Washington Jewish Week / March 3, 2010
By Larry Luxner
Not a single Jew lives among the 170,000 inhabitants of Petit-Goâve, Haiti, nor among the 20,000 or so refugees from Port-au-Prince who have crowded into the town since the magnitude-7.0 earthquake leveled Haiti's capital on Jan. 12.
But Jews will definitely be among those helping to bring Petit-Goâve back to life.
On Feb. 16, Temple Rodef Shalom of Falls Church, Va., formed a partnership with a charity run by Lola Poisson, wife of Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the United States. And on Mar. 11, Washington Hebrew Congregation will host the diplomatic couple for a fundraiser aimed at rebuilding the ravaged town located 42 miles west of Port-au-Prince.
"The last time I visited Petit-Goâve, after the hurricanes, it was so bad I didn't know how people were living there," Poisson told WJW. "I haven't been back since the earthquake, but the town will have to be rebuilt completely. It will be in the millions of dollars."
Even before the quake that devastated Port-au-Prince and its environs, Petit-Goâve was an impoverished town still struggling to recover from the four tropical storms and hurricanes that had wrecked its homes and flooded its crops back in 2008.
But the Jan. 12 quake wrought utter destruction on the town and ripped apart its most famous landmark, the 300-year-old Our Lady of Assumption Catholic church. And if that wasn't enough, eight days later an aftershock registering 5.9 shook the earth — its epicenter located almost directly under Petit-Goâve.
Michael Shochet, cantor at Rodef Shalom, told WJW he wants to help Poisson, but that his shul can't do it alone.
"Our hope is to work with one of the larger organizations in the community, such as the Union for Reform Judaism or the Federation here in Washington, or the American Jewish World Services," said the cantor. "One small congregation is not going to be able to raise a significant amount of money, but the Reform movement has raised a huge amount for Haiti relief and hasn't allocated all the funds yet. That's what we need."
Poisson was scheduled to fly to Haiti earlier this week with her longtime friend, Riva Levinson, a Rodef Shalom member and international consultant whose firm has done extensive work in Haiti over the years.
"I am going to be working on reconstructing the church and the school we had been working with before, and start some kind of community center for women and children where they'll have everything they need," Poisson explained. "I don't really know what to expect. At this point, everybody needs housing. Shelter is the most important thing."
International aid organizations estimate that in Petit-Goâve, about 1,000 people died in the quake and its aftershocks — a tiny fraction of the 230,000 or so Haitians killed by the disaster. About half the town's buildings lay in ruins, including dozens of schools, radio stations and churches.
Poisson has been involved with Petit-Goâve since January 2009 through her Section 501(c)(3) charity, Children & Families Global Development Fund Inc. She hopes to raise "substantial funds" for the town's reconstruction during next week's gala dinner, through the sale of tickets at $125 each.
The program, to be emceed by anchorwoman Maureen Bunyon of WJLA-TV, includes a welcome by Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation; remarks by Ambassador Joseph and Brad Horowitz, CEO of Trilogy International Partners, and a keynote speech by Archbishop Barney Auza, the papal nuncio of Haiti. There will also be a concert of traditional Haitian music, a live auction and an awards ceremony.
"I want Petit-Goâve to be a model city for Haiti," Poisson told WJW. "At all levels I would like it to be well-organized and well-planned. Usually there is a big difference between haves and have-nots because we have no social welfare system in Haiti. We have to work with each and every individual."
Levinson, managing director of KRL International, has worked in emerging markets throughout Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, including a 10-year stint in Angola during that country's horrendous civil war. One of her most important clients is Trilogy, which owns Voila — a major provider of cellphone service in Haiti.
She said her objective for the quake-ravaged nation was to adopt a specific project in a specific town, to ensure that those involved would be in it for the long run.
"Through my work in Haiti, I knew Ray and Lola, and wanted to connect them to the Jewish community. We picked Petit-Goâve at Lola's suggestion, because she thought it was in tremendous need," Levinson explained. "The town hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but it's the kind of place where a little bit of effort by the Jewish community can make a big difference. What you don't want to do is be so ambitious in your objectives that you're not able to see the fruits of your labor."