Times wins science fiction Pulitzer for story on Hasidim who give money to schwarzes

January 21, 2010

In News

Published: January 20, 2010

Susan Stava for The New York Times

Spring Valley Village Hall sits in a drab strip mall along with Angel Nails, the Family Dollar discount store, the Caribbean Village restaurant and other modest businesses in this Rockland County village, which has a mix of Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews, Latinos and blacks. Haitians make up roughly half the population of more than 25,000.

So in terms of demographics, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the scene at Village Hall on Tuesday, with bearded Hasidic men in their long black coats and a largely black crowd of workers and volunteers scurrying around the lobby, which was filled with boxes of medicine, cotton balls and crutches, big black suitcases and an air of incessant activity.

Still, disaster makes strange bedfellows. Hence the cast of characters in a community where the melting pot usually melts only so far and the Hasidim and the Haitians invariably find themselves in separate worlds or competing ones. Nevertheless, for a day, there was the Haitian mayor, Noramie F. Jasmin, and her Hasidic administrative assistant, Aron Wieder, directing traffic inside the cavernous lobby, the urgency of the moment looming larger than the cultural chasm that usually separates them.

“I would say there’s no hate, but there’s no interaction,” said Lazer Gross, a retired businessman who was one of a group of Hasidic men who helped provide money to send a team of 25 people from Spring Valley to Haiti on Wednesday. “We have different lifestyles and cultures. But the willingness is there. We don’t have to be in a fighting mode, where the attitude is ‘Whatever you do for me is no good and whatever I do for you is no good.’ I think that’s changing.”

This village is hardly alone in its flurry of Haitian relief efforts, but given its Haitian population, it’s not surprising that it has become an extraordinary example. Largely through the efforts of the Ramapo Haitian Task Force, a local aid group, and Jean Elie Porchette, 29, a car salesman and computer technician, the crew of nurses, firefighters and other volunteers flew to Chicago on Tuesday and from there to Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. The village’s Jews came up with the money to fly the team members from New York to Chicago and put them up for a night. There are already plans for more missions, the next including local doctors.

“When you watch on television, you just feel paralyzed; I just felt I had to be there,” said one team member, Barbara Augustin, an emergency room nurse at Nyack Hospital who moved to the United States from Haiti 10 years ago at 19. “I can’t sleep, thinking about what’s going on. So it will be very difficult there, but my biggest fear would be not being able to do anything.”

A friend and a fellow nurse, Esaie Sainclair, is Kenyan, but she wanted to go too. Ms. Sainclair said she had gone on church relief missions to Kenya, but nothing comparable to this. “I think for most of us it’s just a human heart reaching out to anyone who hurts,” she said.

As the day wore on, people kept coming — three Haitian friends of Mr. Porchette’s from Massachusetts General Hospital and Vincent Hosang, a Jamaican, who drove up in his Royal Caribbean Bakery truck carrying 150 cartons of rice, beans, sugar, sardines and other food. David Bowlby, who is in the stucco business in Guilford, Conn., and travels regularly to Haiti with his Feed Them Ministries, which helps feed more than 4,000 children daily, said he hoped that something positive could come out of such suffering. “Disaster brings people together,” he said. “Haiti had nothing to offer the world — no gold, no oil, nothing of monetary value. Now at least it has the world’s attention.”

Bringing Haitians and Hasidim together for the long haul here will take more than one disaster far away. They are often at odds over Hasidic control of the school board in a district where the Jews send their children to yeshivas. There are frequent battles over zoning and density and development, and very few opportunities to share each other’s largely private, very religious and often ritualized cultures. Still, about two dozen Orthodox and Haitian civic leaders came together on Tuesday for the first time in recent memory to plot relief strategy at Eli’s Bagels in Spring Valley.

“God bless Haiti. God bless the world. We must unite,” Mr. Porchette said in praising the team going off to Haiti. For a moment, at least, everyone in the room seemed to be on exactly the same page.