America's Oldest Immigrant Rescue and Resettlement Agency Turns 125

Posted on Wed, Nov 01, 2006 at 12:59 pm

(New York City )– On Nov. 27, HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, turned 125. HIAS was founded in 1881, the year of the Russian pogroms and also the first year of the Jewish mass emigration from Eastern Europe.

“For 125 years, we have derived our mission from the teaching Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze ba Ze (all Jews are responsible, one for the other), the Torah’s injunction to welcome the stranger and the essential principle of Pidyyon Shevuyim (redeem the captive),” explains Gideon Aronoff, HIAS’ new president and CEO. “Since 1881, our mission has been to aid Jews and others whose lives and freedom are in danger, and has thus become a part of virtually every American Jewish family.”

Aronoff points out that one of the ways HIAS’ impact on America can be measured is in the contributions of the 4.5 million people it has helped over the years, including people in the arts, sciences and politics. Among those, HIAS lists Intel founder Andrew Grove, novelist Gary Shteyngart, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Senator Joseph Lieberman, artist Marc Chagall, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, among others, in it’s Hall of Fame. “You can’t look at what HIAS and other organizations of its kind have done over the years and not be immensely impressed by the profound impact immigrants such as these – and everyday, ordinary people – have always made on this country,” says Aronoff.

“It takes a lot of passion, dedication to humanity, and old-fashioned hard work and cooperation with our partners in the Jewish community, the refugee and immigration service community, as well as those in the government, to bring an organization of this magnitude to this point,” says Aronoff. “If HIAS has made an indelible impression on America – and I believe it has – it is because of all these things working in tandem for 125 years. That’s truly remarkable and goes well beyond the mere celebration of a date on the calendar. More impressive is what it all means: that with the guidance of our Jewish values as our foundation, we can make, and have made, a meaningful difference not only in our community’s history but that of the world.”

The 125th anniversary was marked throughout 2006 at events around the country. In May at an annual board mission to Washington, D.C., a letter from President George W. Bush was presented and read aloud. In it, the president said, “I appreciate HIAS and all those who serve a cause greater than themselves. Your work sets an example of compassion and decency for others and reminds us all of the power of good to overcome the darkness of evil.”

In early November, HIAS participated in the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in Los Angeles, where, to a packed auditorium attending a plenary session, Joseph S. Kanfer, incoming chair of the UJC board, noted the HIAS anniversary: “HIAS, the North American Jewish federation system thanks you for literally coming to the rescue on behalf of our community through the years, and we’re proud to call you a partner.” Kanfer went on to list a number of milestones that HIAS had achieved since it began in 1881.

After its earliest days, when HIAS helped Jews fleeing pogroms and famine in Czarist Russia, HIAS adapted as needed to serve Jews everywhere. During World War I, starving European refugees were rescued and brought to lands of freedom. Before the Holocaust, HIAS struggled to find safe havens for Jews who could escape the growing Nazi threat, and later brought thousands of survivors to America and elsewhere where they could rebuild their lives.

In the 1950s, HIAS smuggled Jews away from the Communists in Cuba and Hungary. In the ’60s and ’70s, refugees from the Soviet Union, North Africa and the Arab countries were helped by HIAS. In the `80s and `90s, HIAS helped more than 300,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU) seek resettlement from persecution, and provided direct representation to hundreds of Jewish applicants for political asylum from the FSU, Syria and Iran.

HIAS History Reflects Migration Trends

From humble beginnings in a storefront on the lower East Side of Manhattan, HIAS has provided much-needed comfort and aid to thousands of new arrivals to the United States. 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 engulfed the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, in 1882, 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 European Jewish population took note as their numbers swelled by the thousands. As an emergency measure, they formed the Hebrew Emigrant 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 Hebrew Sheltering House Association as its name. 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. More than 111,000 Jewish immigrants reached the United States that year alone. Ellis Island was the place of entry for these new arrivals. HIAS 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, two Jewish charities principally involved in immigration merged into what has become universally known as HIAS. By 1914, HIAS had branches in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and an office in Washington, D.C.

The War Years

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought the largest influx of Jews from Eastern Europe yet – 138,051 in that year alone. But soon after, restrictions on immigration hampered HIAS’ efforts. A literacy test was legislated in 1917 and quota legislation was passed in 1921 and 1924. The National Origins Quota restricted the number of immigrants allowed into America to no more than two percent of the number of each nationality residing in the U.S. in 1890. This severely restricted the entry of Jews from Eastern Europe.

