’s central database collects and memorializes personal reflections and artifacts of Holocaust survivors who sought refuge in Haiti.

Christian charity in Haiti is the Jewish thing to do

Dona is a 14-year-old boy in Port-au-Prince. When his mother was pregnant with him, she hid in fear from his father. In time, he found her and insisted she have an abortion. She refused. They fought, and she ran. 

After Dona was born, his father eventually found them both and beat the boy daily, until he finally threw him onto the street. Dona ended up in a forsaken section of Port-au-Prince at the Have Faith Haiti orphanage — a place for lost and abandoned children in one of the poorest countries on Earth.

The plight of Dona, an exceptionally sweet soul who now speaks beautiful English and goes to one of Haiti’s top schools, is hardly unique. Most of the children at Have Faith Haiti are orphans, but, like Dona, some have parents who, out of despair perhaps, or indifference, left them outside the orphanage when they were very young. Spending time with these children is different from working with disadvantaged youth in the United States. For the orphans at Have Faith are, in a very real sense, the lucky ones.

Driving through Haiti is a bumpy, sweltering tour of hell. The tent cities hastily constructed after the earthquake one year ago began as decrepit and have deteriorated.  Stagnant pools where pigs root and dogs defecate are also where children bathe and cholera spreads. Piles of fetid garbage are the second-most-common sight, next to rubble. It was into the midst of this almost unimaginable devastation that I flew last week to witness something extraordinary.

Thirty years ago, this mission (the workers and children prefer “mission” to “orphanage” but use both) was created by Detroit pastor John Hearn. After the earthquake, Pastor Hearn was a guest on Mitch Albom’s radio show.  Hearn was heartbroken. The orphanage buildings, cracked and aging, had somehow survived the quake, but the mission had no money and nowhere to turn in a country where the needs were so overwhelming. Mitch, a nationally known talk-show host, sports reporter and internationally best-selling author of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and other works, thought he might be able to help.

Shortly after the quake, Mitch traveled together with childhood friend Marc Rosenthal and college roommate Mark Mendelssohn to see the orphanage. These three Jewish friends saw a place that, never in good shape from its first day,  had deteriorated tremendously. They saw the wreckage — and met the children.

And they began to build. Funded by donations in Detroit and Mitch’s own A Hole in the Roof Foundation, plans were laid for a new school building. Old, moldy floors were ripped up and foundations reinforced. With each new step, more possibilities presented themselves. There was an enormous amount to do if these children were to be given a chance.

I was there for three days, and the day I left, slats were being delivered for the children’s new beds. The new beds (as opposed to the rotting old mattresses and rusted bedsprings they had been sleeping on) were to be put inside. Since the quake, the children had been afraid to sleep inside — instead, they huddled together on a small porch. So Mitch proposed a trade: “If we get new beds, you have to sleep inside — deal?” Mitch said in one of his nightly inspirational and instructional talks. “Is that good?” “Yes!” they said in chorus, despite their persistent fear that the roof would fall on top of them.

That same talk introduced something else unprecedented in their lives: lunch. Mitch explained the idea as the children listened, rapt and curious. “You should be eating three times a day, not twice a day,” he said. This was a new concept to almost all the 40 to 50 children. (The numbers vary as children go and come from the orphanage; they will soon reach capacity at 100.) These kids are quick, vital, bright, lively and affectionate; most of their lives, they also have been hungry.

Junior grew up at the orphanage. He approached me and put his arm around my shoulder. “Hello, I’m Junior.” We got to talking. He had just reached 21, and I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I want to be a doctor.”  “Why?” I asked. “So I can be a blessing to my country.”

Mitch and I first met when we entered Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia. We’ve been friends most of our lives, and I knew he had been involved in a variety of charitable projects, including building a clinic in inner-city Detroit.  Not long after Mitch’s first visit to Haiti, he and I got to talking about this project, its ambition, its scale, the many years it will take. I knew it was different from anything he had undertaken before.  And there was something else, too: “You know,” he told me a little warily, “it’s a Christian orphanage.” I told him I’d love to see it. “I mean, really Christian.  Started by a pastor, and they pray each night.” I told him I could not think of a more fitting mitzvah for these Jews or a better place for a rabbi to go.

