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See Haiti Through Her Eyes....

The following two pieces were written by Rabbi Kim Geringer, for her congregation in New Jersey. I am very happy to share them here, with her permission.

Message From the Rabbi, Bulletin – August 2010

I am writing this message on July 12, the six-month anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti which has been called the greatest urban disaster in world history. Three hundred thousand Haitian men, women and children were killed. One and half million people were displaced from their homes; most of them continue to live in one of hundreds of tent encampments. Perhaps most heartbreaking are the so-called “lost children.” Disaster relief experts estimate that at least 50,000 Haitian children are currently “lost” to their parents or other adult relatives who simply have no idea where they are or if they are even living. In a world of seemingly constant disasters of one sort or another, compassion fatigue sets in and it is easy – and tempting – to turn away from last month’s or last year’s catastrophe. Last week my husband and I traveled to Haiti with an interfaith group, Hollywood CARES, (a Reform congregation and a Presbyterian church from Hollywood, FL) which has been supporting an orphanage in Port au Prince since 2006. Parts of the orphanage was damaged in the earthquake, and our group went to make repairs, paint, and deliver large quantities of donated items – sheets, towels, clothing, books and school supplies. I would like to share with you part of an e-mail I wrote to some friends on our last night in Haiti:


“This has been extraordinary in every way and unexpected ways. What stands out: the heat, the vast quantities of trash and rubble, the unpaved and/or broken roads, the indescribable poverty, destruction and number of collapsed buildings, the tent cities anywhere there was once a park, sports field or just an open space, and the absolutely awe-inspiring people behind the orphanage here and also the kids themselves. We have painted and done repairs on the children's houses in infernal heat, unpacked and organized supplies, and played a lot with the kids. The houses have no running water, no ovens, no laundry facilities, and very limited electricity. (So, of course, no AC.) Yet the children are loved, almost impossibly clean and neat, and overwhelmingly sweet and affectionate. A quarter of them are HIV-positive, although all look and act healthy. And these are the lucky ones because they are not living on the street and they have adults who are committed to them and their future. They go to a school run by the orphanage (which operates on a shoestring of love and donations) headed up by a skinny, young, charismatic community organizer and minister of seemingly boundless energy. Late this afternoon after we finished working, we visited a tent city of 50,000 people which is largely being funded by an organization of the actor, Sean Penn (J/P HRO). The “city” is located in a valley that was once part of a private golf club. On the day of the earthquake, the stone walls around the club collapsed and desperate Haitians poured in. They’re still there. Private no more! The tents are set up on the sides of the hills; it is VAST. Our vans got stuck in the mud from last night’s rain, and so we had to get out and walk until eventually we found our way to the tent city's school - which turns out to be run by ISRAELIS! They are from an organization called Tevel b’Tzedek (“The earth – in justice”) which is an Israeli NGO, a humanitarian aid group. They came to Haiti before anyone after the earthquake, including the Americans, and they have set up an incredible school for 300 kids in that hellhole (out of 10,000 children in the tent city, all they can accommodate). The “school” is a series of military-style tents, and the kids sang welcome songs to us and hugged us. (All these kids are big huggers). The Israelis have also established teen programs for the older kids, are training young Haitian adults to be their own community organizers, and are setting up various food cooperatives to encourage self-sufficiency. Absolutely amazing, we were really floored and so moved. We asked the Israelis (who are all in their early 20s), “Do the Haitian people know you're Israeli?” and they said, “Oh yes, they LOVE Israel!” And why not??? One of the Israelis is tall, thin, with long brown hair and a beard, and he told us that the Haitian kids ask him all the time if he is Jesus. And under the circumstances, one can understand why these children just might believe that he had come to save them.”


At the moment it is impossible for private individuals to ship relief donations to Haiti. However, if you would like to support efforts to provide shelter, food, clean water and medicine to the people of Haiti, may I suggest three organizations - J/P HRO web site (http://jphro.org/) which funds the tent city we visited, Tevel b’Tzedek (
http://www.tevelbtzedek.org/) and Hollywood CARES (http://hollywoodcares.net/). We saw the vital work of these groups firsthand and feel confident that monetary donations to them will be put to good use. As Jews, we are commanded to remember that, at one time, we too “were in the land of Egypt.” I hope you will join me in helping some Haitians find their way out of Egypt.


