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Opening Hearts, Wallets For Haitians
Jewish community here, in outpouring of care, pitches in after quake.
Staff Writer
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At a Jewish Y on Long Island, Jewish employees take up a collection for the families in Haiti of two maintenance men. In Brooklyn, members of the haredi Orthodox community hold a historic meeting with representatives of the borough’s Haitian-Americans. In southern Florida, a former New Yorker travels to Haiti on short notice to help the relatives of his Haitian-born employees.

Since a devastating 7.0 tremor rocked the Caribbean island last week, leveling much of the capital and taking a total of lives that may exceed 100,000, a cross-section of Jewish institutions and Jewish individuals have offered their financial and moral support to residents of the already indigent nation. Help has come in prayers and hugs, sermons and fundraisers.

Opening their wallets and hearts, Jews have reached out to strangers in Haiti and to fellow New Yorkers of Haitian descent.

“Jews understand what it is to experience suffering,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, which is arranging new partnerships between local synagogues and Haitian houses of worship.

Many Jewish organizations — including the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the National Council of Young Israel, Agudath Israel of America, and the haredi Hamodia newspaper — advised members about worthy charitable recipients spearheading the relief effort, while such organizations as the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism established their own relief funds.

At the Suffolk Y in Commack, an e-mail informed staff members that two members of the maintenance department have Haitian connections: one is Haitian, the other, married to a Haitian woman. A collection for the workers’ kin back in Haiti raised more than $450 in a few days.

At New York University and at a performance space in lower Manhattan, fundraising and consciousness-raising events were scheduled for this Tuesday evening, sponsored, respectively, by NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In Brooklyn, Jewish community leaders, many representing the haredi Orthodox community, met with local elected officials who represent the largest Haitian community in the United States outside of Florida. The Jewish leaders presented the Haitians with satellite phones and computers for contacting relatives in Haiti.

And in Hollywood, Fla., New York native Marc Eisenmann headed to Haiti the morning after the earthquake with nebulous plans. During a few hectic days there, Eisenmann, who has an emergency medical technician background, worked with rescue crews and helped save the life of a 5-year-old boy.

These Jewish activities are part of a general outpouring of support for Haiti in the last week.

“You and I must play an active part” in helping Haiti, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side said in an e-mail message to congregants. “We cannot enjoy life here in the New York metropolitan area without sharing our possessions with human beings who are created in God’s image and who are so desperately in need of assistance.” Kehilath Jeshurun’s Benevolent Fund (ckj.org/pay) has established a separate Haiti Relief account, Rabbi Lookstein said.

“Our core values and belief in tzedakah, justice and tikkun olam, repairing the world, demand that we come together to bring light and hope to a people who have endured far too much,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. “We are reminded yet again that there are moments when being a citizen of this earth erases all borders and boundaries — geographic, ethnic and religious. When a disaster of this magnitude takes place, we all want to respond.”

UJA-Federation, as part of the most comprehensive Jewish community response to an overseas tragedy since the deadly 2004 tsunami near southeast Asia, created its own Haiti Relief Fund ([212] 836-1486; www.twitter.com/ujafedny), and supported the efforts of the Israeli relief team of medical, search-and-rescue and post-trauma personnel. UJA-Federation’s fund had raised nearly $250,000 by early this week, Ruskay said.

Through their local synagogues and New York-based national institutions, the major branches of Judaism encouraged members to make contributions to organizations helping the quake’s survivors and victims.

“Jews are rachmonim, empathetic people, and so we feel for the suffering of others,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella haredi organization. “It is only natural that Jews should want to do something to try to ease the suffering of survivors of natural disasters.”

In an e-mail notice, the New York Board of Rabbis alerted its clergy members to the work of the Afya Foundation (afyafoundation.org), which is sending “critical relief supplies” — including 300 mattresses donated by Jewish Home Lifecare in Manhattan — to Haiti. Trustees of Jewish Home Lifecare donated $5,000 from the institution’s Fund for the Aged to the American Red Cross, while staff members and residents have conducted Red Cross fundraising drives.

Other examples of Jewish involvement: the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement has sent two emissaries to Haiti to lend spiritual assistance, Moishe’s Moving (moishes.com) is accepting Haiti-bound packages at its New York locations and 130 teens in Westchester’s J-Teen mitzvah group spent Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, sorting medical supplies to be sent to Haiti.

Marci Sherman, associate executive director of the Suffolk Y, coordinated an impromptu fundraising collection for Lucas Louissaint, a Haitian-born maintenance worker, and Dave Hyatt, assistant director of buildings and grounds, whose wife is from Haiti.

Both Y employees’ relatives in Haiti emerged unscathed from the earthquake. Within days, Y staffers contributed $454.60, a large amount considering the limited time available for the drive and the economic situation of fellow workers still hurting from the recession, Sherman said.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “People feel the need to help.”