Israel’s Haitian Tent Hospital Boosts IDF Image

Within three days of the massive earthquake that struck Port-Au-Prince last Jan. 12, Dr. Ofer Merin and his 230-member crew comprised of army officers and medical personnel from major hospitals throughout Israel arrived in the battered Haitian city on an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) medical mission.

They brought with them 30 tons of cargo and within 24 hours had set up a highly sophisticated, fully equipped tent hospital capable of treating 60 patients at a time. The portable facility was staffed by 40 doctors, 25 nurses and numerous paramedics; it included a pharmacy, an intensive care unit, a radiology wing, a children’s ward and a maternity ward; and the Israelis brought a computerized registration system that allowed them to track each patient and his or her medical profile by simply scanning a barcode.

The world took notice of Israel’s problem-solving presence at the disaster — 6,000 miles and a 16-hour flight from Israel — commending the immediacy of the Israeli response and an almost unbelievable preparedness for such an emergency. Many countries around the world sent relief workers and physicians, but the Israelis were the first with state-of-the-art technology to create a fully functioning hospital.
Merin, a soft-spoken cardiac surgeon from Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, led the charge, and said that he was proud that for once, the world could see his country as he sees it — deeply empathetic and highly skilled.

“It was important for us that people understand that the same soldiers that are wearing these IDF uniforms seen in the Gaza Strip are the same people that are now assisting other people in need,” Merin said last week in an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Merin was in Los Angeles to receive a Medal of Valor award from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.

“There are no two faces of this army,” he insisted. “It’s one face.”

By chance, one month before Merin and his reservist team were dispatched to Haiti, they had been called out for a practice drill setting up a field hospital — Merin has served in the reserves as commander of the Israel field hospital for the past seven years. But despite this up-to-the-minute preparation for the technical side of administering emergency medical care, the Israelis found themselves facing an unimaginable demand on the ground: 300,000 wounded Haitians were seeking medical treatment.

“We were really overwhelmed by the numbers,” Merin said. “This is something that we did not expect. We did not know that the situation, a few days after the quake, would be that medical assistance was really scarce. There were no other big facilities to assist people, so the issue was that after a few hours the hospital was full. So, what are you going to do?”

Merin decided to squeeze more beds into the facility. And even then, even at absolute maximum capacity, the Israelis couldn’t come close to meeting the need. Merin and his crew — ranging from their early 30s to late 50s — soon found themselves in the unfathomable position of having to turn people away.

The psychological burden was hard to bear: “You have to stand there — and cars are coming in with four, five, 10 patients — and you have to make this unbearable decision, which one you think you should treat and which one you think unfortunately you’re not going to treat,” said Merin, who, as acting director of the hospital, oversaw the entire triage operation. “And I don’t want to speak about what it means that you’re not going to treat [someone], because mentally that was difficult even to think. What does it mean to say that I’m not accepting this patient for treatment?” 

Sometimes the language barrier between the Israelis and their Haitian patients was a blessing. Hearing their personal stories — how one man who had lost his wife and seven of his eight children brought his only surviving son for treatment — was too emotionally taxing. “It’s totally different to treat a kid when you know that all of his brothers and his mother died, and his father is standing there, begging you to save his life,” Merin said.

Emotional detachment was often the only way to be effective. Merin formed three-person ad hoc committees that met each night to share the burden of deliberating over complicated medical decisions — the premature infant who needed a ventilator, the elderly man with a severe head injury.

Merin recorded each challenging case in his journal, which he updated every few hours, five times a day. Each morning, Merin said, after an hour-long jog “to clean my brains,” he would gather his staff for a meeting to discuss the pressing issues of the day.

Those morning meetings soon evolved into pseudo-therapy sessions, in which the team would focus on coping strategies. “We were dealing with issues that have no textbook answer,” Merin said. With tragedy unraveling all around, it was crucial to have space to express their feelings. “None of us slept a lot,” he said.

The experience also had its rewards. For Merin, his moment of pride came while driving around Port-Au-Prince surveying the disaster, an Israeli flag flapping in the humid wind above his car. The Haitians lining the streets began clapping and waving at the sight of the Israeli flag. “People in Haiti had no idea what are Israelis, what are Jewish people [when we arrived], but after three days, they knew exactly what is Israel.”