Sermon, Rosh Hashanah Morning – 2010
So many disasters, so little memory. Eight months ago, on January 12, one of those disasters, a devastating earthquake, struck the island nation of Haiti, the worst natural disaster to hit the Western Hemisphere in two hundred years. I traveled to Haiti twice this summer, and so, for the first time in my life, I witnessed the devastation of such an event not on TV or in a newspaper or magazine, but through my own eyes. Prior to this calamity, Haiti was already the poorest country in our hemisphere, and the earthquake had the effect of bringing an already desperate nation almost to its knees. An estimated 300,000 people were killed outright, many of them crushed as their homes, schools, stores and businesses collapsed on top of them. More than a million men, women and children are now homeless. Most of the displaced live in one of hundreds of tent cities that have sprung up anywhere there was once a park, sports field or just an open space. Some tents are on the median strips of roads and highways or under bridges. Driving from the airport, one whizzes right by them. The extent of the destruction and the rubble it produced is simply indescribable. Slabs of concrete, chunks of mortar, wires and pipes from crushed buildings are piled high everywhere. In many ways, the capital city of Port au Prince looks just as it did on the day of the earthquake because there is nowhere to put the rubble and no plan for how to remove it in any case. The formerly magnificent National Palace still stands, but enormous cracks now run through it, and entire sections have collapsed. Most of Port au Prince’s roads are either unpaved or badly broken. There is no functioning public transportation system. Trash fills the streets and sidewalks, electricity is sporadic, and much of the population has no access to running water.  Many of you know about my first trip because I wrote about the experience for our August bulletin. In that one, my husband and I joined with an interfaith group called Hollywood CARES (a Reform synagogue and a Presbyterian church in Hollywood, FL) which has been supporting an orphanage in Port au Prince since 2006. The orphanage sustained damage in the earthquake, and our group traveled there to bring supplies and do repairs on the children’s living quarters and community center. Details of that trip can be found in the bulletin article on our website. The second trip was two weeks later. This time I went on a medical mission as a volunteer with Project Medishare, a program run by the University of Miami Medical School. Last spring I became an EMT (an emergency medical technician). While my medical credential is wafer-thin, it was enough to grant me access to this volunteer opportunity. The disaster destroyed much of Haiti’s medical infrastructure, not that there was so much of it to begin with. Project Medishare originally set up a tent hospital on the grounds of the Port au Prince airport just days after the earthquake. In June, the hospital’s operations were moved to the grounds of the Bernard Mevs Hospital, an already-existing local facility which previously had had more minimal resources. It is now the country’s only critical care and trauma hospital, with an operating room, emergency department, pediatric unit, rehab and physical therapy services, outpatient clinic, pharmacy and lab. Volunteers like me come for one week shifts. The volunteers are doctors, nurses, EMTs, physical therapists and pharmacists from all over the U.S. In my group, we were 23. There are also Haitian staff members – some doctors and nurses as well as translators, drivers, and housekeepers. The hospital is located in a residential slum neighborhood of Port au Prince, and is a campus-like arrangement of simple, one story buildings set around a central courtyard; it’s all separated from the surrounding neighborhood by a high wall and gate. I was assigned to the Emergency Department. We worked 12 hour shifts, either 7 am – 7 pm or 7 pm – 7 am. We were housed (co-ed) in bare bones rooms, 10 to a room, sleeping on Army cots. We kept our suitcases on the concrete floor under our cots and lived out of them. We’d been advised to bring our own food for the week, so we all had large bags of nonperishable provisions with us. No hot water, although the temperature was so high in July that most of the time the absence of hot water didn’t bother us. Plumbing, electricity, and sanitation were usually minimal, broken and/or in some state of disarray.


The hospital itself is certainly substandard by our definition. The ER, where I worked, the Med-Surg ward and ICU are all connected, essentially one large room. The ER has two beds, the Med-Surg has 9 and the ICU 4. All three areas are co-ed, and there’s no privacy for patients whatsoever. There was one screen for patient seclusion, but it often disappeared. So adult men and women lie in their beds with their injuries or illnesses exposed for all to see. Family members sleep on the floor or, sometimes, on the beds with the patients. Housekeeping is minimal, mess and disorganization considerable.


