Haiti Jews tell tales of earthquake destruction in 2010

For over 500 years a small Jewish Community from Lebanon, Brazil, Syria and Egypt has been in Haiti.

Each year on Yom Kippur Rudolf Dana locks himself in his Petionville , Haiti home – protected by guard dogs and security personnel and passes the Day of Atonement fasting, praying and reciting the traditional liturgy of repentance and forgiveness.  Up until 10 years ago, Haiti’s tiny Jewish community would gather in a home on Yom Kippur and pray alongside a video recording of a Yom Kippur service that Dana’s brother in law, a cantor at  a New Jersey Synagogue had mailed to him. But in recent years, the community has become too small and disjointed to warrant even such modest holiday gatherings.  When the catastrophic , 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook Haiti on January 12 2010 Dana happened to be in Miami on business.  In the days since the quake – which levelled much of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas including Petionville.  Dana 61, who owns a propane distribution company, had been on the phone and internet around the clock, trying to make contact with friends and his nearly 500 employees.
Most but not all of the people who work for survived the quake, but many of them lost loved ones. Dana says hundreds of his friends and acquaintances died in the disaster.  “Some were in the supermarket; some where in schools; some where in universities; some were in banks,” he said.

Those who survived are, for the most part, homeless. Their homes have been either reduced to rubble or, like Dana’s house, suffered major structural damage, rendering them unsafe.  The more fortunate Haitians are living out of their cars, and the less fortunate ones are sleeping outside on tarps.  All of the hotels and churches and places that people could gather have been destroyed, he said. It is  not like one is good, and the others are down; They are all down or could collapse at any time. There is no more city.  Dana has been in touch , via the Internet – an enabled satellite phone that he kept in his Port-au-Prince office, with many of his employees, who have managed to set up a makeshift office, outside of the badly damaged building that housed his company.

These days, they are not dealing in propane, but in rice, beans and cooking oil.   Dana said he managed through his business connections, to get a shipment of food staples, and that his company has been distributing meals- cooked with firewood to some 300 people camped out near the office park.  Dana said that he is not sure when he will return to the country where his grandparents settled at the turn of the 20th century, and where he was born and has lived for most of his life.

Dana’s deep Haitian roots are part of the country’s long Jewish history.

Back in 1492, Luis de Torres, Christopher Columbus’s interpreter, was the fist know Jew to step foot on what is now Haiti.  Brazilian immigrants of Jewish ancestry settled there in the 17th century, though many perished in the slave revolts at the turn of the 19th century that ultimately established Haiti’s independence from France.

Then came a small wave of Jewish immigration to Haiti from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt – the influx that brought Dana’s grandparents – during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Many of these Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants made a living importing and selling textiles, and they sent their children to the local Catholic schools.

The islands’s Jews were joined during the 1930’s by about 100 European Jews who came to Haiti fleeing from the Nazis.  The Haitian Jewish Community peaked mid-century at about 300 members, many of whom left for larger, more established Jewish communities in the United States, Argentina and Panama. Archeologists have also found evidence of a Crypto –Jewish , or Marrano community that once existed in the western Haitian city of J’amie.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s , Jews who grew up in and around Port-au- Prince
remember how the community would import matzah for Passover and would gather together , 50 to 60 people strong for the High Holy Day services. “ Services were held in one of the largest homes;  men sat in the front and women sat in the back,” said Vivianne Esses, 76, who lived with her family in P’tionville until she was 13, before moving to Bogata Columbia and later to Brooklyn New York.  In Jamie, where Marie Mizrahi grew up in the 1940’ and 1950’s , hers was one of only a couple of Jewish families in town.  Although she and her family were not very observant, they managed to observe Jewish traditions and never ate shrimp or pork. Both Esses and  Mizrahi fondly recalled the sweetness of Haiti’s mangoes, the fruit that remains one of the country’s main exports.

Today, Haiti – a country of 9 million people, where the dominant religions are Catholicism and Vodou – has an estimated 25 Jews. Most of them live in Petionville, a relatively affluent enclave situated in the hills above Port – au – Prince. Some of the country’s Jews are among the wealthiest residents of the island nation, where about 80% of people live in poverty.

Haiti has no rabbi and no synagogue. Dana cannot remember the last time local Jews were able to gather a minyan.  There is a Torah, which is kept in the home of Dana’s cousin, Gilbert Bigio, the
Haitian business magnate with interests in the steel, telecommunications, banking petroleum and food sectors.  One of Haiti’s wealthiest citizens and the de facto leader of the island’s Jewish community, Bigio owns the land on which Israel,  after the quake, set up its military field hospital. said Amos Radian, who is Israel’s honorary consul of Haiti, and  was in Florida at the time of the earthquake.  The ambassador had received word that the Bigio family had survived the earthquake.  But because nearly all forms of electronic communication were down, it took more than a day to locate him.

Radian said that the Bigio family had been the key to their success in opening the hospital just hours after the Israeli army team’s January 15th  arrival in 2010.  Haiti and Israel maintain full diplomatic relations. Radian said that , during the 1960’s and 1970’s , Israel ‘s international development organization, Mashav, was active in creating “special farms” in Haiti, and teaching locals about sustainable agricultural practices, such as the use of drip irrigation and greenhouses.  Kenneth Ades, 41, a Jew, who resided in Haiti as a child, said his father, a writer and real estate investor who lived in P”tionville until his death in 2005, had his own plan for improving Haiti’s agriculture, legal system and general infrastructure. He was very patriotic about Haiti and had a blueprint to bring Haiti back but it was going to cost $6billion. That was before the earthquake.