I was pleased that Agudah very quickly sent out a message pointing people to suitable agencies to which to donate. (I was frankly horrified that they included Oxfam, the virulently anti-Israel NGO. More suitable agencies are not in short supply.) It was understandable that Agudah did not mount a campaign of their own – they do not have a website. The OU does have one, and within a short period of time it had put a donation mechanism in place. Funds collected will go directly to the American Joint Distribution Center, which has already helped defray the cost of the Israeli relief mission. This is where I made my donation.

To a large extent, charitable giving in times of catastrophe is related to feelings of commonality. As of this writing, contributions in the US are ahead of those after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, despite the much higher death toll then. Haiti is America’s neighbor, and Americans therefore feel more of a bond.

For frum Jews with scores of needs competing for our tzedakah funds – some of them life-threatening – the issue is more complicated. I have nothing to say to those who could be completely indifferent to human suffering. ורחמיו על כל מעשיו.
Anyone who is not moved by the pictures of pain and privation cannot be a decent human being, let alone a decent Jew. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Hath not a Haitian eyes? hath not a Haitian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as any other person is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?”

Beyond the necessary heart-felt compassion, I believe that our response will show how well our minds have internalized the notion of Tzlelem Elokim. There are few ties between ourselves and Haitians – despite Haiti’s welcoming Jews fleeing from Hitler, and its voting the right way during the UN partition vote in 1947 that allowed the creation of the Jewish State. We still see Haiti as primitive country, the poorest in the Western hemisphere. We regard it as lawless and chaotic, not a place we would even want to visit. Its culture does not impact upon ours; there are few, if any, shared interests and experiences. If we take Tzelem Elokim seriously, however, we have all the commonality we need to have.

From Haiti there are stories that point to that tzelem. Stories of people in this poorest of places opening the homes that still stand to strangers. People working around the clock with simple implements, and with their bare hands, responding to the cries of strangers, and staving off sleep in order to try to free them from the rubble.

As a group, we throw the concept of Tzelem Elokim around pretty liberally when we want to show off the Jewish contribution to world civilization, or militate against pulling the plug on end-term patients. How we react to what is happening in these crucial days – with our minds as well as our hearts – says a good deal about how much of what we talk about we really believe.

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12 Responses

  1. lev midaber says:

    Please be aware – I followed the link provided to the OU site and it is not verified secure. I’m sure identity thieves are hoping to prey on all the goodwill towards Haiti. OU should either secure the site or provide means of donating via their local offices.

  2. dr. bill says:

    a relatively complete/precise overview of the halakhic and hashkafic response to Haiti is on YU Torah; search under Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz. I heard the drasha in shul yesterday and I assume it is the same.

  3. Rabbi Chaim Frazer says:

    The local radio newscasts in Metropolitan New York have mentioned grass roots by Agudat Yisrael in Brooklyn to raise funds and provide support for Haiti and Haitians during this horrific travail.

    In the newscasts that I have heard, 2 principal motivations are cited: the provision of thousands of visas to rescue European Jews during the days of Hitler (may his memory be obliterated), and the fact that tens of thousands of Haitian Americans live peacefully as neighbors with Orthodox Jews.

    The first motivation is rooted in Hakarat HaTov, a key Jewish value, and the second springs from recognition of the Tzelem Elokim common to all humanity.

    All in all, a good blend.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “For frum Jews with scores of needs competing for our tzedakah funds – some of them life-threatening – the issue is more complicated”

    – Try reading this though the eyes of a non frum Jew or a non Jew. Hint: would they agree with that which we take as a dovor poshut that our competing causes present more of a challenge than theirs?

    [YA – the complication is not whether we should give, but in what amount. And yes, I think they do understand that people who give routinely to many causes can’t be expected to come up with the same amounts as those who don’t.]

  5. Reb Yid says:

    To #3:

    So what if Haiti had not yet been formed as a nation in 1947 (or even if it had voted against partition, or abstained)? What if Orthodox Jews had no regular contact with Haitians?