As far as what we all did there, the expectation was that you just jump right in and do what needs to be done. As an EMT, my scope of knowledge is pretty narrow, but I was forced to learn many new skills, most of them completely outside of what EMTs are trained to do - giving injections, wound care, drawing blood and so forth. Doing most of these tasks, I must confess, I was pretty petrified. More in my comfort zone was taking histories from patients, asking a lot of questions and listening to their stories. That I could do with more confidence. We saw everything in the ER – broken bones, gunshot wounds, lacerations, partial miscarriages, end-stage diseases of all sorts, home abortions gone bad, suicide attempts, a great deal of post traumatic stress disorder, chest pain, shortness of breath, panic attacks, dehydration, malnutrition, hepatitis, STDs and so forth. The most tragic thing to happen during my time in the ER was the probably preventable death of a two year-old boy who was being transported to our hospital from a clinic in his home town about 45 minutes away. Remember I mentioned the terrible conditions of the roads in Haiti? This child had had a breathing tube inserted in his throat, and he was in stable condition when he left home. But during transport, the ambulance carrying him to us hit a huge pothole. The impact was powerful enough to throw the medical staff accompanying him to the floor. More importantly, it dislodged the little boy’s breathing tube, and the staff with him couldn’t get it back in. When the child arrived, our whole American medical staff ran in and did everything they could for him, but by that time he had been without oxygen for too long, and so he died. I think we sometimes tell ourselves that because premature and preventable deaths are so commonplace in the developing world, the people there are more accepting of them, they don’t react to them as we would. It’s not true. That day in the emergency room, the little boy’s mother was there, and when she saw that the medical staff had stopped working on her child and realized that he was gone, she threw herself to the ground, screaming and banging her head on the floor. I hope that I will never again in my life have to witness something so excruciating.


In general, the Haitian people who came to the ER had virtually no access to primary or preventive health care. The following was a common intake interview. Someone would come to the ER and I would ask – through an interpreter – “What brings you here today?” A typical response would be, “I have stomach pain.” “OK,” I would say. “How long has your stomach been hurting you?” And then the answer – which never failed to jolt me no matter how many times I heard it - “Two years. My stomach has been hurting for two years.” “All right,” I would continue, “But what brings you here today specifically? Did your symptoms change or get worse today?” And the patient would say, “I came today because I could get a ride today.” We saw patients with longstanding and untreated sky-high blood pressures and others with advanced and now untreatable cancers. The American doctors and nurses would shake their heads and say, “In the U.S. we just don’t see this. These kinds of conditions don’t ever progress this far untreated.” Many of the patients dated their symptoms of chest pain, shortness of breath and anxiety to the earthquake. It quickly became clear to us that the earthquake was a marker – perhaps THE marker – in their lives. There was life before the earthquake and then life after it. “I was fine before the earthquake,” they would tell us. “Now, I am sick.” In the absence of any counseling services or a functioning mental health system, there was not too much we could do for these traumatized patients except listen to their stories and provide whatever consolation, reassurance and comfort that we could.


I want to tell you about Pediatrics. The Peds ward is a narrow, L-shaped room crowded with infants, kids and (mostly) mothers. Sometimes there were two children in a bed or an incubator. As elsewhere in the hospital, the moms either slept in bed with their children or on the floor. When it got really crowded, they would sleep outside on the ground. What was particularly shocking to me was the number of hydrocephalic toddlers who were at the hospital either waiting for or recovering from surgery. Here in the U.S., children with hydrocephalus (fluid which accumulates in the brain) immediately have shunts inserted which drain the fluid away. In Haiti, many young children get infections which go untreated. The infections lead to meningitis which leads to the hydrocephalus. In response to the intracranial pressure, the children’s skulls keep expanding and their brains are irrevocably damaged. At age 2 or 3 or 4, the kids had managed to get to the hospital to have inserted the shunts which would at least stop their heads from growing, although they would never go back to normal size. Their heads are enormous, and sometimes it seemed to me like we were on a planet where all the children looked like ET – huge heads atop rail-thin bodies. The mothers are all thin too, and it was heartbreaking to watch them struggling to hold their children whose heads were so terribly heavy. Although brain damage was already irreversible, the mothers wanted the shunts for the kids to at least make it a little easier to care for them. The pediatrics staff told the rest of us very moving stories about all the mothers in the unit. These women, who have virtually nothing (and are often very young and/or abandoned by fathers who couldn’t deal with the children’s medical difficulties), never left their kids’ bedsides. They also watched out for one another’s children to the point of sometimes alerting the staff to a change in someone else’s child’s condition! Most of the mothers had nothing to eat and nothing to wear other than the clothes on their back, and sometimes the peds staff would come around and ask us for food to give them. We did this in the ER too where children were sometimes brought in unconscious from a combination of heat, malnutrition and dehydration. We would run to our rooms, dig out the bags of food we’d brought from home, and when the kids came to we would simply feed them – our crackers with peanut butter or dried fruit or protein bars - and they would just eat and eat and eat. When we departed for home, we left behind all of our unused food, our sheets, towels, blankets, pillows, extra clothing and duffle bags in hope that these items would make some of the patients’ lives a little easier.


