My head spun as I sat on the tarmac at JFK aboard an El Al flight destined for Tel Aviv. After an exhausting week leading a winter break volunteering initiative in Haiti, all I wanted to do was return home to my husband and four children. But I was forced to wait just a little bit longer as my fellow passengers, many of whom were Ultra-Orthodox Jews, attempted to navigate our aircraft’s seating chart to find the perfect, gender-appropriate seatmate.
Rather than allowing the frustration to take hold of me, I used the opportunity to reflect on how we, as Jews, perceive ourselves and how that image differs from the way we are actually perceived by the nations of the world. This line of thought wasn’t solely triggered by the religious seating dance that was taking place around me. I was also decompressing from the humanitarian mission that had been my life’s framework for the last several days, an experience that changed me as a human being and as a Jew.
The mission was a Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future and Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Entwine service trip that coincided with the fifth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that largely destroyed Haiti. As our group, including 15 YU students and several University faculty members, made its way through the streets of Port au Prince, we couldn’t believe our eyes – we were in a state of total shock.
In Haiti, poverty rules and 80% of the country’s residents live off less than $2 a day. Thousands of people live in makeshift “tent cities” alongside ruined structures. Water canals line the city’s unpaved streets, most of them filled with rubbish, animal carcasses and sewage. Due to deforestation there is no vegetation of any kind. There are no shops, no parks, and no traffic lights.
There is no order. There is only chaos.
Our guided “tour” through the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince was a horrific experience. As our group arrived, a mother burst through the doors carrying a screaming two year-old child covered in boils from head to toe. Patients sat in agony all around us, with flies swarming around their open wounds. We learned that when a local resident visits the hospital, he can wait between 4-6 hours to be seen by a doctor, and that to be treated, the patient needs to supply his own medication, needles, gauze, and even IV fluid.
Rouge “merchants” play the role of pharmaceutical distributers, selling expired medication on the street. A country with a population of 10 million shares two CT machines. An MRI procedure requires a passport and a visa, as the machine is simply unavailable in Haiti.
As previously mentioned, we arrived in Haiti five years to the day of the horrific earthquake that ravaged the country and set this chaos into motion. Our local guide explained that the earthquake only exacerbated issues that were already pervasive and crippling. These issues can be boiled down to three main categories: A dysfunctional government; complete reliance on international aid; and a lack of citizen leadership due to a serious “brain drain,” with most educated Haitians leaving the country to seek a better life abroad.
During our week in Haiti, we performed service work at a rural community school. The Yeshiva University students taught science and dance to elementary school children and planted trees around the grounds. The Haitians we encountered were welcoming and warm, and we all felt a sense of satisfaction when the trees were planted. They stood as a symbol of hope for the community that a higher quality of life could be achieved.
In addition to our volunteer efforts, our group met with various educators, local activists and social entrepreneurs. These dedicated and passionate individuals made a conscious decision to stay in Haiti and bring change to their country. They are proud citizens who, against all odds, are slowly succeeding in restoring a truly broken society.
It is hard to know where to start in a place like Haiti, where the illiteracy rate is above 70% and most of the country doesn’t have access to basic necessities, such as water, electricity, education or medical care. But these angels among men cannot be deterred. They work tirelessly, without sufficient resources or local support, to attempt to achieve the impossible. It was humbling to be in their presence, and I know that our interactions with them will leave an ever-lasting impact on our whole group.
Reflecting on our experiences, I consider our obligations as human beings to reach out to those in need, and the optimal way of fulfilling these obligations. Throughout our trip, we witnessed the importance of individual and communal empowerment and the crucial roles of partnership. In my eyes, these are the keys to successful and impactful Tzedaka (charity) and Chessed (acts of kindness), two ideals that comprise the very foundation of our religion.
Jewish organizations such as MDA, the IDF and the JDC are among the hundreds of international organizations that came to Haiti to try to help following the earthquake. Today, most U.S. and international NGOs have left Haiti, moving on to other countries suffering from the destruction caused by natural disasters.
The visit from our group, Orthodox Yeshiva University students on a mission organized by JDC, one of the few organizations that still has a presence in Haiti, is a statement (similar to the Israeli flag painted in the school where we volunteered): we, the Jewish nation, still care and realize our responsibly to humanity and to the world at large. It is a statement that we will always take a stand and make a difference in the world wherever we are needed, that our kindness will know no bounds.
As all of the passengers on my flight back to Israel finally found appropriate seats, the flight attendant yelled at me to stop jotting down notes on my phone. At that moment, his directive resonated as more than just an airline regulation. It was a call to action.
Indeed, we have a lot to accomplish and time is precious. We need to stop reflecting and start doing more. We must begin by stepping up and strengthening the Jewish nation from within so that we can shine our national light onto humanity and effect real change in every corner of the globe.
It is time to find our seats, go home, and get started.