The Jewish/ Israeli Response to Haiti: A Look at the Landscape Four Years Later

Fondwa  - June 2010, Haiti, Gideon Herscherby Erica Lyons
exclusive to eJewish Philanthropy

The distance from Port-au-Prince, in Haiti, to New York is only 1,684 miles and from Port-au-Prince to Jerusalem it’s a more formidable 6,494 miles. It might as well be a million miles from both cities. Haiti was far off most of the world’s radar, including most of the Jewish world’s, until January 12, 2010 when disaster struck.

But key Jewish/Israeli responders that provided help included the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), IsraAID, World ORT, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and Tevel B’Tzedek. They all played a role in the immediate aftermath and have continued to demonstrate a long-term commitment to Haiti.

Haiti, September 2011 by Gideon HerscherWhy is Haiti a Jewish/ Israeli Cause Anyway?

Given the large scale of assistance by Israeli and Jewish committed to the assistance of the Haitian people, it rather begs the question, why is Haiti a Jewish problem in the first place? The JDC is able to give some insight as to perhaps a historical meeting between Haiti and the Jewish world, in that, as Judy Amit, the global director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s international development program, explains, “Haiti played a critical role in saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust period.” She also notes that gratitude is owed to Haiti for “its vote for the creation of the State of Israel.” Amit, however notes that neither of these facts “was the main motivator of our response, but they serve as an invaluable lesson of our interconnectedness and responsibility to one another at the toughest of times.”

As Rabbi Micha Odenheimer, the founding director of Tevel B’Tzedek, explains while Jews living in North American are both living in close proximity to Haiti and have a number of opportunities for contact with Haitian immigrants the willingness to help isn’t really about that either. “It is my principal understanding that the Jewish people’s mission isn’t for the Jewish people alone but is rather that mission is to create a better world for all of humanity.”

Judy Amit, of the JDC, likewise echoed this same value. As she explained, “Haiti became a cause for Jews and Israel because we are part of the global community and, like other people and nations, feel compelled to respond to tragedy. But as Jews, we have a special obligation to put into action the notion of arevut, mutual responsibility, for both our fellow Jews and all humankind.”

This core Jewish value, expressed by all of the organizations committed to the long-term recovery certainly isn’t new nor is it a slogan or marketing scheme. It has firmly planted roots in the Jewish tradition where the Talmud teaches us (Sanhedrin 37), whoever preserves a single soul, it is as though he has preserved a whole world.”

What is specifically Jewish in how these organizations have responded is with a sensitivity that has been learned perhaps through our own familiarity with disaster and terror. It is in our increased sensitivity to the suffering of others. Likewise, these organizations all speak to the need to go in and listen to the specific needs of the people they are aiming to help. While their expertise in various sectors is well established, Shachar Zahavi – Founding Director of IsraAID – noted that flexibility is a key factor in determining the success of any program and that each disaster has a new learning curve where skills can be applied but “there is no amount of homework that can be done before you are on the ground and can asses the very specific needs of that community in the face of that specific disaster.” But all the organizations we spoke with, agreed that the funds they collected and the programs they helped create are not enough. The importance of training the local community to take ownership of these initiatives is imperative as this is the way forward in securing a stronger Haiti and continuity. The projects must be firmly rooted in the community. These practices are a beautiful expression of Jewish values by Jewish organizations and examples of Maimonides’ eight and ultimate level on the ladder of charitable giving.

Using Israeli expertise to train local Haitians also permits these organizations with semi-permanent on-the-ground representatives to put an exit strategy into place. Again, as Zahavi reminds, flexibility with this strategy is key. As in the case of Tevel B’Tzedek, while this disaster prompted a response from them, this is somewhat far afield from their core programing as it is in an entirely different part of the world. He says though this certainly didn’t deter them from entering Haiti in the first place as there was something about the Haitian people that resonates in many ways with the Jewish world.

So four years out now, with exit strategies in place for most with the exception of AJWS, who is looking to maintain a permanent commitment to Haiti, many of the Jewish/Israeli humanitarian aid workers are beginning to slowly back away with great hopes that their initiatives will continue to have a profound impact on strengthening the Haitian people. While they arrived as first responders, four years later they are finding there is work still to be done, but Haiti has found its way on the Jewish map.

So, has Haiti been built back? And has it been built back stronger?

Given the struggles faced by Haiti before the disaster and then further compounded by the earthquake itself, there was an immediate cry by humanitarian aid workers to build Haiti back stronger.

