Lessons From Haiti: Rebuilding After Destruction

Many an article has been written by the Jewish community about how it could be that Gd allows for  tragedies to happen to seemingly undeserving people, especially people who have already suffered so much, like the victims of the recent 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti.

The quick answer from Jews who believe in Gd is usually something like this: We don’t know, but we do know that Gd is just.  Baruch dayan ha emet.

What is a little easier to figure out is what we can learn from tragedy, from disappointment, from setback and from failure.  Thank Gd, neither myself nor my family are directly harmed by the Haitian earthquake, and because of that, it’s easier for me to wax a little philosophical.  For those more directly affected, I’m sure it could seem a bit heartless to say: “Well, let’s just learn some lessons and move on.”

I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal about rebuilding after natural disaster.  Overall, the article concludes, the destructive fires in large cities such as Lisbon, Portugal, London and Boston, provided the impetus and the opportunity to reinvent the city.

“With the right intervention, catastrophes presented extraordinary opportunities to make improvements.”

I’m not going to go so far as to say that something like Hurricane Katrina or this earthquake is something we’re going to look back on in 50 years and say, “Hey, wasn’t that great?,” but disasters really can be a catalyst for growth.

When I think back upon some of the things that have been most difficult in my life (which I’m not particularly interested in making public knowledge) I realize in retrospect that they were tremendous opportunities for growth.  Character-building experiences, you might say.

Gd judges us based on the way that we handle His tests.  We shouldn’t necessarily ask for them, but when they do arrive, we should welcome them as opportunities for change and for growth.

The poverty in Haiti is not new.  I recall reading articles two years ago about its residents being so poor and hungry that they literally ate dirt.  Sometimes a horrendous wake up call is necessary before action is taken.

L’havdil, it’s a completely different situation that may not be appropriate to compare, but Aliyah is also an opportunity for rebuilding.  The process has not always been easy, but it has certainly been my biggest opportunity to reinvent myself.  In starting over anew, I’ve been figuring out how to adjust my career path to life in Israel.  Currently, that means working several writing and editing jobs.  One of the first regular gigs I picked up was doing work for the natural pain relief website, Dancing With Pain.  I applied for the job both because it provided a professional opportunity that was flexible enough for a demanding class schedule and because I was inspired by the story of its founder, Loolwa Khazzoom, who transformed a series of debilitating physical setbacks into an opportunity to help herself and others.

Keeping an open mind toward seeing the opportunities for growth, for improvisation and innovation, stemming from obstacles we have overcome can help us find our mission in this world.  I believe that challenges I have overcome and struggles that I still face are tailor-made to helping my achieve my life’s purpose.

A small, practical example, that is easy to explain is an experience I had back in 2000.  I got a stress fracture in my ankle right before a trip to Italy.  Poor me, right? Trip to Italy?  The truth was, actually, that I was pretty excited to hop around on crutches, because I’m an active person.  However, it does get exhausting pretty quickly, and it was about 100°F or more during the day in Rome.  Part of the time my father pushed me in a wheelchair, but that was impassible in many of the city’s stairways and cobblestone roads.  That brief experience with being disabled (and only partially at that) got me thinking.  What do wheelchair-bound people do?

That question bothered me in many other places I traveled, including Chile, where I did a study abroad program.  For the independent study component, I did an investigative project on handicap accessibility, and I am considering making that an area of policy research.

Just as big a question as “Why do bad things happen to good people,” is “What on earth am I here for?”  Perhaps they can be answered together.  It’s not a natural inclination for most people, but the healthiest way to deal with a setback is to use it as an opportunity to help others.

It is upsetting to hear the stories and to see the footage from the disaster in Haiti, but it’s also heartwarming to see the flow of support.  My hope is that this tragedy can turn into an opportunity for Haitians to break free from the cycle of poverty and dependency and that we, too, have the strength to rebuild.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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