I came back from Haiti changed – permanently, I believe. Ripped away from me was the veil of denial that we all employ to keep out what often seems too painful to allow ourselves to feel and to know. I remain struck by two things that at first glance appear to be mutually exclusive: on one hand, the enormity of the need and a sometimes accompanying sense of hopelessness, and – on the other hand - an unshakeable conviction that even the smallest gestures matter. I am convinced that the fact that we can’t do everything everywhere does not mean that we shouldn’t do anything anywhere. I saw that listening respectfully to people’s stories, holding their hands, offering them food or a drink of water, treating them with the dignity and honor that their situations deserve, and wishing them well could be deeply meaningful acts capable of bringing a measure of repair to someone who is broken. But, of course, while such things are necessary, they are not sufficient. It is my hope and my plan to return to Haiti this coming year. If you are interested in helping, just outside the sanctuary doors there is information about respected organizations aiding the Haitian people. I went to Haiti for reasons that felt personally meaningful to me, just as everyone makes choices for reasons that feel meaningful to them. I can’t tell anyone else what to do; I can only tell you my story. But I think I can also talk about what I believe Judaism commands of us.


“I created you,” says God, “to be a light to the nations, to bring light where there is darkness, and to liberate the oppressed and bring the captive out of confinement. I created you to lift up the fallen, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry and redeem the oppressed.” That comes from the prophet Isaiah, written more than 2,500 years ago. Centuries later, the Roman Tinneius Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Which is greater, the actions of humans or the actions of God?” And Rabbi Akiva answered that the works of human beings are even greater than those of God. Akiva first showed Tinneius sheaves of wheat and then loaves of baked bread. The loaves are greater, Akiva explained. The wheat may have come from God, but the wheat is nothing, only unrealized potential, until it is made into something by human effort. And in our own day, Elie Wiesel - Nobel prize winner, renowned author, and Holocaust survivor - has said, “The road to God goes through you.” That’s worth saying again. “The road to God goes through you.”


We are the inheritors of a tradition that is unshakeable in its conviction that while feelings matter and are certainly important, feeling is not doing. So Judaism translates those feelings of empathy, concern and compassion into concrete, commanded acts: visiting the sick, comforting the mourners, offering hospitality, and so forth. We value education, of course, but education, as an end in itself, is incomplete. The story is told of the yeshiva student who came to his rebbe and boasted that he had gone through the Talmud five times. His rebbe responded, “But how many times has the message of the Talmud gone through you?” Asked where the Holy One lives, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk answered, “Wherever the Holy One is let in.” As we will read in our Torah service on Yom Kippur afternoon, holiness is played out in how we treat the vulnerable – the poor, the strangers, the ill or aged, or injured – as well as in the marketplace, in keeping just scales and honest weights, in feeding our animals before ourselves, in not keeping the wages of a hired servant overnight. Jewish holiness does not direct us to the study of esoteric books or the practice of ascetic religious behavior. The Talmud teaches that the first question we are going to be asked on the ultimate Day of Judgment will be, “Did you conduct your business honestly?” When the rebbe urged his disciples to think of God during the business day, several objected. “How can we think of matters of prayer in the midst of business?” they asked. “Why not?” the rebbe replied. “You manage to think of matters of business in the midst of prayer.” “Everything,” says Pirke Avot, Judaism’s principle ethical scripture, “Everything is measured according to deeds. Deeds, not feelings. Deeds, not intents. Deeds, not results.” When we confine our “religious” experiences to services in the sanctuary, then we miss the truly miraculous – the outstretched arms, the kind words, the chicken soup brought to the house of mourning, the smile to the stranger. There are people who spend their whole lives just trying to connect with God, to know God. In the book of Exodus, the Torah says that even Moses implored God, “Let me see your face.” And God tells Moses that Moses can’t be shown God’s face, only God’s back. Truthfully, I don’t think it really matters if it’s God’s face or back. If we want a glimpse of the closest thing that most of us are ever going to see of God, all we have to do is just look at our own hands. If you want to see God’s hands, well, they’re right in front of you, and there isn’t anyone here who doesn’t have them.


But, you may say, I’m not really religious, and I don’t think I believe in a God who commands anyone to do anything. That’s a legitimate position, and I wouldn’t argue with you if it’s yours. To you, I would simply quote the great jurist, Clarence Darrow, in his closing plea for mercy in a 1924 murder trial, because his words really capture the essence of this. Here is what Darrow told the judge: “My greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that…I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love. I was reading last night of the aspiration of the Persian poet, Omar-Khayyam. It appealed to me as the highest that I can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all. ‘So I be written in the Book of Love; I do not care about that Book above. Erase my name, or write it as you will. So I be written in the Book of Love.’”


