U.S. Jewish communities building ties to Haiti

Israeli-born Sharona Nathan Elsaieh, one of the few Jews living in Haiti, celebrates with children during the inauguration of a school built by Israeli volunteers on the edge of a refugee camp in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, March 2010. (Larry Luxner)

Israeli-born Sharona Nathan Elsaieh, one of the few Jews living in Haiti, celebrates with children during the inauguration of a school built by Israeli volunteers on the edge of a refugee camp in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, March 2010. (Larry Luxner)

PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti (JTA) — Not a single Jew lives among the 170,000 inhabitants of Petit-Goâve, nor among the 20,000 refugees from Port-au-Prince who have crowded into this town since a magnitude-7.0 earthquake leveled Haiti’s capital in January.

But Jews are among those helping bring Petit-Goâve back to life.

“After what I saw in Port-au-Prince, where it’s so overwhelming you don’t know where to start, Petit-Goâve was where I found hope,” said Riva Levinson of Temple Rodef Shalom in Arlington, Va. Levinson visited Haiti last month, and her Reform congregation recently formed a partnership to raise money for the area through Children & Families Global Development Fund, a charity run by Lola Poisson, wife of Haiti’s ambassador in Washington, Raymond Joseph.

It’s one of numerous efforts launched by synagogues across the United States as a response to the disaster. With the summer rains on their way — and with them a growing threat of the spread of water-borne epidemics like typhus and malaria — it’s more critical than ever.

Last month, Levinson and Poisson surveyed firsthand the damage wrought by the quake, which killed an estimated 230,000 and left millions homeless. The two women plan to return to Haiti in late May along with Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s top diplomat in Haiti.

“We want to get the whole congregation involved beyond just donating money,” explained Levinson, a management consultant who has done work in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, including a 10-year stint in Angola during that country’s civil war.

“What we’re hoping is that Rodef Shalom will turn this into a mission trip for adults and teens — helping not only with their money but also their hands,” she said. “This is an opportunity to mobilize everybody: engineers, doctors, young people.”

The Jan. 12 quake wrought utter destruction in Petit-Goâve, located 42 miles west of Port-au-Prince. Eight days later, a 5.9-magnitude aftershock had its epicenter here.

Nowadays, U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil and Spain guard the entrance to the town, which resembles a war zone.

“Many of our people are now sleeping in tents outside,” said Luc Philogene, a priest who spent 19 hours trapped under the rubble of his church before being rescued. “The shelter suffered severe cracks and cannot be repaired. It will have to be knocked down and completely rebuilt.”

Michael Shochet, Rodef Shalom’s cantor, said he wants to help the town recover, but that his shul can’t do it alone.

“Our hope is to work with one of the larger organizations in the community, such as the Union for Reform Judaism or the federation here in Washington, or the American Jewish World Service,” he said. “One small congregation is not going to be able to raise a significant amount of money, but the Reform movement has raised a huge amount for Haiti relief and hasn’t allocated all the funds yet. That’s what we need.”

The Union for Reform Judaism has raised $1.2 million for Haiti relief so far. Naomi Abelson, the group’s congregational relations manager, said the need in a town like Petit-Goâve, where 1,000 people were killed, is critical.

“It’s much more obvious in a small, rural village where there aren’t as many U.N. representatives and nonprofit groups,” said Abelson, who toured Petit-Goâve along with Levinson and Poisson. “The leaders of these communities have been through so much themselves. I think we’ll be able to provide them with the resources they need.”

Just outside Port-au-Prince, on a torturous dirt road in the capital’s devastated Delmas district, an orphanage named Project Papillon cares for 28 children, seven of them HIV-positive. Since 2006, the orphanage has been funded jointly by Temple Beth El and First Presbyterian Church, both of Hollywood, Fla.

“We felt that since South Florida is geographically so close to Haiti, we are called upon through our respective religious traditions to respond to Haiti’s very dire needs,” said Rabbi Alan Tuffs of Temple Beth El. The synagogue and the church have raised more than $125,000 in the last four years; that money has helped finance a separate house for HIV-positive orphans, as well as a school and dental care for all 28 children.

Tuffs says he’s planning to take a group of up to 20 Jewish volunteers to Haiti in July for a four-day work-study program.

“People have been generous in their support,” he told JTA. “The trick is to keep them interested once Haiti starts fading from the front pages, which has already started happening.”

Abelson said she’d like to send groups of Jewish volunteers to Haiti under the auspices of URJ’s Adult Mitzvah Corps. But that’s not likely to happen immediately.

“At this moment, Haiti is not set up for unskilled volunteers,” she said. “There’s certainly a need, but it’s going to take a few months to get there,” Abelson added. “We may take a trip as a movement, or we may encourage our individual congregations to do that, and help them connect with valuable projects on the ground.”

Of course, synagogues aren’t the only Jewish groups helping in Haiti. Jewish federations across North America have raised more then $5.5 million so far for Haiti. That money is going to support the work of partners on the ground, including the IDF field hospital that operated immediately after the quake, IsraAID and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC has financed 120 water tanks to provide Haitians with about 300,000 gallons of drinking water every day and is partnering with the ProDev Foundation to operate 10 temporary schools for 2,000 displaced children.

The American Jewish World Service has raised $5.2 million for Haiti quake relief and is working through organizations here that it’s been supporting for the last 10 years.

“Fortunately, we were in a very good position to make an impact quickly,” AJWS spokesman Josh Berkman said. “We’re not doing large infrastructure projects and bringing in shipping containers. We focus on community-based work, empowering grassroots organizations.”

Berkman said his group already has allocated $700,000 to specific, short-term relief projects like disease prevention, social support and the removal of debris from roads.

“For the next six months, we’ll be working with women’s organizations and rebuilding clinics, schools, community centers and institutions that haven’t been able to secure funding from other sources, or are being underserved. We’re also focused on recapitalizing the agricultural sector,” Berkman said. “Longer-term, our plan is to help the community shift from a disaster-response mode to economic development, helping our grantees develop network opportunities and be a central part in the rebuilding of Haiti.”

Jewish Healthcare International intends to send four missions every year to Haiti in collaboration with the University of Miami’s Project Medishare to help the country with chronic care, medical infrastructure, education and training.

“Most people have curtailed activities during the rainy season, but we’re planning on having missions begin in earnest again in the fall,” said Jewish Healthcare International’s Jerry Kobrin, an ophthalmologist from St. Paul, Minn., who visited Haiti shortly after the quake. “Our biggest emphasis will be continuing care, and the rebuilding of hospitals and clinics. Once the medical infrastructure is re-established, Haitians will be better able to weather the storm next year.”

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