In the wake of anarchy, violence and looting taking rein in isolated pockets across the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, calls poured in from all corners for a Dominican Republic rabbi, whose web of contacts among local governments, foreign missions and American suppliers gave him a unique ability to push shipments through.

From S. Domingo, just hours, and a world away, from the destruction on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shimon Pelman said that troops, doctors and diplomats from Israel, Mexico, South Africa and France, had all requested help in obtaining food and medical supplies. If they went hungry, they stressed, no one could be helped.

Adding to the strain was the breakdown of order in Port-au-Prince, where an impoverished populace was cracking under the strain of a lack of food, water and medicine. Less than five days after the Jan. 12 earthquake sent hospitals, hotels and government agencies crumbling to the ground, a stench of death hung low over densely populated neighborhoods and shantytowns. Predictions from several sources indicated that casualties could eventually top 200,000 lives lost.

Pelman, the Israeli-born director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Dominican Republic, spent Friday in Port-au-Prince, compiling requests from United Nations personnel and members of the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command that had arrived that morning at the capital’s small airport.

“You can see it in their eyes,” Pelman said of survivors. “They’re thankful for surviving, but life has become a nightmare for them.

“People are dying in the streets waiting for medicine,” he added. “Everyone is trying to help, but more supplies are desperately needed.”

A Bolivian soldier under the command of the United Nations in Port-au-Prince briefs Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shimon Pelman on earthquake relief efforts. (Photo: Marc Asnin/
A Bolivian soldier under the command of the United Nations in Port-au-Prince briefs Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shimon Pelman on earthquake relief efforts. (Photo: Marc Asnin/

Heartbreaking Scenes

After the close of Shabbat Saturday night, he and his wife Michal Pelman, and two rabbinical students who were dispatched from New York to help during the tragedy, prepared boxes of hot meals and sent them with an Israeli convoy travelling across rugged terrain to a field hospital in Port-au-Prince. The rabbi also arranged for a local bakery to prepare bread for foreign military forces in Haiti, including an Israeli delegation that numbers in excess of 220 personnel and is comprised of K-9 search-and-rescue units, a medical team and support staff.

Sunday morning, the rabbi was working the phones to secure warehouses to support the effort.

He said that his journey to Haiti on Friday was sobering. What he saw among the lucky survivors who managed to obtain shelter at a tent set up outside the half-destroyed U.N. headquarters, he explained, was heartbreaking.

“People are waiting for something to happen,” he said. “They have no food, no water, no medicine.”

Foreign volunteers and troops in the city, said Pelman, were headstrong in trying to overcome the many obstacles presented in one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory. Among his contacts in Port-au-Prince was Maj. Shaul Offen, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi and representative of the IDF chaplain’s office who flew in Friday morning.

“Their mood is very strong,” said Pelman. “They know what they need to do, and they want to help. They’re very serious in how they’re going about things.”

After consulting with members of his 300 family-strong Jewish community in S. Domingo, and Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, the Puerto Rico-based director of Chabad of the Caribbean, Pelman said that he will be dispatching a truck of supplies for the Haitian people each day. He said that a U.N. convoy would provide the necessary protection.

“Everyone I meet wants to help,” said Pelman, who set up a relief fund and Web site to keep people apprised of developments. “But very few people actually have an appreciation for what’s going on in Haiti. The best way for people to help is to support aid agencies that will ensure resources are directed to the proper places.”