Jews Responding to the Earthquake in HaitiPosted on March 2nd, 2010 No comments
Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia is looking beyond the headlines in thinking about how best to form their communal response to the recent earthquake in Haiti. This week, TRS’s senior rabbi, Amy Schwartzman share a guest post about the connection her congregation is building with Haiti. Rabbi Schwartzman currently serves the President of the Rabbinic Alumni Association of HUC-JIR and has been recognized nationally for her social justice work.
When we arrived at the Haitian embassy to meet the Ambassador and his wife, there was little to indicate the devastation and loss of life that the earthquake had left in its wake. Apparently weeks before hundreds of people stopped by the tiny embassy, trying to leave donations or find out if families and friends were known to be alive. But now it was silent. No passers-by, just a sign on the door to say that they could not accept any goods in kind. The building is dwarfed by the surrounding embassies. They are grand and imposing. Perhaps this slim and modest building is appropriate for the poorest country in the Americas. Inside the furniture is classically European but the art is spectacularly Haitian – it left me a bit confused until I met the Ambassador and his wife.
His Excellency Raymond Joseph, Ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Haiti, is a joyful, intelligent, sharp amalgam of Haitian culture and the ways of the west. Born and raised in Cayes, Haiti, he is mostly known as a journalist. In the 1960’s he was a radio personality. In the 70’s and 80’s he was at the Wall Street Journal in New York as a financial writer and co-founded the Haiti-Observateur, the first crusading commercial Haitian weekly. In 1990 Mr. Joseph was called to be Haiti’s Charge d’Affaires in Washington and his own country’s representative at the Organization of American States. After helping with the first democratic elections in December of 1990, he returned to the Haiti Observateur where he remained until he was called to Washington in 2004 as the Ambassador.
You can imagine what a wealth of experiences this man brings to a meeting. Members of the Temple Rodef Shalom clergy sat down with the Ambassador and his equally engaging and articulate wife, Lola Poisson-Joseph, to discuss how we might embark on a joint venture to help repair Haiti. While the weight of his nation and its deep tragedy sat on his shoulders, the Ambassador regaled us with stories that connect Haiti with the Jewish people. He talked about Haiti’s vote to support the creation of the State of Israel. He told stories about welcoming Jewish refugees after WWII. He shared his knowledge of Torah and his love of Hebrew! Finally, we spoke about creating a project to restore a community in his country.
Lola Posson-Joseph, a social activist and artist, has a relationship with a town outside of Port-au-Prince called Petit-Guave. She had been working on building a shelter there for the poor members of the community. She painted a splendid picture of this town, its history and its citizens. It is filled with a rich culture and teaming with human potential. We agreed that our goal would be to rebuild at least one central institution of Petit-Guave – the shelter, the only school or the 300 year old church, which also functions as a community center.
On February 16th the Ambassador and his wife came to Temple Rodef Shalom to participate in a service of solidarity and hope for Haiti. The Ambassador updated the congregation about the relief efforts. Mrs. Poisson-Joseph talked about Petit-Guave and helped us to imagine how we might help. The day of our service, there were no pictures in the paper about Haiti. Support efforts by doctors and builders and emergency workers were still under way but for many, in our safe and comfortable homes, the story of the earthquake has passed. Some have moved onto other issues in the world. Those who came to our service affirmed that Haiti, and its need for our support, is still very much alive. As former President Bill Clinton recently wrote: “Haiti can surely move beyond its troubled history and this lethal earthquake to emerge a stronger, more secure nation. But that can’t be done with government support alone. Ordinary citizens must fill the gaps.”
We are those ordinary citizens and our Jewish tradition and commitment to tikkun olam calls us to not only offer comfort to the people of Haiti but to offer our resources, our creativity, our time and our energy to restore this nation. As our rabbis taught – “it is not for us to complete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from engaging with it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21)
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