    Tzelem Elokim is just that….it’s not dependent on those other factors. They are human beings who are in dire need of everyone’s assistance.

  6. mb says:

    The Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has issued a special prayer for the victims of the Haiti earthquake, a disaster which is thought to have killed more than 200,000 people.

    He has distributed the prayer to all synagogues to be said this Shabbat and has urged the Jewish community to become involved in fundraising for the stricken country.

    The Chief Rabbi said he was “deeply distressed at the tragic loss of life and damage suffered by the people of Haiti.”

    He added: “It has been estimated that every single family on the island has lost either a family member or a close friend.

    “Not only are they dealing with the shock, anguish and physical danger that the earthquake itself brought, but are having to cope with the challenge to survive at a time when the infrastructure around them is destroyed.”


    Adon ha-olamim
    Sovereign of the universe,

    We join our prayers to the prayers of others throughout the world, for the victims of the earthquake which brought destruction and disaster to Haiti and took so many lives.

    Almighty God, we beseech you, send comfort to the bereaved, and healing to the injured.

    Be with those who are engaged in the work of rescue. Grant strength to those who see to the needs of the injured and sick, give shelter to the homeless, and who provide sustenance to those in need.

    Almighty God, we recognise how insignificant we are, and how helpless in the face of nature when its full power is unleashed.

    Open our hearts in prayer and our hands in generosity, so that by our actions we may bring comfort, healing and support.

    Help us now and all humanity as we seek to do what we can by helping people reconstruct their broken lives.

    Ken Yehi Ratzon, ve-nomar.

  7. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    The Chabad Shliach in Dominican Republic, on the same island as Haiti has launched a major effort on the ground.

  8. L. Oberstein says:

    ורחמיו על כל מעשיו
    I completely agree that we have to have mercy on all of Hashem’s creatures and frequently wonder why so many of my fellow orthodox Jews seem to have hardened their hearts and closed their minds to social legislation to help the needy. If there is one group that seems indifferent to the plight of the under-class in this country, it is the orthodox . This group which many of you identify with have thrown in your lot with the moneyed classes who think that the poor are poor because they are stupid and lazy. Many are against goverment help, except when they can collect. So, while I share your concern for Haiti, the earliest of the “failed states”, I would like to see the same concern for the needs of Americans of the same hue.

  9. Ori says:

    L. Oberstein, you’re implicitly assuming that social legislation would achieve its goals, and help the needy. The people who object to this legislation often do so out of disbelief in its effectiveness, rather than its goals.

    Moderators, do you want us to debate the effectiveness of social legislation (taxing Peter to raise Paul out of poverty), or do you think such a sociological discussion is too far away from the purpose of this site?

    [M – Thanks for asking! It’s not too far from the purpose of the site if it retains a Jewish character – but it is too far from the theme of this posting!]

  10. One Christian's perspective says:

    Thank you for posting the prayer of The Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks for God’s mercy and grace for the situation in Haiti. It says it all.

  11. Sammy Finkelman says:

    Agudah had no experience or preparation for something like this and so their liost of charities was just taken off the top of a list from somewhere else. That’s why Oxfam would wind upo on it.

    There is a large Haitian community in Spring Valley, New York – that is the explanation about neighbors – plus Crown Heights.

    [YA – I spoke with Agudah. They did their homework. They were aware of the charges against Oxfam, but were satisfied by the strong Oxfam denails as well, and decided that this was good enough under the circumstances.]

  12. Ori says:

    Haiti has been a disaster area long before the earthquake. This brings a halachic question: is the obligation to help greater in the case of acute(1) problems, or chronic problems?

    For example, imagine two homeless people. One has been homeless for five years. Another got his house foreclosed last week. All other things being equal, which of the two should I help?

    (1) In the medical meaning of the term, a problem that is new and likely to be of short duration – as opposed to chronic problems that are ongoing.

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