For an organization founded in the 1880s to rescue Russian Jews from Cossacks, the New York–based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has proven to be remarkably agile and forward thinking.
Once the pre-eminent agency for resettling Jewish refugees in this country, HIAS had nearly became a victim of its own success. Over the last hundred years it, along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, resettled thousands of Jews persecuted by czars, communists and Middle East tyrants.
Today, thankfully, few Jews are still in need of rescue. HIAS’ last major push was the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the ’90s and early ’00s.
But instead of going out of business, HIAS has taken its mission of helping the vulnerable and adapted it to new circumstances. As our story on page 8 explains, the organization has shifted its focus to helping non-Jewish immigrants in this country make new lives for themselves, and to people in more than 14 countries displaced by war and famine.
One could say that the grandchildren of Russian Jewish immigrants helped by HIAS a century ago are now paying it forward, coming to the aid of others
in need around the world. Today HIAS
is working with refugees in Chad, Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay, Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya and Congo, as well as in Russia and Ukraine. It provides humanitarian assistance, legal counseling and resettlement operations for people of all religions and ethnicities.
It still has a hand in Jewish affairs, offering scholarships to new immigrants in Israel, among other initiatives. But by reinventing itself and broadening its mission, HIAS has given itself new purpose.
There may be no more Jews in need of rescue in Russia or Ethiopia. But there will always be refugees in need of a helping hand. Extending that hand is something Jews do exceedingly well.
We admire the agency’s actions, and we hope other Jewish organizations will learn from the HIAS example.
The Anti-Defamation League is another national group that has adapted to new times, broadening its mission from a focus on fighting anti-Semitism to teaching tolerance and speaking out against prejudice and bullying.
Others have not been as successful, and remain chained to mandates that are no longer relevant — a recipe for disaster.
For Jewish organizations struggling to stay afloat, a study of the HIAS model could offer some encouragement and, perhaps, a way forward.