The global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees
Founded in 1881 originally to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) has touched the life of nearly every Jewish family in America and now welcomes all who have fled persecution.
The 2017 Roger E. Joseph Prize was presented to HIAS, the Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, at the Ordination Ceremonies of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on Sunday, May 7, 2017 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue at 65th Street, New York City. The Joseph Prize was accepted by Mark Hetfield, President and CEO, HIAS.
The Foundation of HIAS
Beginning with a storefront on the Lower East Side in New York City, HIAS provided meals, transportation, jobs, housing, comfort and aid to thousands of Jews fleeing waves of anti-Semitic riots. While those who arrived were refugees from homelands where their people were being killed, the world at that time did not yet have a legal concept for people who needed safe refuge outside their countries of origin.
HIAS established a bureau on Ellis Island in 1904 providing translation services, guiding immigrants through medical screenings, located relatives and of detained immigrants and arguing before the Boards of Special Enquiry to prevent deportations, and obtaining bonds to guarantee employable status. It loaned the $25 landing fee and sold railroad tickets at reduced rates to those headed for other cities, while its kosher kitchen provided more than half a million meals to new arrivals.
The outbreak of World War I brought the largest influx of Jews from Eastern Europe yet – more than 138,000 in that year alone. But soon after, restrictions limited the number of immigrants allowed into America to no more than 2 per cent of the total of each nationality residing in the U.S. in 1890, severely restricting the entry of Jews from Eastern Europe. The restrictive National Origins Quota of 1924 prevented most Jews seeking to escape from Nazi persecution to immigrate to the U.S., but HIAS provided immigration and refugee services to those few who were allowed to enter this country. It was not until 1965, through the aggressive work of HIAS, that the National Origins Quota was replaced with a new law, liberalizing decades of restrictive admissions policies. After the war, HIAS was instrumental in evacuating the displaced persons camps in Europe and aiding in the resettlement of over 150,000 survivors of the Holocaust to 330 communities in the U.S., as well as Canada, Australia, and South America.
HIAS in the postwar years
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention, became the basis for U.S. asylum law, giving HIAS the basis for all future work to assist refugees no matter where they were. In 1956 HIAS assisted Jews fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary and evacuated the Jewish community of Egypt after their expulsion during the Sinai Campaign. In 1959 HIAS set up operations in Miami to rescue the Jews fleeing Cuba’s revolution. During the 1960s, HIAS rescued Jews from Algeria and Libya and arranged with Morocco's King Hassan for the evacuation of his country's huge Jewish community. In 1968 HIAS came to the aid of Czechoslovakia's Jews after the suppression of the Prague Spring and to Poland's Jews after pogroms racked that country.
In 1977 HIAS helped evacuate the Jews of Ethiopia, which culminated in several dramatic airlifts to Israel. In 1979, when the overthrow of the Shah precipitated a slow but steady trickle of Jews escaping the oppressive theocracy of Iran, HIAS helped hundreds of Iranian Jews with close family living in the U.S. resettle here. The Jews of the former Soviet Union found their way to freedom with the help of HIAS. The first wave of immigration peaked in 1979. The second wave, which began in the late 1980s, has so far brought more than 140,000 Jews to these shores for reunification with their relatives. The U.S. Congress created a special refugee status for religious minorities from the Former Soviet Union, which now allows for resettlement of Jews, Christians, and Baha’is from Iran.
HIAS’s reach has had an impact beyond world Jewry. In 1975, following the fall of Saigon, when the State Department requested HIAS's assistance with the resettlement of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, HIAS found new homes for 3,600 in 150 communities in 38 states and continued to assist refugees from Southeast Asia through 1979. When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 threw the entire U.S. immigration system into turmoil, HIAS mobilized its network to continue serving refugees, despite extreme delays in the arrival process brought on by increased security measures and the reorganization of the Immigration and Naturalization Service into the Department of Homeland Security.
HIAS expands its work to help all refugees
Starting in the 2000s, HIAS expanded its resettlement work in the aftermath of conflicts to include assistance to non-Jewish refugees from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Hungary, Iran, Morocco, Poland, Romania, Tunisia, Vietnam, and the successor states to the former Soviet Union. In 2002 HIAS established operations in Kenya to provide protection to refugees from several African countries plagued by conflict, to advocate on their behalf, and to resettle the most vulnerable. This was the beginning of HIAS’s work to build safe communities for refugees in the countries of first refuge where the majority now remain indefinitely. HIAS continues to be on the front lines, working with refugees in camps and cities from Kenya to Ecuador. HIAS facilitates the application process for the most vulnerable refugees who can be resettled in countries around the world, and it works with local social service organizations throughout the U.S. to welcome refugees and help them integrate into their communities and build new lives.
Now in its 136th year, HIAS is the only Jewish organization whose mission is to assist refugees wherever they are. It has helped more than 4.5 million people escape persecution, reunite families, and build new lives in freedom. It is uniquely qualified to address the contemporary refugee situation, which has mushroomed into a global humanitarian crisis. The right to refuge is a universal human right and HIAS is dedicated to providing welcome, safety, and freedom to refugees of all faiths and ethnicities from all over the world.
