HIAS In Search Of A Mission

Reflecting its new motto, “Protect the Refugee,” HIAS is helping refugees in Chad. (Courtesy HIAS)

HIAS, once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is looking for a new purpose. Founded in New York at the turn of the 20th century, the organization was created to assist with the resettlement of Jewish immigrants who needed help getting acclimated to their new homes. The organization thrived through its first half-century and experienced a revival, which invested it with new purpose, in the 1980s and 1990s, when HIAS helped absorb and resettle hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled the Former Soviet Union.

Since then, the Jewish world has experienced unprecedented change: There are virtually no more Jewish refugees. Rather than being held against their will in one place and expelled from another, virtually every Jew today has freedom of movement, and the vast majority of Jews live in democratic societies. The era of the wandering Jew is over.

This raises the question: Is there still a need for HIAS? We are not so sure.

We do know that there is no need for an agency with the Jewish resettlement mission of the early 1900s. And the current leadership of HIAS knows that, too. So, HIAS is planning to shift its focus from Jewish immigrant aid in North America to broader refugee care and resettlement overseas. According to reports from HIAS, the agency is planning to take its resettlement expertise and infrastructure across the ocean and apply those skills to the many millions of non-Jewish refugees who could benefit from them. Under this new approach, the HIAS name would live on, and it is hoped that the newly focused organization would be supported by Jews and others as a universal cause in favor of world immigrant resettlement.

HIAS has other choices.

There are some highly active and successful organizations, such as the Avi Chai foundation, that have a built-in sunset timetable. Among other things, sunset provisions stem from the recognition that missions change and that organizations lose effectiveness over time. But it takes a certain maturity and healthy doses of self-confidence and self-awareness for an organization to declare success and move on. Very few organizations are able to do that. Instead, they get caught up in their own stories and start believing their own PR, and they view themselves as indispensable societal contributors.

HIAS has had its successes. It served well for close to a century as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Now its leadership acknowledges that the organization’s original mission is no longer necessary. Rather than search for a new mission in order to justify its continued existence, perhaps it would be better for HIAS to consider an orderly sunset.

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  1. I could not disagree with this article more. HIAS has been able to take its expertise in rescuing refugees–something it’s proven time and again it does very well–and broaden it to help more people, people who may not otherwise have advocates in powerful countries like the U.S. As a young Jewish woman in the DC area concerned with global issues, I’m glad there’s a forward-thinking organization like HIAS taking our Jewish values and acting on them. It’s a paradigm other organizations would do well to follow.

  2. I’m very disappointed to see this article. HIAS continues to be a vital organization – in my view for two main reasons. The first is that, while we are very lucky that the current state of the world is favorable to most Jews, history tells us that these periods of calm rarely continue forever. I continue to support HIAS with the idea in mind that while its services to the Jewish people may not be as essential today as they once were, the continued health and vitality of HIAS as an organization is extremely important in the long run. There are plenty of places in the world where the safety of the Jewish population is relatively fragile (Venezuala comes to mind). The next time a Jewish population is in danger, I want HIAS to be around to help.

    Secondly, HIAS’s work aiding non-Jewish refugees and immigrants makes me proud to be Jewish. Welcoming the stranger is an essential part of Judaism and sets an example for the world. In addition, as the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivors who were granted US citizenship after becoming refugees, I feel strongly that Jews have a moral obligation to reach out to other victims of genocide or persecution.

    I find this article to be short-sighted and frankly, morally bankrupt. The idea that helping non-Jews in need is a waste of our effort or funding is reprehensible.

  3. It is amazing how shortsighted this op-ed is. Putting aside all of the amazing work that HIAS does resettling refugees fleeing persecution in places like Iran, East Africa, and South America (which alone gives HIAS a reason to continue–not for nothing is the idea of “welcoming the stranger” the most cited concept in the Bible, and just because there are fewer Jews in need of help does not mean that one of the primary refugee-serving organizations around the world should simply give up its expertise and close up shop,) it is sad to believe that because we live in a post-Soviet era, there is and will never be a need for a Jewish refugee agency.

    As a Jewish community that takes Tikkun Olam at least half seriously, we should be happy that HIAS is able to shift its mission and continue it’s great work around the world. If not as an agency resettling Jews–and who knows when our people may need their services again–then as a beacon of Jewish values.


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