On the Saturday before Robert Bowers, hater of Jews and hater of refugees, killed 11 Jewish worshippers during Shabbat services at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the congregation held an event that angered him on both counts — one of the congregations that meets at Tree of Life took part in a nationwide Refugee Shabbat coordinated by HIAS.
Judging by the comments he wrote on the Gab social media website, popular among white supremacists, a few hours before his shooting spree, that event sparked Bowers’ anger. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote.
In the wake of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States, HIAS, which was established here nearly a century and a half ago to protect Jews whose lives were threatened by violence, has been catapulted onto the front pages in the most high-profile way imaginable.
“Certainly — for better or worse,” said HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield on Tuesday from Pittsburgh, where he went to meet with representatives of the Jewish community. Hetfield added that in the days after the killings, HIAS had received a “record level of donations — the majority of the donations were not from Jews. We’ve gotten such an outpouring of support that we cannot keep track.”
The resettlement agency is already well-known in the Jewish community and government circles.
Bowers’ anti-migrant screed reflected a major shift in HIAS’ mission since the start of this century.
Largely apolitical in its early decades, and largely focused on helping to resettle Jews, HIAS has rebranded itself and redefined its mission.
The organization now provides its refugee-assistance services on a non-sectarian basis. Founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, it is now known simply as HIAS (pronounced HI-iss), and identifies itself not as a Jewish immigration agency but as “the Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.”
It has earned criticism in recent years from conservatives both for bringing to this country many Arab immigrants, especially from Syria, who traditionally harbor anti-Semitic attitudes and may have radical sympathies; and for devoting inadequate attention to threatened Jews in such European countries as France and Sweden.
And, as in the case of Bowers, who was angered by the “migrant caravan” from Honduras that is headed towards the United States, for aiding the resettlement here of any refugees.
The Pittsburgh tragedy also brought expressions of support for HIAS’ work from several prominent Jewish organizations, particularly in the progressive wing of the Jewish community.
Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, called HIAS “one of the most important [Jewish] organizations.”
“In the name of the Jewish community and the name of Jewish values, it is standing up for what we all believe to be Jewish — welcoming the stranger,” she said.
“This [refugee] issue is central to what we are, who we are” as Jews, said Barbara Weinstein, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
“We applaud HIAS for more than a century of work to ‘welcome the stranger’ to these shores … we stand with HIAS, and we ask all people of good conscience to do so as well,” said Robert Bank, president of American Jewish World Service. “We … express our solidarity with our colleagues at HIAS, who were targeted with online hate by the shooter for their ongoing dedication to keeping America’s doors open to those fleeing violence and oppression. This commitment stands at the heart of what it means to be Jewish,” said a statement from T’ruah – the rabbinic call for human rights.
“Our support for HIAS and refugees is based not only in our history as refugees, but in Jewish teachings,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, said in an email interview. “Just this past Shabbat, we read the story of the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah … the chief sin of these evil cities concerned the abuse of foreigners.”
During the nearly two years of the Trump administration, which has sought to drastically reduce the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S., HIAS has adopted a more politicized stance, helping to organize public rallies, circulating a petition to increase the number of refugees in the U.S., urging synagogues to lobby Congress, and suing the administration over its travel ban.
“We didn’t choose” to become more political, Hetfield said. “It’s become much more necessary in order to get our work done, because the administration has become an adversary.”
About two-thirds of the agency’s $50 million annual budget comes from the government, but that source of funding appears threatened as the administration seeks to reduce the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S.
The Pittsburgh tragedy is “not going to affect our mission one iota,” Hetfield said on Saturday night, the night of the Pittsburgh shooting. “At a time when the U.S. is doing less and less for refugees … we must demonstrate, as a refugee people, that it is more important than ever to welcome refugees as a community.”
“Refugees were really a bipartisan issue,” Hetfield told JTA last year. “Some people say HIAS is a liberal agency or progressive Jewish agency. We’re really not. Our whole focus has been refugees, and refugees are not a partisan issue.”
During its history, HIAS, one of nine agencies with contracts from the State Department to help newcomers acclimate to this country, has helped resettle more than 4.5 million people from dozens of countries. It often partners with Jewish Family Service agencies in local Jewish communities.
Founded in 1881 on the Lower East Side by Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society at first provided meals, transportation and jobs for newcomers who were fleeing pogroms back home. The organization’s early activities included a shelter on the Lower East Side, translation services, and a bureau and kosher kitchen at Ellis Island.
In 1927 it merged with the Paris-based Jewish Colonization Agency and the Berlin-based Emigdirect. HIAS later worked on behalf of Holocaust survivors in post-war DP camps (with the Joint Distribution Committee), Jews escaping danger in Communist and Arab countries, Iran and Ethiopia. In 1975 it aided the resettlement of men and women from southeast Asia following the fall of Saigon.
As the number of Jews leaving the former Soviet Union dropped off by the 1990s, HIAS increased its resettlement work for people from such countries as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Haiti and Tunisia. In 2002 HIAS began operations in Kenya “to provide protection to refugees from several African countries plagued by conflict.”
“We are the only Jewish organization whose mission is to assist refuges wherever they are,” the HIAS website states.
The last year when most of the refugees HIAS resettled were Jewish was 2006.
HIAS assists refugees, HIAS representatives like to say, not because “they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish.”
Hetfield said he was aware that many people who are opposed to large numbers of refugees coming to the U.S. strongly oppose HIAS’ work. “I was not aware that anyone would massacre people because of our work.”
Might Jewish support for HIAS decrease after the Pittsburgh killings, people afraid of the physical threat posed by taking part in the agency’s pro-refugee activities?
“Not from where I stand,” Bank said. He said AJWS heard only words of support in the days after the attack.
Some people may become reticent to support HIAS activities, while others are more likely to become involved, as an answer to people like Bowers, Hetfield said. “We’re seeing both narratives. The narrative that our work is important is clearly the most important narrative.”