The first official representatives of the North American Jewish community to travel to Haiti since the catastrophic earthquake, David Sherman, Chairman, and Steven B. Nasatir, President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago have just completed a 36-hour fact-finding mission to the devastated island nation. The purpose of the visit was to assess the impact of assistance already provided by the Jewish community, and to begin to assess areas where the community can continue to help alleviate Haiti's dire situation.
On Tuesday they had an hour-long debriefing with Haiti’s President Rene Preval and first lady Elisabeth Preval, and toured Haitian relief work with Amos Radian, Israel's Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and Honorary Consul General of Israel to Haiti Gilbert Bigio.
In their warm meeting with President Preval, Sherman and Nasatir expressed "the American Jewish community's support for Haiti, and our admiration for their courage in dealing with the adversity," Nasatir said. After presenting the President with a tzedaka box, Nasatir and Sherman explained that tzedaka is an opportunity for righteous action… "and as a matter of fact the President then made a contribution."
|Haiti’s President Rene Preval, right, meets with Jewish Federation President Steven B. Nasatir and Chairman David Sherman (seated).|
They then discussed what Nasatir described as "a very important project of education and welfare that we hope to help happen here, one that will cement further the friendship of the State of Israel with Haiti and the American Jewish community with the people of Haiti." Details of that project will soon be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Nasatir and Sherman toured two schools run by JDC, a Federation overseas beneficiary, where he saw education is the key to Haiti's future, as well as the Haitian people's appreciation of the generosity of the American Jewish community and Israel.
"Just to see these smiling faces of young children back in school, in a setting with Jewish signs on the wall, makes me feel so proud to be part of our community," Sherman said. "Prior to the earthquake many kids were not in school to begin with, so some of these children now have the opportunity to attend school for the first time in their lives. I can't help but notice how much can be done with so little resources."
Chicago Jewish Leaders Meet with Haiti's President
Chicago Federation Chairman David Sherman and President Steve Nasatir had an hour-long debriefing with Haitian President Rene Preval and First Lady Preval, accompanied by Amos Radian, Israel's ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and Honorary Consul General of Israel to Haiti Gilbert Bigio. Listen to their report from the field.
"What also becomes clear is the long-term importance of education," Nasatir said. "If there's anything positive that could emerge from this disaster. perhaps it's the reconfiguration of education in this country.... It is clear that for a different future, the education of children is key."
Wherever they went, Sherman and Nasatir noted trauma and destruction that they described as "overwhelming." The counterpoint to that, they said, was the work of so many trying to do their best in impossible circumstances.
"Then you meet the young women working on behalf of IsraAID and I cannot help but think, these folks are just angels working in such a difficult and deadly environment. I feel proud to be part of a community that cares about repairing the world," Sherman said.
"I feel proud and privileged saying that we represent Jews of America," Nasatir said. "People here understand the involvement and contribution and the energy that we and our partner organizations have brought to the rebuilding of Haiti. There is a special quality that we Jews and Israel bring to situations like this, and it’s clear that significant numbers of citizens of Haiti, at least from anecdotal information, seem to understand that. Whether it’s standing in front of a second-grade classroom or speaking directly with president or the prime minister, that's a theme that’s very strong and important."
During their visit Nasatir and Sherman described the confidence instilled by the work of organizations that are being funded by the Federation's Earthquake Relief Fund.
"Our confidence was definitely justified; the projects we saw and the people we met are of the standard and the quality that makes JUF so credible," Nasatir said. "Clearly there is no one organization, no one fund, no one government that can solve all of Haiti’s problems. But, we can carefully choose to take on initiatives.... Our suggestion is that the investment should be made in connection with education initiatives; that is the long term key for this country to get back on its feet."
As they were departing Haiti, Nasatir summed up the impact of the experience.
"We saw people living in conditions that no humans should have to live under, and we are talking about 1 to 2 million people living in makeshift tents.... It is certainly not something that any of us can stand idly by and tolerate. We often talk about the role of the Jewish people in helping repair the world. This clearly is a part of the world that is in need of repair and in our small but important way we will continue to do what we can to help the people of Haiti," he said.
Listen to reports from the field (report one, report two, report three, report four) by Sherman and Nasatir as they visit some of the humanitarian programs run by IsraAID and JDC, supported through Chicago’s Jewish Federation Earthquake Relief Fund, which continues to accept donations. The Jewish Federation has taken a lead role in Haitian diaster relief.
Sherman and Nasatir were in Haiti representing both the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Jewish Federations of North America. Nasatir wrote eloquently about the situation in Haiti, and how the Jewish community and Israel have responded, in an op-ed piece published in the Jan. 30 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times.