Before they returned home, Merin told his staff they needed to prepare themselves for a radical psychological shift. “I was afraid that coming back to Israel, the usual problems we encounter every day would seem so small — that we would have a problem adapting back to our life.”

Indeed, Merin’s life has undoubtedly changed over the past four months. He has been asked by several medical publications, including the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, to write about the ethical dilemmas he encountered in Haiti. He is also traveling frequently, lecturing about his experience and receiving numerous honors on behalf of Israel.

“It’s a crazy change in my life,” Merin said, sipping a frothy latte. “I was working as a physician, and now I’m going around the world with a tie, sleeping in fancy hotels.”

Author Challenges ‘Brainy’ Jews Myth

Amy Wilentz cringes before speaking engagements involving Jews and Israel.

“I know they’re going to get a bit ‘bloody,'” the journalist-author says. “I expect to get yelled at…. But I also know I’ll enjoy the chance to argue.”

Wilentz, the former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, is an old hand at standing up to critics. After she wrote the “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier” in 1989, Haitian politicians accosted her in public, pointing fingers and hurling accusations. Her childhood rabbi walked out of her reading of “Martyrs’ Crossing,” her 2001 debut novel dramatizing both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Wilentz expects more conflict when she takes part in an April 30 panel at the People of the Book Festival. (She’ll also participate in two events at this weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.)

The panel’s agenda is to take on Jewish myths. At the top of her myth list is the Jew-as-brainiac.

“We think we’re smarter than other people,” the 50-something author says from her Los Angeles home. “We think that’s because we care more about education and intellectual issues. There are even genetic theories. But when I hear these things I think the dangers of arrogance are enormous, and believing yourself to be better than other people is very dangerous. I just don’t like assumptions of superiority … or simple notions of things.”

Wilentz has devoted her career to challenging simple notions, especially about politics, in work that is both serious and irreverent. In an interview, the author alternates between thoughtful and breezily sarcastic remarks, eviscerating her own foibles as well as everyone else’s.

She doesn’t hesitate to admit she’s a “hypocrite” and a “sell-out,” given her left-wing ideals, for sending her three sons to private school and living in toney Hancock Park. She chides herself for practicing yoga, which she deemed frivolous upon moving here from Manhattan four years ago. Her upcoming political memoir, “I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger,” includes musings about whether a writer should have a pool. (Oops — she does.)

Yet she insists even her most ironic work stems from a deep commitment to ethics she learned as a child in Perth Amboy, N.J. Wilentz’s grandfather prosecuted the Lindberg kidnapping case; her father was the former chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. By osmosis, she says, she absorbed their Jewish “sense of social responsibility, and their connection to politics and the world.”

Wilentz reinterpreted their example in 1986, when she hopped one of the last airplanes to Haiti before the corrupt “Baby Doc” Duvalier was ousted in a military coup.

“I felt obligated to narrate a peoples’ struggle with a dictator, and I became obsessed with the fall of this evil regime,” she says.

At the time, Haiti was the poorest, most volatile nation in the Western hemisphere; its people were “blighted by AIDS, food riots … rigged elections, trigger-happy Tonton Macoutes,” The Independent noted in a review of Wilentz’s 1989 book on Haiti. “Perhaps understandably, Wilentz is keen to let us know how she risked life and limb behind the barricades with the bullets whizzing overhead…. There are firsthand descriptions — occasionally a little prurient, of brains and guts galore.”

Wilentz’s ideals sustained her through the chaos, but she adds that she was devastated when the new regime also proved corrupt. And too little in Haiti has changed since.

“That marked the decline of my political romanticism, which really came to an end when I moved to Israel in 1995,” she says.

She settled in Jerusalem with two young children and husband Nicholas Goldberg, who had been named Newsday’s Middle East correspondent. (Goldberg now works as an editor at the Los Angeles Times.) A self-professed Palestinian sympathizer, she became appalled by tales of sick Arab mothers and babies who were held up at army security checkpoints even when they needed immediate medical attention.

“I heard of women dying in their last, desperate attempts to rush around a checkpoint,” she says.

Wilentz — who gave birth to her third son in Jerusalem — began envisioning “Martyrs’ Crossing” as a tale about what would happen after Israelis delayed an Arab mother from seeking treatment for her severely asthmatic toddler.

