As day broke on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, surviving victims of Haiti’s worst earthquake in more than 200 years struggled to make their way out of the wreckage and the devastated nation. At the same time, rescue crews in the neighboring Dominican Republic and based in ships anchored off Port au Prince’s coast continued their headlong rush in.
With little information to go on except for television and online news dispatches, those in the Dominican capital of S. Domingo, spared the death and destruction that wreaked havoc on the Haitian populace, resolved to cross the border to better ascertain what help was needed.
“Everybody is seeing the same pictures on the TV, and they’re not changing,” said Rabbi Shimon Pelman, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Dominican Republic. “It’s been one full day of crisis and nobody really knows what’s going on.”
In cooperation with Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, the Puerto Rico-based director of Chabad of the Caribbean, Pelman has been preparing kosher food shipments for the handful of Jewish residents in Haiti, Israeli aid workers and anyone else who needs. Zarchi, meanwhile, has been updating the public on the relief efforts via a Web page hosted by both his and Pelman’s Chabad Houses.
(People can donate to that effort by clicking here.)
All told, a coalition of Jewish organizations have launched emergency fundraising campaigns, including the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the American Jewish World Service, the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith Canada.
News reports following the massive 7.0-magnitude Jan. 12 earthquake painted a grim picture of the devastation, which included the collapse of Port au Prince’s presidential palace, parliament, at least one hospital, several schools and a prison. Government officials spoke in terms of thousands of people lost, before qualifying that there really was no way to tell.
“Let’s say that it’s too early to give a number,” Haitian President René Préval told The Associated Press.
Both Pelman and Israeli news media indicated that all except for one Israeli known to have been in Haiti had been accounted for. A team from the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command arrived in S. Domingo on Wednesday.
Haiti’s Jewish community had a long history dating back until the late 15th century, and remained strong until political unrest plunged the country to the brink of economic ruin.
Contemporary accounts determined that the first Jew to settle on the island was Luis de Torres, who arrived in 1492 as a Converso interpreter for Christopher Columbus. After the French conquest of Hispaniola in 1633, many Dutch Jews emigrated from Brazil the following year. In 1683, Jews were expelled by the French, but returned more than half a century later. They were expelled once more during the revolt of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and were replaced by Polish Jews fleeing civil strife in Europe.
In 1937, the local government issued passports and visas to approximately 100 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe.
At its peak, the community numbered approximately 300 people, but today some 25 remain, primarily in the capital.
Pelman said that since the earthquake, he’s been keeping in touch with the local community, either through the spotty communications or through the Israeli foreign ministry and family members abroad. He planned to head into Haiti later on Thursday.
“I spoke with the father of a family who said his son and daughter were safe, thank G‑d,” said the rabbi. “Now, they’re trying to leave. Meanwhile, I’m on my way in to help with the recovery efforts.”