Faith and Service in Haiti

When I accepted an invitation from the Israeli organization, Tevel B’Tzedek, to travel to Haiti about a year after the devastating earthquake in 2010 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 was not just from the Israelis; the Haitians that were being trained by the Israelis were eager to learn from a rabbi as well. 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.

This article appeared in The Peoplehood Papers 21, published in May 2018 in a special issue on ”Social Justice and Peoplehood”. The journal is published by The Center for Jewish Peoplehood, based in Israel and headed by Dr. Shlomo Ravid.

In several of my presentations to Haitians, my translator was a young Christian minister named Johnny Felix. In his early 30’s 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% of Haitian children go to any elementary school at all and the most successful schools are mostly church-sponsored.

Upon return home, I spoke about my experience from the bima of the congregation where I am the founding rabbi—Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD. I proposed that we undertake a Haiti Project with the primary mission of supporting Pastor Johnny’s NICL School which now serves 200 children from K-6th grades. So as not to repeat the mistakes of so much post-disaster aid, the requirement was that families commit to five years of funding at a relatively modest level of $100/year.

Adat Shalom’s Haiti Project is now going into its sixth year. Over 100 Adat Shalom households contribute $100/year for five years which allows us to support Pastor Johnny’s NICL (New Christian Institute of Leogane) School. As a result of this generosity we are able to fund scholarships for student tuition, equipment for the school and underwrite the school’s core budget. We have worked closely with Pastor Johnny on issues of budgeting, management and the importance of sustainability. Since we have started the relationship, we are pleased that tuition revenue has increased by over 50% as a percentage of the overall school budget. On more than one occasion, Pastor Johnny has said 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”.

In December 2016 I led the fourth Adat Shalom service mission to Haiti in six years. We now fill the 20 available slots easily, with half the delegation made up of young people, ages 15-25. It is hard to capture the power of the experience in words.

Our work over the years has been varied. We have prepared meals for a massive soup kitchen operation. We laid concrete foundations and built houses. At Pastor Johnny’s NICL compound we created a vegetable garden that we dedicated and named Gan HaMazon, the “garden of plenty”. Many of the students in the school are food insecure so we focused our attention on that aspect of community development. On our last two missions, we raised the funds for and provided much of the labor to build a third structure on the school’s campus. Part of that facility will house a computer lab with 15 work stations while the other part will become a dining room for the students. In each venue we worked side by side with Haitians and we used that opportunity to gain insight into the challenges they face in their lives. In so many cases we walked away inspired by the dignity of the Haitians living in circumstances that are close to what would be our worst nightmare.

The experience was also a deeply spiritual one for us. Every evening after dinner we gathered in the dorm at Notre Dame where we lived. We used the time to share highs and lows or our very intense days and then to enrich our experience by studying Judaic texts and values from a sourcebook that I developed specifically for our mission. The conversations were wide ranging. How can Americans be most helpful in a country where poverty, illiteracy and illness is 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? More than a few of the mission participants talked about the experience as “transformative” and “life changing”.

Taking on the project at Adat Shalom did require some conversation. Some wanted to be sure that our service missions would not be “missionary” in the way some church ministries use missions to proselytize. Others, reading of the how ineffective the $13.5 billion in aid has been in Haiti, shared their own reservations of our commitment of time and money to the country. But the testimonials from mission participants over the years has made almost everyone into a believer. Our micro-philanthropy, focused on one institution, has been most gratifying as people see the progress we have made at NICL. One congregant wrote me a note saying that she herself was not capable of going on a mission but she was so proud to be a member of a synagogue whose commitment to justice extended to a place like Haiti.

As a rabbi our service missions represent the very best of what we can and should be doing as a Jewish community. The participants became a tightly bonded team during our challenging days on the work site and we became a family during our “down time” at the dorm. With each passing day we became 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 took great pride in “walking the talk” of Torah. We weren’t just talking about Jewish values; we were living those values every day.

There is one arena in which I have become something of a proselytizer. I believe that service missions need to be a bigger part of how the Jewish community, and synagogues in particular, engage in tzedek work. Such work can be done in one’s own community, of course. But it becomes a whole other kind of experience when done by a group for a week to ten days, be it in Israel, in Rwanda (where some of our synagogue members spend time at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village), or in Haiti. Not only does it build strong social bonds among participants but it provides for the kind of cross-cultural learning that could never be conveyed in a classroom. Hundreds of churches understand the importance of service missions as a way to transmit the values that they cherish, both to their members and to the people that the missions serve. The same could be true for synagogues.

In the sermon I 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 chesed, acts of lovingkindness; both are committed to tzedek, acts of justice; and both are committed to shalom, acts that advance spiritual wholeness and peace.

Many Jews would jump at the chance to live out these values under the auspices of a Jewish organization. To the extent that we know how many Jews, especially of the younger generation, are motivated by social justice, Jewish institutions should find ways to build these kinds of hands-on service missions into their year-round programming.