The story crystallized when she accompanied her husband to a checkpoint near Ramallah — she thought it might be interesting to go along. She’d been expecting nothing worse than rock throwing from the Palestinians, so she and other observers were keeping closer watch on the Israeli soldiers. Then, shooting came from the Palestinian direction.

“This ‘intrepid’ reporter fled into a photocopy shop with a bunch of other journalists who didn’t have to witness the events,” she recalls with a laugh. But her husband was out there, and Wilentz wondered how she had allowed herself to “get into this violent situation where we might never see our children again.”

She felt irresponsible and guilty. Such feelings also wrack her Palestinian heroine in “Martyrs,” who believes she could have planned better to save her child. They also torment the Israeli who detained the sick boy — part of Wilentz’s attempt to humanize both Arabs and Jews.

And though her rabbi disapproved, many critics were impressed with the results.

“Diaspora Jews who comment on the moral failures of Israel often come off as preachy, but in ‘Martyrs’ Crossing,’ Amy Wilentz manages to raise some difficult questions for both Israelis and Palestinians without sounding holier than thou,” the Jerusalem Report said.

“Like the best documentaries, ‘Martyrs’ Crossing’ allows us unprecedented access to a little understood and often misrepresented part of the world,” the Chicago Tribune noted.

And though many Jews denounced the tome as “anti-Israel” at readings, such hostility subsided over time, which should make for a smoother ride on the L.A. panel — that is, until she informs fellow tribe-members that they aren’t so smart as they think they are.

“My people love to argue, especially with me,” she says.

For more information, visit Her memoir, “I Feel Earthquakes Before They Happen” (Simon & Schuster) hits stores Aug. 15.

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Dozens of artists of interest to Journal readers will appear among 350-plus authors discussing everything from science fiction to the Middle East at the L.A. Times Festival of Books April 29 and 30. Festival participants include Billy Crystal, Gloria Allred, Carl Reiner, Henry Winkler, Scott Turow, Leonard Maltin and Persian novelist Gina Nahai. Jonathan Kirsch (“The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible,” “God Against the Gods”) will participate in the panels “Fiction: Revisiting History” and “Unearthing the Roots of Religion.” For more information on the festibal lineup, visit

‘Voodoo’ Jew Finds Love, Truth in Haiti

“Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti” by Kathie Klarreich (Nation Books).

According to a Creole proverb, truth is like oil in water; it always comes to the surface. Kathie Klarreich’s first book, a memoir of her years in Haiti, is a tale of truths — personal, religious and political.

The title, “Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti,” comes from the nickname given to her by the kids in her Port-au-Prince neighborhood. In Haitian tradition, women take on the first names of their husbands; in her case she was named for the dreadlocks of her boyfriend (who later became her husband). She also refers to herself as a “Voodoo Jew.”

The book is timely reading as Haitians took part in long-postponed national elections on Feb. 7, aimed at restoring democracy, two years after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Klarreich’s impressionistic writing goes far in explaining the ongoing political turbulence that rocks the Caribbean nation — once known as the Pearl of the Antilles, it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

On the eve of the elections, Klarreich was in Haiti, reporting for Time magazine. In an e-mail she wrote, “It’s sort of bittersweet to be covering elections again, seeing how much people want change and how slow it’s been to come.”

From the time of the author’s first visit to Haiti in 1986, the place got under her skin in ways that go beyond words. Something about the warmth and graciousness of the people, the landscape, the vibrancy and color of the place and the music touched her in a profound way. A second visit in 1988, with the goal of spending three weeks researching handicrafts for her San Francisco shop, turned into a stay of more than 10 years.

The book opens in September 1988 with gunfire, when Klarreich found herself a front-row witness to a coup d’etat, the first of several she’d experience. Information was scarce, and she was not sure what had happened or where to find safety, but following her instincts she made her way to a friend’s home. She was then unsure whether to remain in Haiti, and it was her worried mother, who in a long-distance phone call advised either to “get involved or get out,” who convinced her to stay.

Another friend suggested that since she was in the midst of history being made, that she try reporting. She made contacts, wrote and rewrote, and got published in the San Francisco Chronicle and broadcast on Pacifica Radio. After a quick and determined study of what makes a good reporter, she took on more assignments and soon found that major newspapers, magazines and television networks were calling her. As years passed, she felt less the foreign journalist and more as though she were recounting the history of her own country.

