Local Rabbi’s Life-Changing Visit to Dominican Republic

American rabbis are briefed on problems in the Dominican Republic by activists on a recent trip. Two rabbis from Massachusetts were part of the visit.
American rabbis are briefed on problems in the Dominican Republic by activists on a recent trip. Two rabbis from Massachusetts were part of the visit.

By Todd Feinburg

Published February 04, 2016, issue of February 04, 2016.

“The poverty in the slums of Santo Domingo is abhorrent and hard to actually believe,” said Rabbi Elyse Winick, “even as you’re walking through the neighborhoods and meeting the people who live there.”

Just back from a one week rabbinic delegation trip to the Dominican Republic sponsored by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), Rabbi Winick is percolating with excitement, appalled at what she witnessed, but inspired by the call to action it represents for her. “Our job was not to do something for each of those people, but we spent three days in deep learning about how this poverty came to be.”

Historically, the children of immigrants born in the Dominican were automatically granted citizenship until 2010. “There are only about 30 countries in the world that give birthright citizenship,” said Rabbi Winick, the United States included. “In 2010, the D.R. eliminated birthright citizenship for anyone moving forward, and in 2013 they enacted a series of laws that took it away.” The change retroactively rendered stateless those who had been living as citizens.

This created a “Catch 22” in which people don’t belong in their nation of birth and have no relationship to their ancestral homeland. “By revoking their citizenship, the Dominican government has created the largest population of “stateless” people in the Western Hemisphere,” according to the AJWS, and the organization sponsored the trip to help build pressure on our government to pressure the Dominican government to change its policies.

Schoolchildren in the batey, or ghetto, perform a dramatic recitation of what it means to be stateless in your own land.
Schoolchildren in the batey, or ghetto, perform a dramatic recitation of what it means to be stateless in your own land.

Why would they do such a thing? “If you really want to track back to what the motivation is,” argued Rabbi Winick, “if you look at the history of the Dominican, the motivation is racism.”

She is referring to an appalling moment in D.R. history when dictator Rafael Trujillo instigated the massacre of as many as 12,000 Haitian immigrants in 1937. “At the same time,” explained Rabbi Winick, “he tried to bring other people in from other nations in order to whiten and lighten the population of the Domincan Republic.”

Surprisingly, there’s a Jewish connection to Trujillo and the ethnic cleansing that she described. In 1938, President Roosevelt convened a meeting of 38 nations in France in order to build a coalition of countries prepared to welcome Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. Trujillo was the only leader to accept them. “He offered to take in 100,000 Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, not because he was so generous, but because the Jewish community would pay him to take them, and because they were white, so they would intermarry and help to render the country more white,” explained Rabbi Winick.

Other explanations include an attempt to dampen potential repercussions over the massacre the year before.

A Jewish group formed and financed the Dominican Republic Settlement Associa­tion, which bought land and brought agriculture experts from Kibbutzim to teach the settlers to run a communal farm. But due to the difficulty of crossing the Atlantic during wartime, very few refugees made the trip. By the time Germany stopped allowing Jews to leave in 1941, only 500 had resettled there.

A slum in Santa Domingo, known as a batey.
A slum in Santa Domingo, known as a batey.

“It’s astonishing that in 2015 we can still be looking at the results of what happened in the 20s and 30s and that that kind of racism is so deeply seated in the country,” Rabbi Winick said.

She was one of two rabbis from Massachusetts and 10 nationally who traveled as part of AJWS’s Global Justice Fellowship trip.

“This was my first opportunity to be involved in a justice mission,” said Rabbi Winick, the Jewish chaplain at Brandeis University. “I came to it in many ways because, with Brandeis as an institution that really focuses on social justice, I realized I was teaching about it, but I wasn’t actually doing it myself.”

Winick was clearly impacted by what she saw, and what she learned. “Our experience in the Dominican was incredibly powerful,” she said. “It was an opportunity to learn, really, just how broken the world is and what possibilities there are for something to do.”

AJWS describes itself as “the first and only Jewish organization dedicated solely to ending poverty and promoting human rights.” It is active in 19 countries. “We view standing up for the stranger as one of the most Jewish things one can do… and that is what our work is about,” said Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS, in written comments.



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