Jewish Groups Rally for Haitian Communities


When a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti’s southern peninsula on Aug. 14, leveling buildings, reducing some areas to rubble and killing hundreds, Jewish organizations local and abroad responded with helping hands to Haitian communities.

The Merow Family Mitzvah Food Pantry at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park serves around 165 Haitian families in the area monthly through weekly food distributions, according to Brian Gralnick, director of social responsibility at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The Jewish Federation provides much of the pantry’s logistical and financial support and staffing.

When last month’s earthquake, as well as previous earthquakes, hit Haiti, MFP didn’t see an influx in households, but rather an increase in those who want to stay and chat about their families back home for a while.

“We’re a friendly face that they see on an every-week basis,” pantry co-manager Stuart Warsetsky said.

As of 2016, there are about 8,800 first-generation Haitian immigrants in Philadelphia, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, and Haitian households make up the majority of the 280 households the MFP serves every month. As a result, MFP prioritizes cultural competency in its service.

JDC partned with the Afya Foundation to pack and deliver medical supplies to a hospital in Aquin, Haiti. | Courtesy of Michael Gellar

Sarrah Cesar, one of MFP’s volunteers, is Haitian and speaks Haitian Creole. She began working at the pantry for a class she was taking at Temple University this spring but continued volunteering over the summer. In addition to serving as a translator for the Haitian clients and MFP volunteers, Cesar would ask the Haitian people questions about themselves and their families, building deeper connections. 

“Even though they were getting help [with food], it was a way to talk to them more, to see what else they needed help with,” Cesar said.

After the earthquake, some clients were asking for extra food to send along with clothes and toiletries to relatives impacted by the disaster, or who might just need a little help, Cesar said. Cesar’s family sends those care packages to her family in Haiti twice a year.

Since beginning to volunteer at MFP four months ago, Cesar has encountered familiar faces — people she’s befriended who come into the pantry often.

“People that we know would come all the time; they would just say hi and talk, ask how we were. Then they were on their way, and it was just a fun thing to be able to have that,” Cesar said.

Alongside MFP, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Pennsylvania has helped to assist the population.

Though HIAS Pennsylvania helps MFP by providing additional translators, it is MFP that provides groceries to many of its Haitian clients who are eligible and waiting for immigration benefits, such as asylum or temporary protective status, but cannot access public benefits in the meantime.

“The Mitzvah Food Pantry always provides what they provide with compassion and understanding,” said Carolyn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania.

And in Haiti, Jewish organizations are assisting locals.

The Joint Distribution Committee partnered with the local Haitian organization Afya Foundation to distribute 2,500 pounds of medical supplies, such as IV starters, sutures, gloves, masks, face shields and clean linens, to hospitals in Aquin the day after the earthquake. 

JDC also partnered with Heart to Heart International to deploy a medical team in the area, which treated more than 500 patients. Even after the immediate impact of the earthquake dissipates, JDC will continue to partner with Prodev Haiti, which provides housing and ongoing medical care.

JDC is guided by the Jewish principles of arevut, or mutual responsibility, and tikkun olam, repairing the world, but aims to take these ideas a step further.

“Repairing the world is not about a Band-Aid,” JDC Director of Media Relations Michael Geller said. “Repairing the world is about mending and making stronger. And that’s really what we focus on.”

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