Soon after the 1988 coup, she went with a friend to hear a traditional music group perform at the National Theater, and when she first saw the drummer, “it was as though someone sliced a vein from my heart into the center of his.” Several months later, she met Jean Raymond and, ever aware of their differences in culture, education and economics, fell deeply in love. Their first son was born on the same day as another coup d’etat, in 1991, while they were in San Francisco. Jean Raymond felt displaced in America, homesick for Haiti, so he returned and she joined him later on.

Klarreich writes with honesty and humility, aware of the privilege of her upper middle-class background and ability — not shared by her Haitian friends — to leave at any point if the dangers, frustrations, government corruption and violence were to become too difficult to bear. She writes of adjusting to weeks with only 10 random hours of electricity, being mistaken for a CIA agent, losing a dear friend to assassination and interviewing political leaders. The memoir is also the story of her self-discovery as she pushes herself “to pare down the clutter” of her life.

Her curiosity about all things Haitian led her to experience the voodoo tradition. She attended a five-day traditional ceremony and while dancing, was surprised at her writhing bodily reactions, as though spirits possessed her.

“I was not a nonbeliever, but at each foreign juncture with the spiritual, I had only my Jewish spiritual upbringing as a frame of reference. This didn’t fit in that box. It didn’t fit anywhere. No feelings any rabbi evoked though any sermon I’d ever heard came close to reaching this kind of religious experience,” she writes.

Her husband is a practitioner of voodoo and she is not, although she says that learning about voodoo has helped her to better understand the country and it history. In their home in Haiti, she would light Shabbat candles, with his ritual items nearby. She now lives mostly in Florida, where her 14-year-old son goes to school, and she travels frequently to their home in Haiti, where her husband is primarily based.

In a telephone interview from Key Biscayne as she was about to leave for Haiti, she explains that voodoo is very much misunderstood, promoted by Hollywood as having to do with sticking pins into dolls and some sort of black magic. She’s pleased that her openness “allowed me to just observe and take in what it was. In this post-9/11 world, we have to come to other people’s religions with open minds and not be judgmental.”

Klarreich, 50, grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland where her father served as a city councilman, and she says that one of the gifts her family gave her was travel, exposing her to many places from a young age. Her Jewish upbringing prepared her for her adventure in Haiti, and “for life in general. My parents set the stage for me to feel confident in making decisions and gave me space to do so.”

Now, when she looks at photos of her earlier self in Haiti, she sees how much her white skin makes her stand out, but she always felt accepted. Most Haitians, she says, don’t know much about Judaism, or Middle East politics.

“It’s a very isolated island, with its own language,” she said. “I’ve often thought this to be part of their larger political problem, that they’re so insular.”

Her mother suggested that she call the book “What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” The book took her about a decade to write, with several rewrites until she found a way to tell the story, which she does well. She begins each chapter with a Creole proverb — like “Love turns your head around” and “The lamp won’t light without a wick” — as Haitians invoke idiomatic sayings frequently.

“It’s part of Haitians’ charm; they see the world with humor, with joie de vivre,” she says. “We hear awful things about violence and poverty, but 8 million people get up and make do, often under great duress, and they do it with laughter and grace and creativity. I have tremendous respect for the way they have overcome so many difficulties.”

For Klarreich, Haiti remains a country “full of unpredictable flaws and wonders.” Each time she arrives, she’s enchanted anew.

“Haiti has taught me that there is not only one way to look at a situation, but infinite ways to create a solution, with humor and devotion, heart and determination as key ingredients.”


U.S. Must Refocus Democracy Building

The past few weeks have seen massive voter turnouts at two free, fair and largely peaceful elections. Yet neither election led to an inspiring outcome. Only muted hopefulness greeted Haiti’s election, while the results of the Palestinian elections were outright alarming.

These two votes highlight the changes that the Bush administration must make to its democracy-building efforts.

In both cases, the problem is an anti-democratic aspect of this policy. In Haiti, the United States’ long focus on what type of leader wins has undermined the creation of a stable democracy. The same emphasis in the Palestinian territories threatens to result in similar instability.

If the United States wishes to help build lasting democracies, it must trade its current focus on influencing outcomes for the long-term work of building democratic institutions, no matter who controls these governments in the short term.