Zahavi, of IsraAID, emphasizes that unlike the situation in Japan following the Tsunami, Haiti was a “disaster upon a disaster”. By all accounts, the Haitians didn’t need a natural disaster to experience widespread suffering. Based on their dire economic situation, they were already suffering long before the twelfth of January 2010.

The response from the Jewish/Israeli world was incredible. Aid workers from organization that included IsraAID, American Jewish World Service, Tevel B’Tzedek and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee showed their commitment in their immediate response in the first 24 hours, along with organizations such as the IDF, Chabad and Magan David Adom. But these organizations went further and resolved to remain committed to the recovery of Haiti in the long-term.

Despite this, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 4 years after the earthquake an estimated 172,000 people remain internally displaced in Haiti in camps and 600,000 Haitians continue to live in severe food insecurity. Cholera as well as a myriad of other critical humanitarian challenges still plague the country. Many of the international organizations have pulled out. Reasons cited are lack of funding, but also frustration.

It is interesting to look at the anatomy of a humanitarian aid response to crisis. In the immediate aftermath, the response is great and wide-reaching. There is something sexy about a mass disaster. It draws attention. Unfortunately, as the case of Haiti shows, general deprivations not mitigated by a mass disaster, are not. It often takes something on a grand and sudden scale to rouse us from our slumber.

There are a great number of people ready to give money in the days immediately following the disaster. Likewise, there are organizations motivated by the desire to help with that same knee jerk response immediately boarding planes. They all come with their own expertise and are ready to give advice and assess the on-the-ground situation.

It’s All Very Complicated

As the Israeli/ Jewish response showed, this knee jerk response isn’t the most effective way to help. Zahavi explains, “We have seen other international organization bring in their own ideas and programs that ultimately don’t work and sometimes have the opposite effect. We bring our own skill sets and then ask what is needed and how we can adapt our skill sets to fill in the gaps that are needed. If there is one thing we have learned, homework from home won’t help. It didn’t help in Haiti.”

There is no formula for success or ready-made plan because each country and each disaster is so different as the situation in Haiti further proved. This often means supporting grassroots projects where the local community determines what they need and then decides on their own project to support that specific need.

In a similar vein, Tevel B’Tzedek along with IsraAID is working to train local Haitians in specific skill sets so that there will be continuity when a final exit strategy is put into place. Similarly, the JDC explains that while 96 percent of their earmarked donations have been put to work the remaining funds will be invested primarily in two projects with local Haitian partners: developing a Partnership in Education school network to provide quality education to underserved communities and working with the Haitian Center for Leadership and Excellence (CHLE) to develop an integrated youth leadership program for 70 visionary young adults.

The JDC is also still involved in Haiti, but after four years of working on the ground and investing $8.8 million in building schools and state-of-the-art rehab facilities, as well as in training for para-medical professionals and other vocational programs, among other projects, they are winding down. They are still busy making assurances that these programs continue but are now locally run and managed. There will also be continuing service opportunities available through programs like JDC’s Entwine. As Amit explains, “JDC’s disaster relief and international development work is built around a formula that ensures that after our financial investments and expert interventions are complete, local partners will continue to carry out the work we began. Self-sustaining and mutually responsible communities are our goal, whether in Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union or in rebuilt fishing villages in Thailand.”

With programs in place and with the transfer of skills, it is time to come home.

Did the Jewish/Israeli Response to Haiti Improve its Public Image?

At the end of the day, while the response to the disaster in Haiti was motivated by core Jewish and core human values, it can be said to have also been an opportunity to repair the public image of Israel in the media. Zahavi explains that there is a growing expectation that Israelis / Jews will be there with their unique skill sets and expertise to help. On the ground, following a disaster, people are beginning to immediately ask when the Israelis will arrive, he explains.

Odenheimer, while very much aware of the impact the work his organization and the others have on improving Israel’s image, certainly agrees that this isn’t the main motivator. He believes that in addition to Israel indirectly benefiting, the volunteers often are the ones that come out ahead. He speaks of the nourishment the experience in Haiti gave to both the recipients and the volunteers.

As Zahavi summarizes, “We are trying to bring international development aid up to the promise of the start up nation. We would like to bring the humanitarian aid to that same level.”

Will we start to see multiple references to the Humanitarian Aid Nation? It’s an admirable goal indeed and these organizations are certainly doing more than their share to make that happen. Like with the Start-Up Nation identity, Israel might not have specifically chosen that path but when you put enough good people together with enough good ideas, determination and strength, anything can happen.

Erica Lyons is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Jewish Life.

photos by Gideon Herscher; courtesy JDC

Also see: Ruth Messinger on “The Jewish/ Israeli Response to Haiti” (March 26, 2014) and Pursuing Justice in Haiti (April 28, 2014)