When I accepted an invitation from the Israeli organization, Tevel B’Tzedek, to travel to Haiti a few months after the devastating earthquake in 2010 and to do some teaching for their disaster-relief team on the ground, little did I know that it would lead to one of the most fulfilling projects of my rabbinic career. The Israelis were doing amazing work under the most difficult circumstances, as Israelis have done all around the globe in similar situations. My contribution was to bring some Judaic context to the work taking place in one of the poorest countries in the world.
As it turned out, the interest in my teaching went beyond the Israelis. At a time when Jews are at risk in many parts of the globe because of rising anti-Semitism, Haitians treat Jews as if they had just walked out of the pages of the Bible. Haitian Christians identify powerfully with the story of the Israelites coming out of Egyptian enslavement and being led by God to the Promised Land. It reflects their deepest aspirations for themselves since Haitians have not only been victimized by natural disasters, but by 100 years of political tyranny and a dysfunctional civil society.
In several of my presentations to Haitians, my translator was a young minister named Johnny Felix. In his early 30s and with a smile that can light up a room, Pastor Johnny founded a church and a school in Leogane, literally out of nothing. I spent some time in his community and with the students in his school, and felt that with a little help, Pastor Johnny could actually make a big difference in the lives of these children. Less than 50 percent of Haitian children go to any elementary school at all!
Upon return home, I spoke about my experience from the bimah of the congregation where I am the founding rabbi: Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. I proposed that we undertake a project related to Haiti with the primary mission of supporting Pastor Johnny’s NICL School, which at the time served 150 children in kindergarten through sixth grade (the school has now grown to almost 200 students). So as not to repeat the mistakes of so much post-disaster aid that is common in our society where tons of money comes into a poor country and then, within a year, all aid dries up, the requirement was that families commit to five years of funding at a relatively modest level of $100 annually.
Adat Shalom’s “Haiti Project” is now going into its seventh year. More than 100 Adat Shalom households now contribute $100 a year for five years, which allows us to support Pastor Johnny’s NICL School in Leogane. We call them “Haiti Partners.” As a result of this generosity, we are able to send between $5,000 and $8,000 per year to fund scholarships for student tuition, purchase equipment for the school and underwrite the school’s core budget. Pastor Johnny, who has almost single-handedly created the NICL school and a congregation in Leogane, said to me that Adat Shalom was sent to him by God. As much as that might hit our ears a bit strangely, there is no way to do the work that Pastor Johnny does day in and day out against overwhelming odds without such a “leap of faith.”
But what started out as a fundraising project with an interesting “development world” angle to it changed markedly a few months into our first campaign. A member of Adat Shalom named Pam Sommers approached me and said: “I already signed up to be a ‘Haiti Partner.’ I want to go to Haiti and do hands-on work on the ground like you did, Rabbi Sid.”
I responded: “You find a minyan of Adat Shalom members who are willing to go as well, and I will commit to lead the trip.”
Wouldn’t you know it? Pam got 16 people to go, a combination of adults and young people between the ages of 14 and 30.
In December 2018, I accompanied the fifth Adat Shalom Service Mission to Haiti. We now go every other year during winter break, when the weather is bearable in Haiti and kids in the United States are out of school. Every mission has had a wonderful mix of youth and adults. The families who have brought their children talk about it as the best thing they ever did with their family in terms of values learned, time spent and sense of fulfillment achieved. One family signed up with a bit of anxiety since this was going to take the place of their annual family trip to Cancun during winter break. Several years later, the family still talks about their Haiti experience. The trips to Cancun are more or less forgettable.
We have brought Pastor Johnny to Adat Shalom twice for visits to interact with our community and with our Torah School. His first visit in 2014 was the first time he had ever been on an airplane. Each time he joined me on the bimah, he taught some songs in French and English, and shared with our community how much Adat Shalom was a lifeline for the students of his school. In turn, Adat Shalom members are extremely proud of the project. In our foyer, there is a wall dedicated to the project with photos from our missions. One member wrote me a note saying that she herself could never participate in a mission because of the physical demands of the mission, but she is so proud to be a member of a synagogue whose social action was as expansive as supporting a Christian school in Haiti.