In the 16 years since Haiti’s first free and democratic elections, after the end of the Duvalier regime, violence, corruption and poverty have abounded, while democracy has languished. Only one president has stayed in office for his entire term. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was twice elected and twice deposed by force.

The United States has given aid and attention but focused too little of it on building critical democratic institutions and too much on favoring certain parties and people. Indeed, despite official policy to the contrary, the Bush administration reportedly funded an organization that undermined the democratically elected Aristide in the months before he was forced into exile and the country fell into chaos.

Sixteen years after Haiti’s first hopeful elections, last week’s vote was not a normal event but instead only another flickering of hope against the odds that this time, things will be different.

In the Middle East, the United States has trumpeted its support for elections, while keeping quiet its work favoring a particular outcome. As reported in the Washington Post, the U.S. spent close to $2 million in anonymous funding of Palestinian Authority activities in the days before the election in order to bolster support for the sitting government.

The short-sighted U.S. strategy of supporting the least bad option at the moment, even if woefully corrupt and out of touch, invites contempt from those whose freedom it so stridently champions and from much of the international community. The United States emerges tainted, diminishing the morality of purpose, which has, for decades, been an indispensable element of the nation’s foreign policy toolbox.

The U.S. has tarnished this tool in the past by undermining democratically elected governments — in places such as Chile and Iran — that were not aligned with policy interests. But it is particularly important now, when much of the administration’s agenda revolves around building democracies, to prioritize long-term change in the direction of the United States’ democratic principles over short-term alignment to its current needs.

The administration’s shortsighted approach was readily apparent in its approach to the Palestinian Authority. Fatah, the party of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, was widely recognized as corrupt and unable to provide basic services, despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid.

Had the administration focused more on how U.S. aid was (or was not) being used, Palestinians might have had greater faith that the United States was committed to improving their lives and not simply trying to prop up a politically friendly, corrupt government. That is, they might have believed the money was intended for more than influencing a political outcome.

Hamas also benefited from external funding, yet it managed to provide basic social services with some of that money. The administration’s surprise at support for those who improve voters’ lives — even if their other goals are repellent — indicates a lack of understanding of the needs of transitional communities.

The United States can and should pursue a different course. And it is not too late. The results of activities such as training journalists, supporting human rights monitors and helping to draft clear and workable laws may not be immediately apparent. But in the long run, institutions based on democratic principles and designed around local circumstances will be more likely than elections alone to result in strong democracies.

When the building blocks of public and private institutions and systems are allowed to flourish with the appropriate support, these emerging societies are more likely to support the same principles that Americans hold dear.

Attorney Julia Fromholz has advised human rights organizations in Cambodia and serves as a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.


World Briefs

Israel Asks U.S. Egypt Help in Gaza

The United States and Egypt want to know more about Israel’s proposal for Egypt to help secure Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.

Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff, and Giora Eiland, Sharon’s national security adviser, discussed the idea Monday in meetings with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Israelis are ready for a total withdrawal, but say they need Egyptian help to keep arms smugglers from crossing the Gaza-Egypt border.

U.S. State Department official said the proposal was not fully worked out and that the Americans are waiting for further details. If the Egyptians are willing, the official said, the United States could help them with incentives.

Nadil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, said his country was interested in the proposal but needed to know more. Egypt would participate if the withdrawal were part of negotiations with the Palestinians, Fahmy told JTA.

“It has to be in the context of resolving the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution and ending the occupation,” he said. Israel has suggested that its withdrawal could be unilateral unless the Palestinians crack down on terrorism.

E.U. Presses Libya

The European Union called on Libya to join a free trade zone it has boycotted because of Israeli membership in the group. The European Commission said Monday that Tripoli immediately should send officials to Brussels to prepare its application to the group, whose purpose ultimately is to create a free-trade zone bringing together all the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi recently expressed a desire to join the process, but he cannot take part unless he agrees to recognize Israel.

Bush Sends $20 Million to UNRWA

President Bush is sending $20 million to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. The new allocation, authorized Thursday, is from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund, and will be distributed through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The request is a response to an appeal for $193 million for humanitarian needs for the Palestinian people, the State Department said.

