In August, when most rabbis were crafting High Holy Day sermons, I traveled to Haiti.
Our small delegation, led by American Jewish World Service (AJWS) President Ruth Messinger, had come to assess the country’s recovery from the hemisphere’s worst earthquake in 200 years—300,000 people dead and more than a million and a half homeless. Even before the January 12, 2010 eruption, Haiti had been among the poorest nations in the world, crushed by corrupt former leaders, debilitating debt, and ill-conceived foreign aid. To help, AJWS had been supporting local grassroots organizations working to promote sustainable development, human rights, women’s empowerment, and reproductive health.
When I called my physician to get the required vaccinations and medications for my journey, the receptionist remarked, “Rabbi, I didn’t know Haiti had a Jewish community.” She was correct in that only one Jewish family still lives in Haiti, though I wonder if she was really asking why a rabbi would travel to such a place. That answer is rooted in our Jewish values: Wherever God’s children are suffering mightily, we are moved to respond.
Driving from the airport, Port-au-Prince looked like the catastrophe had just happened. Throughout downtown, piles of rubble from collapsed buildings filled the streets, and tents—small, sweltering, temporary dwellings—covered every inch of open space. Disease, hunger, and hopelessness were rampant (even before a deadly cholera outbreak would infect thousands two months later).
Disease, we learned, wasn’t the only grave threat facing the homeless survivors of the quake. Women leaving their tents at night to use the facilities risked being raped. Aid workers, too, faced dangers; by 6:00 P.M. each day, they would all evacuate the downtown area for fear of being attacked by the desperate people penned up in displaced persons camps.
Nonetheless, these makeshift quarters had become home to many Haitians without better options. One of them, Middy Josselin, a resilient barefoot woman in her early 50s, had lost her home in the earthquake. With no husband, no job, and a grandchild to take care of, Josselin was subsisting on aid groups’ meager and sporadic rations. Water came from the Red Cross; the United Nations World Food Programme provided food; Oxfam distributed soap and a towel. Her tent in Port-au-Prince was so hot from the late summer heat, we could not stay inside for more than a few minutes.
At the newly opened limb and brace center in the capital, run by the international development organization BRAC USA, we met Lubert Jean‑Pierre, a 48‑year‑old father of six who was soon to be one of the first to receive an artificial limb. At about 4:30 P.M. on the day of the earthquake, he had gone to a small prayer meeting at his church in Port‑au‑Prince. A little before 5:00 P.M., the building began to shake and the roof collapsed. He lost consciousness. All he remembers were the desperate cries, “Jesus, save us! Jesus, save us!”
At about 11:00 that night, strangers found him beneath the rubble and carried him to the nearest hospital, where he stayed for five days. His right leg had to be amputated (8,000 survivors lost limbs in the catastrophe). Later Jean-Pierre found out that 10 people had died in the church that afternoon. I asked him how this experience had affected his faith. He replied simply, “It was just His plan that day.”
We also spoke with Viola St. Fleur, 30, who had lost consciousness when a wall fell on top of her in Port-au-Prince. She awoke in the hospital several days later with a rounded stump where her right leg used to be. Now she lives with constant pain and the uncertainty that as a single mother she will be able to support her teenage daughter.
Earthquake victims are now everywhere in the country. On a remote mountaintop in Monwi Mon Ivwa, three hours from the capital, we drove up steep dirt roads to a village populated by Haitians who had fled Port‑au‑Prince after the quake. Here, fiercely independent farmers receive no help from their government. A modest $8,000 AJWS grant assists 732 refugees with their immediate basic needs as they work to reestablish their livelihoods by building latrines and water filters.
One month after the 7.0 magnitude Haiti earthquake, an 8.8 magnitude quake hit heavily populated areas of Chile, killing 521 people. In Haiti, 300,000 people lost their lives. Why did nearly 600 times as many people die in Haiti when the Chile earthquake was considerably stronger? Because in Haiti there are no building codes.
A couple of years ago, when AIG and other institutions were failing, I thought it might be advisable to review our family’s insurance policies. Skimming through our homeowner’s policy, I stopped to read the section describing “acts of God.” It seems that our policy, and probably yours as well, excludes coverage for so-called “acts of God”—sudden, violent acts of nature such as hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes—meaning that disasters are God’s fault, and your insurance company is off the hook.
Indeed, as Mark Twain’s quipped, “There are many scapegoats for our blunders, but the most popular one is Providence.”
But was it God’s will or human injustice that caused so many deaths in Haiti, or, for that matter, in Lisbon in 1755, in which another earthquake led to the deaths of some 12,000 people? As Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar writes in The Faces of Injustice, “The [Lisbon] earthquake was a natural event; it was a disaster only because people had built houses six or seven stories high. In a desert or a village of huts it would have caused no injuries. It is our own fault.”