When we work for justice, we bring redemption. When we work for dignity, decency and liberation, for health and healing, we are praying – each in our own way – for salvation. When we seek to express the better angels of our nature, the Messianic age comes just a little closer. As it is told in this story from our tradition: “As the holy man prayed, the crippled and the beggars and the beaten-down went by him. And seeing them, the holy man went into deep prayer and cried out, ‘Great God, how is it that a loving Creator like You can see such things and yet do nothing about them?’ And out of the long silence, God said, ‘I did do something about them. I made you.’”

Sights Set High!

John Dieubon sees the future…not just for the 29 children he’s responsible for in the Project Papillon orphanage…but for all of the children of Haiti and for the country itself.


The latest project John has undertaken is to create a community youth center, a place where children in the neighborhood can come to learn and to grow, to make friends and receive help.


The community youth center has a music academy where children are learning to play musical instruments and be part of a band; a computer lab where they will have instructors to teach them how to use the computers for homework and other purposes; and meeting and assembly rooms for religious services, workshops, classes, and gatherings of all kinds. John has hired a social worker to help the children as they continue to adjust to life after the earthquake. 


The center will have a cyber café, book store, and copy center that adults can pay to use, with the money going to center expenses; all services to the children are free of charge. 


Rabbi Tuffs applied for, and received, a grant from URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) to buy a generator for the center. The grant award was $12,000, which was used primarily for the generator, with money left over for other necessary items.


Hollywood CARES will continue to raise money and pursue donations of musical instruments and equipment.

 

To New and Exciting Experiences!

Welcome to our brand new blog. You can come here to read the latest news from Hollywood CARES, about Project Papillon, and Haiti. We hope you will comment…share your thoughts, your experiences, what you're doing in your community.

 

Our most recent trip to Haiti, from July 5-8, 2010, was very special, with members of URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) congregations from across the country joining us to work, to pray, and to learn. People who had never met before, 21 of us, getting to know each other and finding common ground – the desire to help others – on which to build new friendships and alliances. Email addresses were exchanged and when we came home, these new friends started communicating – sharing photos, ideas for future projects, donations. It has all been so exciting! I hope these new friends of mine will be among the first to write here.


One member of our group, Jackie Eshet of Temple Beth El, has already written about her experience and she’s given permission for her words to be published. What follows comes from Jackie.


I have been a member of Temple Beth El for years and although I’m not a particularly involved member, I do attend the High Holiday services and any service my daughter’s religious class is leading. It’s not a lot, but I pay my dues and show up when I should, or at least when I think I should. When the earthquake in Haiti happened I responded immediately. I knew the Temple sponsored an orphanage there, so I wrote my checks and raided my closet for donations. I did my part and my conscience was clear. However, even after the news coverage of Haiti had faded away, I kept wondering about how the country was managing.


Six months passed, the summer was upon us, and my children would be gone for four weeks. A vacation was definitely on my mind. Where should I go? The mountains, a spa, or a beautiful beach vacation? They all sounded good. Then I received an unexpected email from the Temple and after receiving that email, my plans suddenly changed. It turned out that I would not be planning any of the vacations I had had in mind; I would instead be joining the Temple and Hollywood CARES on their Mitzvah Work Mission to Haiti. I recruited my boyfriend and my sister. We booked our tickets (bought travel insurance just in case we lost our nerve), sent emails out to friends and family for donations, packed our fifty-pound bags, and headed for Haiti with a group of 21 people (aside from the Rabbi and trip organizer, Sharon Tanenhaus, I was one of only two Temple members on the trip).


I cannot even begin to describe to you how incredible an experience this trip to Haiti was. As a congregation, we should be incredibly proud of our Temple’s association with such a beautiful cause. Pastor John, who is the man that runs the orphanage, has such an amazing vision for his orphans, for the youths he mentors, and for the people of Haiti, that his dedication alone deserves our continued funding. The children are well taken care of, sweet, soft spoken, and simply delicious. I can’t wait to go back! Aside from the sadness of the obvious poverty, the extreme heat, and lack of running water, the Haitian people could certainly teach us all a thing or two about what it truly means to persevere. Be thankful for the simple things, and the next time you’re thinking about that vacation somewhere exotic, try stepping out of your comfort zone and joining the Temple on a Mitzvah Mission to Haiti. You’ll be glad you did!