Group Collects Money for Haitians

A Jewish group is collecting money for humanitarian aid
in Haiti. Donations can be sent to the American Jewish World Service at: AJWS,
Haiti Relief, 45 W. 36th St., 10th Floor, New York, NY, 10018, or online at

Haitian Songs

The following piece was written after a recent trip to Haiti, during which a delegation from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger was hosted by the Lambi Fund, one of MAZON’S longtime grantees.

It starts with a song. Soft at first, then louder, like slow rolling thunder, gentle harmonies that keep time with the clapping of hands.

Soon there will be time for serious talk — of politics, hard labor and the struggle to find food — but for now there is only the music.

Every Haitian man, woman and child knows this music, and during a recent trip to Haiti, I came to know it, too. I was there to visit several grass-roots organizations that help Haitians — most of them poor, many of them hungry — develop the skills they need to improve their everyday lives.

Haiti is a startling place. By all accounts is seems to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Driving around, I found a vast, barren wasteland, what you’d expect to find on a desolate moonscape or in some futuristic science fiction movie. Plagued by years of war, famine and political mismanagement, the country has been stripped of its natural resources, and with them its industry. Electricity is undependable, and running water an unheard of luxury. With mile after mile of nothing but rocky dirt road, Haiti seems like a place without hope, and certainly a place without a viable future.

And yet, five minutes into a conversation with a Haitian woman, I realized my first impression was wrong. I visited a grain mill in the center of the country, where local women bring their corn. In Haiti, women bear the brunt of the work burden. They are responsible for milling grain and working as vendors at local markets, while simultaneously tending to the needs of their families. The mill represents a significant improvement for the women who use it, and who previously had to walk great distances to process grain for family meals.

Despite their heavy loads, the women I met bubbled over with enthusiasm. These were not bitter, defeated women resigned to a life of poverty. In fact, the women — and the men — were decidedly upbeat. They recognized that they were poor but not powerless, and that systemic change would have to start with them.

Take Marie-Carmel. A 35-year-old mother of three, she understood what it would take to turn her fortunes around. When we were first introduced, she didn’t hesitate to make her views known.

"The politicians will do what they will," she said dismissively. Then she pointed to the mill and said, "This is my president. This is what I believe in."

In the face of extreme poverty, Haitians retain a tremendous sense of dignity. They may be dressing in rags caked with mud and clinging to machetes, but their children are spotless, wearing immaculate school uniforms and clutching battered books. Like parents all over the world, Haitian parents will sacrifice everything to give their kids a chance at a better life.

Several days into my trip, I drove through a torrential downpour to visit an agricultural site in a mountaintop village. After my visit, I climbed back into a rickety van with threadbare tires and began to descend the mountain, which was rapidly deteriorating into sludge. Several miles outside the village, the van sunk into the mud and was stuck. Within the hour, what seemed like the entire village had descended to help me. There was a sense among these people of the need for collective action, of getting around a problem and solving it. As I stood getting soaked, pushing the van out of the muck side by side Haitian men, women and children, I understood how poverty (unpaved roads, decrepit transportation) can be a physical obstacle to getting things done. But I also felt inspired by a sense of community and possibility.

For weeks leading up to my trip, I wondered what relevance all of this could have for the American Jewish community. For me, the question was more than academic, since I’ve dedicated the past several years of my life to raising funds from the Jewish community and distributing them to fight hunger in our country and around the world. How does Haiti affect Jews when it is a country with so few of us?

I found my answer in the faces of the Haitian men and women I was fortunate enough to meet. We are a people consumed by a vision of a more perfect world, and we are a people, many of us blessed with abundance, who can help build it. As Jews committed to tikkun olam, we send food to poverty stricken Haitians for the same reason we teach inner-city children to read and provide housing assistance for new immigrants in this country. We do it because we believe in kevod ha’beriyot, the respect due to every being. MAZON, the anti-hunger organization I head, was founded with this in mind, and shaped by the principle that Jews don’t discriminate.

Every meeting I attended in Haiti started with a song, and every song told a story. As I’ve replayed the lyrics in my head, I’ve become more convinced that the stories hold a lesson for us as Jews. It’s true that we have our own stories and songs. But ever since I’ve been back from Haiti, it’s struck me that it is the overlap, where our stories meet, where the real work gets done.

H. Eric Schockman is the executive
director of MAZON. For more information on MAZON, call (310) 442-0020 or visit