Haiti: Why We Do What We Do

by Steven Schwager

Oscar is 23 years old. A young man with dreams of success in professional soccer or Silicon Valley, he spent more than 24 hours underneath the rubble in Port Au Prince and lost his right leg. For him, all hope seemed lost. But nearly one year later, Oscar is walking and playing soccer again with the aid of a prosthetic fitted and built by Israeli doctors in a specialized lab funded by Jews the world over.

Last January, as we have before in other natural disasters, the Jewish community responded to Haiti’s plight with a staggering outpouring of generosity. With millions of dollars pouring in, the collective Jewish effort for Haiti was part of a wave of unprecedented support for NGOs that were stepping in at a time when governments and international bodies fell short.

But why would Jews connect to Haiti? The country suffered political upheavals, social crisis, and grinding poverty before the quake. In the year that has passed, there have been riots, a contested presidential election, and a cholera outbreak among an already weary population. With all the relief coming in, the best outcome, many international experts argued, would be to restore Haiti to its pre-earthquake conditions, as perhaps the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere.

We actually shouldn’t be surprised. From our experience, Jewish support for disaster relief efforts is often very significant. Whether it was the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, or Cyclone Nargis, Jews reached out in huge numbers to ensure victims were cared for, fed, treated by doctors, and provided new opportunities to support themselves and their families.

With Haiti, however, something different has happened. While an overriding dedication to tikkun olam has inspired the relationship between Jews and Haiti, something else has helped forge strong ties.

To begin with, there was the enormous sense of pride, in the first days of the disaster, at the swift and effective response of the IDF Field Hospital team, which through support of my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), were able to get on the ground long before others and save lives while Haitians were still being pulled out of the rubble. And beyond pride, there was a certain satisfaction that the world saw that when the Jewish community and Israel address the toughest humanitarian issues, we are simply best in class.

But there is also something more – a story of Haitian support for Jews during times of historic horror and triumph. Until last year, few knew that in 1938 Haiti took in hundreds of Jewish refugees from Central Europe during the Holocaust. These refugees, supported by JDC, were given safe haven and went on to full, successful lives in the U.S. or Latin America after the war.

And then, of course, there is the fact that in 1947, Haiti was one of three countries who changed their vote at the United Nations, thus providing for the creation of the State of Israel. That backing played a critical role the recognition of the idea that Jews had a right to their own country. That Israeli and Jewish organizations continue, even today, to be embraced by the Haitian population is certainly another cause for the warm sentiment between the two peoples. In fact, Prodev, one of Haiti’s leading NGOs, is a cooperative effort of an Israeli Jewish man and a Haitian woman.

The funds from the Jewish Federations of North America and tens of thousands of individual donors continue to create new beginnings for Haitians. Because of that commitment, there are already hundreds of success stories like Oscar’s. And in the months and years ahead, there will be thousands, then tens of thousands.

Whether its JDC’s state-of-the-art physical rehabilitation clinic and nearby prosthetic lab at Haiti’s University General Hospital or the middle school being built in Zoranje, or World ORT’s builders training program, those most in need know that when the Jewish community makes a commitment, the work will get done.

Haiti faces many challenges, but through a winning formula that brings together local Haitian, Israeli, and other NGOs, tough obstacles have been surpassed. Jewish tradition teaches that though the task in Haiti is not ours to complete, we cannot turn away from it. And we do so with unparalleled expertise and unwavering commitment to the potential of every human life.

Steven Schwager is the Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.