Due to the restrictive National Origins Quota of 1924, precious few refugees were rescued during World War II, but HIAS provided immigration and refugee services to those who were eligible. After the war, HIAS was instrumental in evacuating the displaced persons camps and aiding in the resettlement of some 150,000 people in 330 U.S. communities, as well as Canada, Australia and South America.

Tumultuous Decades Follow

Since 1950, HIAS’ activities have mirrored world events. In 1956, HIAS rescued Jews fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary and evacuated the Jewish community of Egypt after their expulsion during the Sinai Campaign. During the Cuban revolution in 1959, HIAS set up operations in Miami to rescue the Jews of Cuba. During the early 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 to France and, then, Israel.

In 1965, HIAS was instrumental in the passage of an immigration law, which finally replaced the National Origins Quota, liberalizing decades of restrictive admissions policies. In 1968, HIAS came to the aid of Czechoslovakia’s Jews after the suppression of “Prague Spring” and Poland’s Jews after pogroms racked that country.

By the early ’70s, the first Jews were coming out of the Soviet Union and HIAS was there to help. In 1975, following the fall of Saigon, HIAS began to work with refugees from Southeast Asia. In 1977, HIAS began working to help evacuate the Jews of Ethiopia, which culminated in several dramatic airlifts to Israel. In 1979, the overthrow of the Shah precipitated a slow but steady trickle of Jews escaping the oppressive theocracy of Iran.

In two modern waves, the Jews of the former Soviet Union have found their way to freedom with the help of HIAS. The first wave peaked in 1979. The second wave, which began in the late ’80s, has so far brought more than 300,000 people to these shores for reunification with their relatives.

In the 1990s, HIAS has continued its work, helping Jewish and non-Jewish refugees and immigrants from Afghanistan, Africa, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Hungary, Iran, Kosovo, Morocco, Poland, Romania, Tunisia, Vietnam, and the successor states to the former Soviet Union.

HIAS Today

While HIAS’ work is principally focused on Jewish migrants, explains Aronoff, HIAS and the Jewish community know well from the Torah, as well as from the collective Jewish historical experience, that “we must provide the stranger with welcome and protection.”

Because of the unpredictable nature of world events HIAS’ programs have always been dynamic and flexible enough to respond to Jews in need at any time. To do that effectively, HIAS maintains its presence in trouble spots around the world, including Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the FSU.

HIAS also serves as a powerful Jewish force for good on refugee and immigrant protection issues for many non-Jews who have fled persecution and deprivation in Darfur, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere.

Most recently, HIAS has been an integral part of the American Jewish community’s dialogue about immigration as it relates to security, economics and humanitarian values. “We are encouraged by this healthy debate,” says Aronoff, “because we believe that in the end smart immigration policies will not only allow America to continue to be the shining beacon of freedom it has always been, but will also keep our borders secure and our citizens safe.”

In Washington, HIAS is the Jewish community’s advocate with the White House, Congress, the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Justice and other federal agencies representing the concerns of Jewish migrants.

For example, HIAS has taken the lead role in advocacy efforts to restore Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to elderly and disabled Jewish refugees and other humanitarian migrants. HIAS serves as the national resource center for Jewish organizations across the country that utilize its expertise in the migration field to develop policy and advocacy campaigns and community relations programs on refugee and immigration issues. These issues include Comprehensive Immigration Reform, refugee resettlement, political asylum, child migrants, and human trafficking.
All over the United States, HIAS’ domestic programs, through its partnerships with local federations and other community-based organizations, have proven successful. Those include a growing HIAS-sponsored organization, LOREO (Local Russian Émigré Organizations), which has made impressive inroads into helping Russian-speaking Americans acculturate faster, move through the naturalization maze with more success, become part of the political process and support grass-roots social issues, such as care for the elderly and infirm.

Ensuring the Legacy

The rich HIAS archive of arrival records and other documents, as well as photographs spanning each of the past 12 decades, makes it a natural resource for historians, film-makers, genealogists and others, says Aronoff. Through its Location and Family History Service HIAS has long assisted people around the world who want to locate their relatives and friends and learn more about their Jewish heritage.

Growing demands in recent years for access to the materials in its archives have led HIAS to plan for possible expansion in this area. Aronoff would like to maximize the potential of HIAS’ materials for the sake of history, education and outreach. “I believe we can preserve the archives, assist family members and researchers, produce materials on Jewish immigration and HIAS history, and build connections between individuals, Jews and HIAS’ mission of rescue, resettlement and reunion,” says Aronoff.

“HIAS has been on such a long and amazing journey already, that it seems like looking back at our past 125 years is a sufficient way to commemorate our birthday,” says Aronoff. “But that would only be half of the story. It is what lies ahead for this organization that excites us the most.”