Jewish-Haitian Relations Reaching New Level


During a training seminar in Brooklyn last week for young members of New York’s Haitian community, the participants went around the room sharing their favorite Haitian expressions. One by one, at a table in the wood-paneled President’s Conference Center of Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, each man and woman said a few words in Creole, Haiti’s French patois, to everyone’s applause and laughter of recognition.

When it was the turn of Rabbi Robert Kaplan, an official of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which sponsored the all-day seminar, he gave a Jewish alternative — Hebrew and English renditions of the biblical saying, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Again, everyone applauded.

Then, at a corner of the table, Elsie Saint Louis Accilien raised her hand. The executive director of Haitian-Americans United for Progress, which offers educational and other services to local Haitian refugees and immigrants, she offered a French version of the Bible’s words. That French expression is also well known in Haiti, she said.

Again, everyone applauded.

The participants in the initial meeting of the NY-Haitian Leadership Fellowship, a project of JCRC’s Cause-NY intergroup relations department designed to teach a variety of leadership skills, agreed that the Hebrew-French biblical aphorism reflects two important points: that the disastrous earthquake in Haiti a year ago was preceded by other disasters from which the country recovered; and that the Haitian and Jewish communities here have much in common, beyond some biblical words.

The six-month fellowship program, an outgrowth of the closer relations between New York’s Jewish and Haitian communities that followed the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, which killed more than 100,000 people and left another million homeless, is the latest sign of strengthened ties between the two minority groups.

“Sometimes out of horrible, horrible things, good things can happen,” Rabbi Kaplan, director of Cause-NY, said at the seminar, which was held a week after the first anniversary of the earthquake.

On an international level, Israel immediately sent emergency medical units and privately-sponsored humanitarian aid to the already indigent nation, and several national Jewish organizations (including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewish World Service and B’nai B’rith International) helped raised funds for the earthquake victims, earning international praise.

Governments and human rights organizations “are aware of the fact that Israelis and Jews are supporting [relief] work in Haiti,” said Micah Odenheimer, founder of the Tevel b’Tzedek social and environmental justice organization, which he called “as far as I know … the only Jewish organization with a continuous Jewish/Israeli presence on the ground in communities and camps in Haiti” since the earthquake.

AJWS, which supports the activities of 21 grassroots organizations in Haiti, sponsored a program last week at which the participants of a recent mission to Haiti — AJWS President Ruth Messinger, JCC in Manhattan Executive Director Rabbi Joy Levitt, Rabbi Rick Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple, and Rabbi Jackie Koch Ellenson, director of Women’s Rabbinic Network — reported on their findings.

On a local level, a wide variety of Jewish organizations, among them synagogues and community centers, also helped the relief activities.

UJA-Federation set up its own Haitian fund, the New York Board of Rabbis encouraged congregations to join the fundraising campaign for Haiti relief, individual members of Agudath Israel of American and the haredi community of Rockland County’s Spring Valley raised money and packed boxes of medical supplies, other local Jewish organizations ran drives to send money and supplies to Haiti, and State Assembly member Dov Hikind established a Jewish-Haitian coalition.

These efforts, community spokesmen say, have quietly changed the tenor of relations with the Haitian Community, which is growing in size and influence in Greater New York and which previously had minimum contact with the organized Jewish community.

But the most visible sign of these ongoing and improved ties is JCRC’s Haitian fellowship program, which is supported by UJA-Federation.

JCRC, which serves as the Jewish community’s dialogue representative with such minority groups as African-Americans, Hispanics and Koreans, has run other borough-based leadership development programs; its fellowship for Haitians is the first-such initiative dedicated to a specific minority group. Officials from local Jewish organizations (JCRC Executive Director Michael Miller, JCRC President Alan Jaffe, and David Mallach and Ronald Soloway of UJA-Federation) gave introductory remarks at last week’s seminar, and officials from other organizations will discuss such subjects as advocacy and lobbying, fundraising and grant-making over the next half year.

“We needed to form deeper relationship. There’s a lot of stuff we can do together,” Rabbi Kaplan told the 16 Haitian fellows. “The Jewish community” in America — which is more than 350 years old — “has had a lot more experience” in public advocacy, Rabbi Kaplan said in explaining the fellowship. The Haitian-American community, most of which traces its roots to the 1960s or later emigrations, “is relatively new to this.”

“Our efforts to reach out to and offer some support to the elected leaders of the Brooklyn Haitian community … have created a closer working relationship with them,” said Chaskel Bennett, an Agudah board member. “This has translated into a new spirit of cooperation and understanding. We have become allies and partners on many of the issues that affect both communities [like] increased funding and resources for our day schools and yeshivas, safety and security of our neighborhoods, and affordable housing.”

Bennett said he and other leaders of the haredi community met with Councilman Jummane Williams recently to discuss “common needs and issues of our communities.” In the last year, he said, Williams and Councilman Mathieu Eugene have attended events of Agudah and the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush, “and both have advocated on our behalf.”

Aron Wieder, a chasidic Jew who has served for a year as an administrative assistant to Noramie Jasmin, Spring Valley’s Haitian-born mayor, said the improved relations between Jews and Haitians that began after the earthquake have continued. “It’s made [Spring Valley] a better place, a friendlier environment.”

Because the village’s Haitians and Orthodox Jews, who previously had little contact with each other, worked together on relief activities last year, they “got to see each other in a positive light,” said Wieder, a former businessman who has served on the village’s school board. Wieder said he, as a Spring Valley representative, frequently attends celebrations and other events under the auspices of the Haitian community. In the last year, the mayor’s office for the first time provided a police escort for a Chanukah march through the village and for an outdoors Torah dedication ceremony, Wieder said.

The new Jewish outreach is appreciated by the Haitian community here, said Accilien of Haitian-Americans United for Progress.

Accilien said the earthquake “energized” the local Haitian community to help its relatives back in Haiti, and to seek assistance from the outside community here. The JCRC’s fellowship program, which is offered in partnership with the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Hope and Healing Fund, will help the next generation of Haitians here to advocate on their own behalf. Like the Jewish community does now, she said.

“The Jews,” she said, “have been doing this for more than 100 years.”