The acceptance speech for the 2017 Roger E. Joseph Prize by Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS, at the Ordination Ceremonies of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
You can hear Mark Hetfield's speech here [select the video of the New York Ordination; the speech begins at the 34-minute mark]
HIAS was founded in the 19th century here in New York City as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in order to ensure that refugees who were fleeing the Pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe would be welcome to the United States. HIAS was to make sure that the immigration authorities at Castle Garden and, later, Ellis Island, did not turn these refugees – who were fleeing a genocide – back to countries where they would be totally unprotected.
One world war, two million Jewish refugees and 40 years later, in 1921, the United States Congress enacted the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. This legislation, which set severely discriminatory country-by-country limits on immigration, slammed the door on refugees and immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. It was essentially a “Jewish and Catholic ban.” Not banning all Catholic and Jews, but severely restricting immigration from those countries which had been the largest sources of Jewish and Catholic immigration.
In the words of Congressman Albert Johnson, who chaired the House Immigration Committee in those days, a large number of Jews were “unassimilable” and “filthy un-American” Jews prone to “radicalism. And bolshevism.” Never mind that the Jewish families coming to this country were refugees who, by definition, were fleeing terror, not seeking to bring terror to this country.
HIAS and the American Jewish community fought for decades – through the Nuremberg laws, through kristalnacht, through the Second World War and the Holocaust – to re-open America’s doors to refugees. This was a slow and painful process, which finally culminated in the Refugee Act of 1980. Today, under the authority of that Act, HIAS is one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies – and the only Jewish one – that works in partnership with the United States government to welcome refugees to the Unites States. HIAS does this in partnership with Jewish family service agencies and other local partners across the country. We are also working in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Europe to ensure the safety and dignity of refugees in those places. Today, around half of the thousands of refugees assisted by HIAS each year are Muslim. Over the past decade, only a couple of hundred our clients each year are Jewish.
And it is because of our concern for all refugees, that HIAS was the only one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies to file suit against the Trump Administration’s January 27 and March 6 refugee and muslim-majority country refugee bans. The courts ruled in our favor on March 15, but the appeal will be heard tomorrow. Pray for us and for the refugees whom we serve.
There are some critics who say that HIAS has betrayed its mission. The Jewish newspaper in one community recently stated in an editorial – “We believe Jews must look out for Jews. If HIAS chooses to resettle refugees and take Jews out of the equation, then acknowledge that and remove its Hebrew veneer. Immigrant Aid Society has a fine ring to it.”
I am happy to say, however, that this view is a minority view. HIAS is doing the same work that we have done for over 130 years, which makes us the oldest refugee agency in the world. The only difference is that HIAS used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish, and today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.
It would be enough for us to say that the work of HIAS is as “Jewish” as ever because welcoming the stranger and loving the stranger as ourselves – because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt – is repeated as a commandment 36 times in the Torah. Dayenu.
It would be enough for us to say that the work of HIAS is as “Jewish” as ever because the Jewish refugee experience did not end with the escape from Mitzrayim, but has happened over and over and over again through many centuries of Jewish history. Dayenu.
It would be enough for us to say that the work of HIAS is as “Jewish” as ever because the American Jewish community owes its very existence to those times in its history when America opened its doors to refugees. Dayenu.
And it would be enough for us to say that the work of HIAS is as “Jewish” as ever because this year, over 2000 rabbis from over 48 states signed our statement urging that the United States keep its doors open to refugees. I do not mind telling this crowd that, while rabbis from all movements of Judaism signed this commitment, no movement was better represented than the Reform movement.
Now that you are all ordained rabbis – mazel tov – I hope you will join us in standing up for the Jewishness of welcoming refugees. I hope you too will sign that statement, join the HIAS welcome campaign for refugees, and continue to stand with us. HIAS and our advocacy for refugees is only as strong as the community that stands behind us, and you will all now leaders of that community.
The Roger E. Joseph Prize is awarded to honor those who have fought for the causes of human rights and Jewish survival. As I’ve said, welcoming refugees is about both human rights and Jewish survival – the history of the Jewish people is the history of a refugee people – a people who would no longer exist had their ancestors not found refuge.
In fact, it is worth noting that the first recipient of the Joseph Prize in 1978 was Victor Kugler, who gave refuge to Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam when they could find asylum no place else.
I actually have a copy of the Frank family refugee file, as they were HIAS clients who were desperately trying to get visas to come to the United States whom HIAS tried to help but could not because they were trapped inside a genocide. Kugler tried to give the Frank family what HIAS could not give them and what the United States would not give them.
And last year, in 2016, the Joseph Prize the award was given posthumously to Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia. These recipients of the Joseph Prize, and many other recipients in between, have demonstrated just how Jewish it is to welcome and stand up for the human rights of refugees.
I will end by recalling the question that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, asked in his keynote address to the Union of Jewish Communities General Assembly in 2016: "What is the more Jewish Act – welcoming the Sabbath bride, or the refugee from Darfur who has fled persecution?"
HIAS looks forward to working with all of you to welcome both. Once again, mazel tov.
Above left: Mark Hetfield, HIAS CEO, visiting Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota to view the Roger E. Joseph Prize plaque hanging in Joseph Hall
Left: Mark Hetfield, Ellen Joseph, and Robert Aronson (HIAS board member)