As a teenager, Leonard Glickman was an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement. That cause has become his life’s work. Since March he has overseen the resettlement here of Jews from the former Soviet Union in his capacity as executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Glickman, 35, had served for seven years as executive assistant at the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Later this month he will be moving from Washington to Millburn, N.J., with his wife, Sandi, and their three daughters.
This week, HIAS is awarding $151,250 in educational scholarships to Jewish immigrants here and in Israel.
Jewish Week: HIAS has witnessed a decline in the number of refugees coming here for resettlement in recent years. What are the latest figures?
Glickman: In 1997, HIAS resettled about 14,500 refugees from the former Soviet Union, 280 from Bosnia, 205 from Iran, 55 Kurds from northern Iraq and 165 Bahai from Iran. Of those, the Bosnians, Kurds and Bahai were non-Jews.
How do these figures compare with other recent years?
The number of refugees was as high as 46,000 in 1992. Since then, arrivals have been on a sharp decline.
Because by definition a refugee has to be living outside of the United States and have a principal relative already living here. We estimate that this year, the number of refugee arrivals will be down to 8,000 or 9,000. … If the present trends continue — and things can turn on a dime — in five or six years arrivals of Jews to the United States, principally from the former Soviet Union, will have declined [even more].
What has happened to HIAS’ budget as the number of refugees arriving has plunged?
The amount of money we receive from the government is based strictly on the number of people we resettle. As a result, it has declined markedly. And a portion of the grant we receive is passed through to local agencies [such as the New York Association for New Americans] for the jobs they do in resettlement.
What will happen to this resettlement network once the refugee numbers all but dry up?
The difficult issue with downsizing is the need to maintain the program [in the event of an emergency]. Today, for instance, the government’s Board of Immigration Appeals said conditions for Jews and other religious minorities in Ukraine remain precarious, and it granted political asylum to a Jewish family that feared persecution if it went back.
Are there are still real questions regarding Russia’s faltering economy and how it might impact the Jewish community?
Yes, Russia is still offering 50 percent interest on its bonds to attract investors. There is a great deal of uncertainty there, and so we have a responsibility to be vigilant, watch events on the ground and be ready in case we are needed — there or anywhere around the world to lend assistance to refugees.
HIAS’ principal mission in recent years has been resettling Jews from the former Soviet Union.
Yes, but unfortunately there are an estimated 36 million refugees around the world, of which the U.S. is now resettling 78,000 every year. My hope is that there would no longer be Jewish refugees around the world to resettle, but does that mean HIAS will call it a game? There are about 150 local communities resettling refugees, most of them in the Jewish Federation network. What do they want to do once the big program from the former Soviet Union declines?
Many are interested in resettling non-Jewish refugees — in 1984, HIAS and the Jewish community resettled over twice as many non-Jews as Jews. I’d like to see HIAS remain committed to its mission of rescue and resettlement and an advocate for refugees and immigrants. … The Jewish community has had a long and historic role in refugee resettlement, before Jews were let out of the former Soviet Union. … HIAS was founded in 1880.Have you started planning for the future?
We have begun preliminary planning for strategic thinking with the Council of Jewish Federations and other Jewish agencies that care about refugees and other immigration issues. It involves theological, philosophical, programatic and bureaucratic questions.