By Kim S. Geringer
Lo alecha ha-m’lachah ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’habateil mimenah ...,
“You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it …” (Pirkei Avot, chapter 2)
When I stepped off the plane in Port au Prince in July, I knew I was back in Haiti from the air; it smelled like burning garbage. It was my third time there in two years; twice volunteering with Hollywood Cares—a joint project of a south Florida Reform synagogue and a Presbyterian church—and once working in a hospital ER. (I am an EMT.) This past summer I went again with Hollywood Cares, which has supported the work of Pastor John Dieubon since 2005. John is an extraordinary man who founded and directs an orphanage, a community center, and a church in Haiti. He and his staff are feeding, clothing, educating, and loving twenty-nine children, a third of whom are HIV positive. It’s impossible to reliably ship anything to Haiti (corruption is the main reason), so when my colleagues and I go, we pack very lightly for ourselves and then bring enormous suitcases full of new clothing, school supplies, and personal items. Sometimes the group does physical labor there, as we did on my first trip when we helped to repair buildings damaged in the 2010 earthquake.
When I am in Haiti, I think to myself, “This is hell on earth,” and when I come back I say to people, “I don’t have words to adequately describe it.” It wasn’t the earthquake, as terrible as that was, that made things the way they are there. Port au Prince, the capitol city, has no sewer system for its three million residents. Other than a few main thoroughfares, the roads are broken or simply never paved. There is essentially no means for dealing with trash. With nowhere to put it, people just throw it in the street or burn it. As a result, the air quality is awful, a serious public health problem, particularly for children. Because the city is on the coastline, there are many canals and inlets that could be pretty but are mostly just massive trash pits. Public electrical service is spotty to nonexistent. For reliable power, a generator is a must.
Many people live in little more than shacks with no air conditioning or fresh air. They spend the daytime hours out on the street selling what look like the same products to each other—fruit, shoes, toys, clothing, batteries, and charcoal. There are no street signs, traffic lights, directional signs, or crosswalks. The orphanage kids live in houses without electricity or running water. Their furniture consists of bunk beds and a few broken-down couches. Water has to be purchased from entrepreneurs who bring it around in huge trucks, hence the vast quantity of plastic bottles thrown away and lying around, flattened or partially burned. Without street lights, this capitol city is dark at night except for a few candles or kerosene lamps. When I am in Haiti, I am acutely aware of and grateful for the plane ticket and passport in my bag; I know that I don’t have to stay.
In the midst of all this, there are extraordinary people. Pastor John is one. On my most recent trip, I also met Romel Joseph, a blind, Juilliard-trained violinist. His academic and music school of almost twenty years was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, while he himself was buried in rubble for eighteen hours and his wife was killed. He is trying to rebuild.
I am in awe of John and Romel and others like them; I think they define the word “nobility.” But I wonder—would I be so noble? Would I be like them, trying to rebuild my country? Or would I just want to flee as so many Haitians who can manage to leave do? The problems there seem insurmountable. I am compelled to go to Haiti, in part, because I fear that being a rabbi, part of my job is preaching to other people about how they should live; this makes it a little too easy for me to do nothing but talk or send the occasional check. I have no illusions about my contribution, which seems like a teaspoon in the ocean. Nevertheless, there are twenty-nine children there who are being educated and loved. They have the dignity of wearing clean, new clothing. Their futures are not over before they begin. For years at Jewish camps I cheerfully sang “Lo alecha ha-m’lachah ligmor…” but I didn’t really get it. Haiti is where “Lo alecha …” meets its match.
Rabbi Kim S. Geringer is a member of the faculty at HUC-JIR in New York and is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Ha Yam in Barnegat, New Jersey.