For American Jews who give generously to charity, there is often an inner struggle: How much should they support other Jews, and how much should they give to causes in the wider world? The response to the tragedy befalling Haiti demonstrates the wisdom of turning that binary dilemma from an “either/or” question to a “both/and” affirmation.
The two main Jewish organizations already in Haiti before it was devastated by the January 12 earthquake — and which no doubt will be there after the cameras and celebrities have left — illustrate both approaches. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has for nearly a century responded to crises within the Jewish world. With few Jews, Haiti was not on its map; the JDC had trained its efforts on neighboring Dominican Republic, which was a haven for Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
But when Hurricane Gustav slammed into the island in 2008, the JDC extended its help, developing relationships with organizations on the ground in Haiti that proved immediately useful in responding to this epic disaster.
The other model is illustrated by the American Jewish World Service, which for 25 years has worked to pursue justice and alleviate poverty and hunger around the globe, regardless of nationality, race or religion. As the poorest nation in the hemisphere, Haiti has been the recipient of AJWS’s attention for years; 10 grassroots organizations there receive its direct support.
One of those organizations advocates for Dominico-Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. As Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS, recalled: “On the day of the earthquake, they called us from the D.R. and said we have three trucks loaded up, ready to go to Haiti. Where shall we go?” Suddenly the people who were being helped were ready to help others, and AJWS was able to direct them to needy recipients.
This is why it is so essential to create and maintain relationships with those closest to genuine need, and not pretend that meaningful assistance can be purchased by good intentions alone. And it is why the Jewish community — an extraordinarily generous community, during this tragedy and many others — must work together, to use Jewish dollars as wisely as possible. The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, organized by JDC and comprised of many of our community’s largest national organizations, is now accepting donations and will collectively decide how to best spend that money.
“The tremors of the earth seem to strike a chord in the collective Jewish heart,” said the JDC’s Amir Shaviv. And that chord says: We don’t have to choose between supporting Jews and non-Jews. We can, and should, do both.