The roots of Haiti’s political unrest and poverty are centuries old. Ever since 1804 when Haiti became the first country founded by a slave revolt, it has been plagued by disastrous dictators. Many, like Jean-Claude Duvalier, were trained and protected by the United States. Washington’s aid policies also bear responsibility: The massive amounts of food it has sent to Haiti has undermined local Haitian farmers, who just decades ago grew most of the nation’s food supplies. The Clinton Administration’s policy of dramatically cutting tariffs made imported American rice cheaper for Haitians to purchase than the homegrown crop, destroying Haiti’s own rice production. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked,” the former U.S. president, now a U.N. special envoy to Haiti, told the Senate committee in March 2010. “It was a mistake.”
One hundred countries pledged more than $9 billion for relief and reconstruction at a donors’ conference on Haiti in April 2010, but as of yet, because of political and bureaucratic obstacles in the U.S. Congress and among other donor countries, fewer than 1 billion dollars have actually reached Haiti. Basic emergency aid for food, shelter, and health has been sustaining the populace, mostly within the capital, but the critical work of reconstruction is barely underway.
The Jewish community’s response to the earthquake—largely the $14 million from AJWS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee plus another $1.2 million from the Union for Reform Judaism’s Haiti Relief Emergency Response Fund (see sidebar)—has provided food, shelter, and medicine to Haitians throughout the country and facilitated teaching them effective agricultural techniques to better feed their families.
During our visit, people repeatedly told us that the Haitian people’s biggest priority is not food, water, or shelter—but employment. Building Haiti’s workforce by utilizing Haitian materials, crops, and labor would be possible in many endeavors connected to reconstruction and beyond, and be the best way to break the cycle of poverty that results from aid dependency.
The most daunting task is getting Haiti’s own leaders to do what’s best for their people. Until now, the government has rarely consulted on public policy matters with leading experts. A case in point is the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to accept a multi-million dollar donation of corn and vegetable seeds from the Monsanto corporation. The government did not check in advance with the nation’s farmers and gave little thought to the fact that these hybrid seeds are designed to not regenerate, which would require the poor farmers to buy new seeds each season. On June 4, 2010, 10,000 farmers protested their government’s decision to accept the donation as undermining Haitian agriculture. Most farmers refused to accept the seeds; some, out of desperation, did plant them, but reported that the crop yields were meager.
Just as important as donating money to aid organizations that employ effective grant strategies is lobbying elected officials in Washington, D.C. to get U.S. aid on track. At present, doubts about the Haitian government’s ability to oversee the reconstruction effort have led the U.S. Congress to hold back American aid. If Congress passes the stalled Haitian Empowerment, Assistance, and Rebuilding Act (HEAR), the legislation would allow both American taxpayers and Haitians to see where U.S. funds for reconstruction are going in order to assess whether they are being spent effectively. This should help to hold the Haitian government accountable.
In the Book of Kings (18:11–12), after defeating the prophets of Baal, the prophet Elijah has to flee for his life. At his lowest point, after he has hidden in a cave for 40 days and nights at the foot of Mt. Horeb and can no longer summon the strength to face the forces arrayed against him, God finally appears and speaks to him. We learn that “God was not in the earthquake,” and “not in the fire,” but in “a still small voice.”
I could not find God in the earthquake that leveled so much of Haiti. I did, however, witness many acts that were inspired by the “still small voice” of conscience. A tall, handsome man named Makenton spends his days reading books to children in displaced persons camps, giving them moments of joy and respite from harsh daily realities. In the mountain village of Monwi Mon Ivwa, local peasants borrow money from their workers’ collective to provide small loans to farmers, helping them plant new crops.
Acts of God are potentially all around us—not in the natural disasters themselves, but in the godly deeds people are willing to perform for God’s most neglected and needy children. While most of the world has moved on from Haiti, let us all commit to such godly acts.
Rabbi Richard Jacobs is spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York and a board member of AJWS, which sponsored this mission.
TAKING ACTION IN HAITI
In response to the tragic earthquake, the Union for Reform Judaism raised more than $1.2 million for relief efforts from nearly 10,000 individual donors, congregations, youth groups, and religious schools. The funds have been allocated to 20 different local and international NGOs to assist in immediate disaster relief work, short-term rebuilding efforts, and long-term community sustainability projects, including:
- Establishing a mobile boat clinic to provide medical attention to underserved coastal communities;
- Working with American Jewish World Service to reestablish Fonkoze, a microcredit business development organization that provides loans to small businesses run by women;
- Rehabilitating roads in Petit Goave, an impoverished, underfunded town at the epicenter of the earthquake;
- Providing schooling for youth living in displaced persons camps;
- Supporting the construction of a specialized cholera treatment facility at Hopital Albert Schweitzer.
To make a donation to the URJ’s Haiti Relief Fund, learn more about the Union’s allocations, read stories from the field, and view photographs and videos of disaster relief efforts, visit urj.org/haiti
. To send letters to your elected representatives and engage in other Haiti advocacy, visit the American Jewish World Service site awjs.org
. And for more information on legislative developments pertaining to Haiti, visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism site rac.org
URJ Social Action Specialist