Israel and Haiti

by Frederick D. Strober
Rodeph Shalom President

When I was 25, I wound up in a unique place, doing my best to help. In October, 1973, I visited Israel for the first time. I was staying with an aunt in Jerusalem, scheduled to return home after the High Holidays, and experiencing a Yom Kippur morning literally without a car on the road. Suddenly, sirens started wailing and cars quickly began to appear—at noon on Yom Kippur! The Yom Kippur War had begun and I got to see a country mobilize in a matter of hours. It was controlled chaos, and I was amazed how calm the Israelis stayed as hundreds of young men raced to collection points and sped away in army vehicles. It’s a day I’ll never forget.

The men were away at war and the kibbutzim needed workers to finish the harvest. Once the actual fighting ended, my plans laid aside, I headed to Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, in the far north, to do what I could to help.

I stayed for seven months, learned enough Hebrew to get by, worked where needed during the day and taught youngster basketball when school was out. And I learned how remarkable a people the Israelis are. There was a guest house at the kibbutz which the army used for R & R, and one of the things that struck me was how calm and mature the soldiers were. Here were guys my age, even younger, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, many with stories of brutal battle just two months behind them, but they kept their humor and gave you all the confidence in the world that Israel was safe during their watch. Their brashness came through, but so did their tenderness, and for all their poking fun at me for my American ways, they were genuinely pleased that someone would take the time to help—and more than one of them told me that they wish they could have the same opportunity one day.

I was mesmerized by Israeli resourcefulness, how the kibbutzniks could make anything work, and I realized that there was nothing but greatness ahead for them and their country. And this was before computers. It’s come as no surprise to me, then, that once the digital age dawned, these very same people, and now their children, would create some of the most advance technologies in the world and are now recognized as international leaders in the most sophisticated industries. Pick up (or download on your Kindle) a copy of Dan Senor’s “Start-Up Nation,” and you’ll simultaneously be proud and amazed at how far the Israelis have come at creating new systems that are changing the world.

After you’ve read the book, it will come as no surprise to you that it was the Israelis who were the first to land in Haiti, and the first to set up a fully-operational field hospital. You may have seen the news reports. While other countries were giving lip service to giving aid or were struggling to bring people and supplies into the country, the Israelis were treating hundreds of triage patients, taking computerized pictures, establishing electronic medical records and communicating by satellite with hospitals back home. It was an awesome achievement, conducted with that same calm, poise and determination in a crisis that I saw first hand 37 years ago.

As I watched the TV news interviews of Israeli doctors, I thought of my time on the kibbutz and what some of the kibbutniks had told me. Now, they were certainly getting their chance to help others—and what a job they were doing. It was with typical Israeli resourcefulness, skill and compassion, and I’m sure that a tear came to your eye when one of the doctors said, “When we get to save one life, we save the world.” As with all people, we have to marvel at what the Israeli team brought to Haiti during those dark hours—and as Jews, we have every reason to be especially proud of how this tiny nation showed the world what tikkun olam is all about.

The Israeli story is now about more than biblical heritage and a young nation’s fight for survival. It’s about how a maturing nation built on Jewish principles and a lot of chutzpah is able to show the world how to use your talents to help others, and it is this example that we should hold up to our children of why Israel is so important to all of us.