Each maintenance worker this week received an envelope with cash, each getting half the total raised. “I was shocked,” Hyatt said. “It shows love — brotherly love. We’re all one family.” He in turn gave his share to Louissaint. “He needs it more than me,” Hyatt said — Louissaint’s family’s home suffered more damage.

Tuesday’s relief-effort planning session at NYU’s Bronfman Center was planned as part of the larger, campus-wide response to the earthquake, and the JDC fundraising event the same evening at SOBs, a performance space on Varick Street that usually features Haitian and other Caribbean music, was to include an update on the situation in Haiti, an open bar and music by a local Haitian band. SOBs donated its space and personnel for the night, and the Haitian musicians donated their time; proceeds from the event go to JDC’s emergency disaster-relief work in Haiti.

The SOBs event was the first such activity here under the aegis of JDC’s Next Generation and Services Initiatives, said Sarah Eisenman, director. The group is geared to young members of the Jewish community.

Daniel Eckstein, who works in wealth management and served on the JDC event’s host committee, helped spread word to his circle of friends through e-mails and Facebook postings. He said he became involved because “it’s really about coming together as young Jews to show solidarity” with people in need.

Workmen’s Circle and New Yiddish Repertory will be the main sponsors of a three-hour fundraising concert on Thursday, Jan. 28 at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. Proceeds from the event, which will feature music “from klezmer to hip hop” and include such prominent performers as Soulfarm and Neshama Carlebach, will go to the American Jewish World Service’s Haiti relief effort. There will be a minimum $18 admission fee. For information: (212) 866-8090 (ext. 12); kathym@circle.org.

Chaskel Bennett, a local community representative of Agudath Israel and a board member of the national group, called last week’s meeting with local Haitian politicians, attended by officials of Jewish organizations in several Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods that have substantial Haitian populations, “an opportunity for the Orthodox community ... to reach out to our neighbors ... in a show of friendship and solidarity.”

Under the leadership of state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Jewish-Haitian coalition was formed last week, Bennett said. “Other offers of food and clothing have been made by generous members of the Jewish community and will be reviewed and implemented upon the need and request of the local Haitian leadership,” he said.

Marc Eisenmann, a Manhattan native who for six years has lived in Florida, where he owns an assisted-living facility, decided to go to Haiti the morning after the earthquake struck.

A veteran member of the Hatzolah emergency ambulance service, he planned to lend his medical expertise and find the relatives of his facility’s many Haitian employees.

With no prior contacts in Haiti, with a bagful of kosher challah rolls, accompanied by a Haitian-born staff member, he flew, on a one-way ticket, to the neighboring Dominican Republic, planning to stay until early this week.

The pair found a ride to the border, in a four-hour drive, in the back of an ambulance. Using his “street smarts,” he talked his way across the border, paid a Haitian guide $350 for the hour’s ride to Port-au-Prince, found a room in a still-intact hotel occupied by CNN employees and volunteered to rescue trapped people around the city. He pulled people out of buildings, perilously crawled under collapsed structures and offered basic first aid to the injured as well as comfort to parents whose children were beyond help.

Then Eisenmann met Gancci Saintellus, the 5-year-old son of his hotel’s desk clerk. The child’s arm was mangled; gangrene was setting in. He needed advanced medical care or would die within half a day.

Eisesmann heard that some planes were leaving the Port-au-Prince airport. At the airport, on the tarmac, hoping to get Gancci on a plane going somewhere where proper treatment was available, he talked himself, the child and the child’s father, Olgan, onto an empty Sky King Airlines 373 bound for Miami. The Saintelluses had no passports, no credentials for entering the U.S.

En route, the pilot arranged for an ambulance to meet the plane at the airport. Eisenmann, dressed in EMS garb, throwing out medical terms, convinced immigration authorities to let father and son enter the country.

Gannci’s right arm was amputated two hours later at Holtz Children’s Hospital, but he’s alive.

Eisenmann, who had slept three hours during the previous two days, caught a few hours of rest at home, then returned to the hospital, accompanied by one of his children, to visit the recuperating youngster on Friday, before Shabbat.

Now, Eisenmann, who is active in Hollywood’s Orthodox community and whose children attend the city’s Brauser Maimonides Academy day school, is working to bring the rest of the Saintellus family — mother and two daughters, all Mormons — to Miami. When the child is discharged from the hospital, he and his father will stay with the Eisenmanns.

Was Eisenmann scared at anytime during his time in Haiti?

“I questioned my sanity,” he answers.

But, Eisenmann adds, he felt he had no choice. “You have to have a heart,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than apathy.” n

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

01/26/2010 - 16:49

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