Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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June 01
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JANUARY 20, 2010 7:23AM

Jews rally for Haitian relief

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  IDF Haiti
A healthy Haitian baby boy named "Israel" is born in an
IDF field hospital in Port-au-Prince on January 17, 2010

Call it fate, call it a virtue born of necessity, but Jews have always been experts in spontaneously banding together and helping people out in times of trouble. The disastrous earthquake in Haiti provides yet another example of global solidarity - and first-rate public relations - in action. Jewish relief organizations around the world, including the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), have worked fast to begin collecting funds and planning long-term recovery programs. According to the AJWS's homepage, the organization's donations will go directly to:

  • Support search and rescue efforts by community volunteers
  • Provide food and shelter for survivors
  • Provide emergency health services and education to help reduce the second wave of casualties due to wounds, contamination from corpses and human waste
  • Clear roadways to facilitate rescue and distribution of emergency supplies
  • Provide emergency psychosocial support to survivors
  • Fund humanitarian aid being sent from the Haitian-Dominican community in the Dominican Republic that includes two mobile clinics, medical supplies, donations and volunteers
  • Support longer-term recovery (in the months following the earthquake) including rebuilding of community centers, clinics and schools; replanting of crops and farms to reestablish the local food supply and provide a source of income; and support to community-based organizations’ efforts to rebuild civil society.

In the meantime, Jewish organizations and local communities have been mobilizing across the US to provide relief funds and direct assistance. (See partial list below.)

Similar campaigns are underway in Europe. In Britain, World Jewish Relief has launched a major fundraising and relief effort that will directly benefit 20,000 Haitians.The small Chabad-Lubavitch community in the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor covering the eastern two thirds of the island of Hispaniola, is also sending help.

Israel leaves its mark

The Israeli government immediately sent a rescue team, which is likely to remain in the country for at least another month. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has deployed 220 soldiers to Haiti, half of them medical professionals, and has set up a field hospital on an industrial site in the capital complete with operating rooms, x-ray machines, and pediatric facilities. It has treated more than 200 persons so far and has attracted remarkable media attention. Dr. Jennifer Furin of Harvard Medical School told CNN: "I've been here since Thursday; no one except the Israeli hospital has taken any of our patients. ... It's like another world here compared to the other hospitals. They have imaging... my God, they have [scanning] machines here, operating theaters, ventilators, monitoring. It's just amazing." President Shimon Perez has called the IDF team "Israel's great ambassadors." The IDF task force is also concerned with locating and assisting Israeli citizens who have gone missing in the disaster. Its greatest public relations coup so far has been the birth of a premature Haitian boy at its field hospital on Sunday, January 17. The mother gave him the name "Israel."


In addition, the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization has been helping to locate survivors and pull them from the rubble.  According to Israel's Channel 10, the ZAKA crew have saved a number of people, including a woman who had been trapped beneath a university building without food and water for six days. Now, more than a week after the disaster, when survivors are no longer likely, the organization has halted its rescue efforts.

Haitian Jews - hanging in there

Some of the worldwide assistance is going towards helping Haitian Jews and their international guests. What, you didn't know that there even were any Jews in Haiti? While Haiti's Jewish community is one of the smallest in the Western Hemisphere, it also has the longest pedigree: Luis de Torres, Columbus's interpreter, was the first Jew to set foot on Haitian soil in 1492. The first Jewish settlers, so-called Marranos originating on the Iberian peninsula, arrived from Brazil in 1634 and helped build up the French colonial sugar industry. The French expelled them again in 1683, but other Jews resettled the region half a century later. These Jews managed to put down only shallow roots in the colony before they were all either murdered or expelled in the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 19th century, leaving behind only a scattering of tombstones and traces of a synagogue.

Jews did not start returning to Haiti until the late 19th century, when around thirty Sephardic families arrived from Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Starting in 1937, the Haitian  governments issued visas to 100 Ashkenazim fleeing the Nazis. Many of these immigrants started leaving for a better life in Panama and the USA soon after the war. Jews have been active in Haitian commerce, industry, and banking. In the community's heyday, some 300 Jews lived in Haiti, where they formed a closely-knit elite enjoying close ties with the two Duvalier regimes.