The conditions in Haiti are not for the faint of heart. Our accommodations are very modest. The work is hard—hauling cement, moving rocks, painting, bending rebar. Even in December, it is well into the 90s and humid. But we have accomplished so much. During our 2011 and 2012 missions, we worked side by side with Haitians to build houses in Lambi Village to provide shelter for those whose homes collapsed during the 2010 earthquake. In 2014, we went back to Lambi Village to visit. The community was thriving. We were greeted like royalty, each family eager to show us their homes. During the construction, we made makeshift mezuzot of plywood to give to each homeowner. Wouldn’t you know it? The mezuzot were displayed prominently in each home! Guess how that made us feel? Oh. And they also kicked our butt in a game of soccer.
At Pastor Johnny’s NICL compound, we have accomplished a minor miracle. Over the course of two discreet missions, we broke ground and then finished a third structure on the school’s modest campus. Half of it will serve as a dining hall for the students. The second part became a computer lab with 15 work stations—something almost unheard of in this rural part of Haiti. It was made possible because we first funded a solar tower to provide the school with a constant source of electricity. When we first started working there, the school was making do on three to five hours of electricity a day. One of our mission participants had been inspired to fund the creation of the computer lab, which was a major boon to both the students and faculty of the school.
Another proud creation of our Adat Shalom mission was the creation of a vegetable garden that we dedicated and named “Gan HaMazon.” When we dedicated it, Pam Sommers’s husband, Fred Pinkney, actually made the dedication speech in front of the students of the school in their native language, Creole. Many of the 200 students in the school are food insecure, so we focused our attention on that aspect of community development. On our 2016 mission, we ran a day camp from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day for 50 students of the school since it was vacation time. (These families are not going to Cancun). The focus was on how to work in the vegetable garden and food preparation.
On each mission, in a variety of settings, we work side by side with Haitians, and we use that opportunity to gain insight into the challenges they face in their lives. In so many cases, we walk away inspired by the dignity of the Haitians who live in circumstances that are close to what would be our worst nightmare.
The experience is always a deeply spiritual one for us. Every evening after dinner, we gather in the dorm where we stay. We use the time to share the highs and lows of our very intense days, and then to enrich our experience by studying Judaic texts and values from a sourcebook that I put together specifically for our mission. The conversations are wide-ranging. How can Americans be most helpful in a country where poverty, illiteracy and illness are so widespread? How can we help Pastor Johnny and the NICL school become self-sustaining? What are the ethical ramifications of our lives of privilege when compared to the deprivation that is the lot of most Haitians? On our last day, every person has a chance to share something they learned during our mission: a) about how to be most helpful to people in a developing country like Haiti; b) about Judaism and their Jewish identity; and c) about themselves. More than a few of the mission participants talk about the experience as “transformative” and “life-changing.”
When all is said and done, spiritual practice is about connecting to something greater than ourselves. Our mission participants, who may or may not be interested in prayer or meditation, feel much more deeply connected to the Haitians with whom they work, with all of humanity, with the mystery of being by engaging in the practice of literally loving their neighbors as themselves. I know that I, too, have grown immensely from the experience. Much of my activism has focused on Tzedek—trying to effect changes in programs and policies through political advocacy. Yet to ground that commitment in acts of hesed (lovingkindness), spending time face to face with some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, is to understand something about one’s own humanity and the common struggle for human dignity that crosses all lines of race, nationality and religion.
I believe that our service missions represent the very best of what we can and should be doing as a Jewish community. The participants become a tightly bonded team during our challenging days on the work site, and we became a family in our “down time” at the dorm. With each passing day, we become more inspired to give of ourselves to help those who have so little, but who live their lives with great dignity and with deep faith.
Finally, we take great pride in “walking the talk” of Torah. We aren’t just talking about Jewish values; we are living those values every day. In a sermon I once delivered at Pastor Johnny’s church on Sunday morning, I said that despite the differences in nationality, race, religion and socio-economic status that separate us and the Haitians who were our hosts, three things tie us together. Both communities are faith communities committed to hesed, acts of lovingkindness; tzedek, acts of justice; and shalom, acts that advance spiritual wholeness and peace.
At a time when synagogues are losing market share and Next Gen Jews are deeply ambivalent about how much they are prepared to identify as Jews, I can testify that this kind of service mission is a game-changer. Synagogue leaders should think seriously about sponsoring both domestic and international service missions. It allows Jews to act on their values and also serves to connect Jews with the most vulnerable people in the world, a central teaching of Torah.