The Early Years

From humble beginnings in a storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the agency provided much-needed comfort and aid to thousands of new arrivals to these shores. It soon became famous worldwide - and in many languages - as HIAS, the abbreviation that was its first cable address.

In the 1880s, waves of pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) engulfed the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, a calculated policy of anti-Semitism became the law of the land in the Pale. Suddenly those living in the heartland of the Jewish population were struck with a passion to emigrate.


In New York City, the tiny Russian Jewish population took note as their numbers swelled by the thousands. As an emergency measure, they formed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to provide meals, transportation and jobs for the new arrivals to Manhattan. To temporarily house those without relatives, a shelter was established on the Lower East Side. In 1889, under the auspices of Eastern European Jews, this shelter adopted the name of the Hebrew Sheltering House Association. Dormitory space, a soup kitchen and clothing were made available to any needy Jew.

In 1891, Jewish residents of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev were expelled and many came to America. Ellis Island was the place of entry for these new arrivals. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was there to facilitate legal entry, reception and immediate care for them. In the half-century following its establishment in 1904, the Society's bureau on Ellis Island helped more than 100,000 Jews who might otherwise have been turned away. The bureau provided translation services, guided immigrants through medical screening and other procedures, argued before the Boards of Special Enquiry to prevent deportations, lent some needy Jews the $25 landing fee and obtained bonds for others guaranteeing their employable status.


The Society also spent a great deal of effort searching for the relatives of detained immigrants in order to secure the necessary affidavits of support guaranteeing that the immigrants would not become public charges. By 1917, the activities of the bureau illustrated the importance of this location service; of 900 immigrants detained during one month, 600 were held because they had neither money nor friends to claim them. Through advertising and other methods, the Society was able to locate relatives for the vast majority of detainees, who in a short time were released from Ellis Island.

Many of the Jews traveling in steerage on the steamship lines across the Atlantic refused the non-kosher food served on their journeys and arrived at Ellis Island malnourished and vulnerable to deportation on medical grounds. In 1911, the Society had a kosher kitchen installed at the Island. Between 1925 and 1952, HIAS' kosher kitchen provided more than half a million meals to immigrants; in the peak year, 1940, 85,794 meals were served. The Society also provided religious services and musical concerts at Ellis Island. It ran an employment bureau and sold railroad tickets at reduced rates to immigrants headed for other cities.

In 1909, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society merged with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association and had became universally known as HIAS. By 1914, HIAS had branches in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and an office in Washington, D.C.