Haiti has never been noted for open anti-Semitism, but even so Jews say they were taught early on to downplay their religion in this overwhelmingly Catholic and voodoo country. Even at the best of times, Jewish cultural and religious activities were minimal. But subsequent political turmoil and a nosediving economy have reduced the Jewish community to fewer than fifty members today. Gilbert Bigio, a prominent Jewish tycoon and multimillionaire who serves as head of the community and also as honorary consul for Israel, conducts Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in his private home and also owns the sole Torah roll in all of Haiti. Bigio provided the industrial site being used by the IDF field hospital.

At last word, all Haitian Jews and all but one Israeli national were safe and accounted for.

Gilbert Bigio
Gilbert Bigio

Charity and public relations

Jews are rightfully proud of the global relief efforts they have launched over the years, but the fact that they by no means have a monopoly on charitable work was driven home by the surprise announcement that the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank, and even Gaza-based groups are also collecting relief funds, which will be distributed in Haiti by the Red Cross. These funds will go not only towards helping Palestinians living in Haiti but will also support general relief efforts. Jamal Al-Khudary, head of the Committee to Break the Siege on Gaza, said that "people may be astonished at our ability to collect donations from our people [in Gaza]; we tell them that this is a humanitarian campaign and our people love life and peace. ... We  feel for [the Haitian people] the most because we were exposed to our own earthquake during Israel's war on Gaza."

The Gaza initiative has met with contempt in the Israeli media and public, where it is being described as the worst sort of anti-Zionist propaganda. While there may be some truth to this charge, there's also no doubt that the effort has represented a public relations bonanza for the Jewish state and the IDF. As journalist Akiva Eldar wrote in Monday's edition of Ha'aretz, thanks to Israel's militarized Haiti relief mission

the entire international community can now see Israel's good side. But the remarkable identification with the victims of the terrible tragedy in distant Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza. Only a little more than an hour's drive from the offices of Israel's major newspapers, 1.5 million people have been besieged on a desert island for two and a half years. Who cares that 80 percent of the men, women and children living in such proximity to us have fallen under the poverty line? How many Israelis know that half of all Gazans are dependent on charity, that Operation Cast Lead created hundreds of amputees, that raw sewage flows from the streets into the sea?

So two can play at the charity and sympathy game, as the Israelis have been teaching the Palestinians for generations. Still, armed forces and militant organizations have been put to worse uses since 1948. As long as Israelis and Palestinians are focusing their efforts on the people of Haiti, they aren't shooting at each other, and that may be the best news the Middle East has heard in a very long time.


Here are some of the major American Jewish relief efforts aimed at Haiti (collected by the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle): 

Donations to AJWS's "Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund," which can be made at www.ajws.org/haitiearthquake, will enable AJWS's network of grantees in Haiti to meet the urgent needs of the population based on real-time, on-the-ground assessments.

The Jewish Federations of North America is partnering with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to provide aid and relief to victims http://www.jewishfederations.or/page.aspx?id=213133.

The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, of which JRF is an executive committee member participating in decisions on relief funding, is also responding long-term: http://www.jdc.org/jcdr_about.html.

MAZON, an external affiliate with JRF, is also responding to the situation, http://mazon.org/2010/01/13/mazon-launches-emergency-haiti-fund/

Joint Distribution Committee: https://www.jdc.org/donation/donate.aspx

Milwaukee Jewish Federation, which directs funds to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

B’nai B’rith International

Chabad Lubavitch (Dominican Republic)

MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

Orthodox Union

Union for Reform Judaism

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism


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Type your comment below:
Your blogs are always so informative. Thanks for yet another enlightening read.
The irony here, of course, is that even unsaid, many people look at this and wonder about relief for the Palestinians. But it's still a mitzvah. God knows we need it.