The July 25 editorial, “HIAS In Search Of A Mission,” has spawned great debate in the Baltimore community — and a lot of upset. Why? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has been considering a move to the area, and local leaders don’t seem convinced that HIAS is ready for “an orderly sunset.”
And the United States and United Nations are not ready for that, either.
HIAS received roughly $25 million from the U.S. government and the U.N. to resettle refugees from countries in which they were being persecuted — that’s out of a $32 million budget.
“HIAS has been, and hopefully will continue to be, a strong advocate for refugee resettlement,” said Dan Kosten, senior vice president for the World Relief program of the National Association of Evangelicals. Kosten, whose organization is one of the nine national organizations working on refugee resettlement (HIAS is a second), said he works closely with HIAS and has seen the Jewish organization be the most effective voice for refugee advocacy.
“HIAS presents a strong and considered voice at the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] meetings in Geneva each year,” said Kosten.
And that may be.
But admittedly — even by HIAS executive director, Mark Hetfield — there are few Jewish refugees in 2013. So why can’t someone else take over?
“If we want to leave and just have Christian organizations involved in refugee resettlement, that would be a real shanda,” said Hetfield, who noted that HIAS is not determining a new mission in 2013, but rather has been operating in its current capacity for more than a decade.
Of the nine national refugee programs, more than half are faith based — Lutheran, Evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, etc. Kosten, whose program is headquartered in Baltimore, said this was logical because faith-based organizations welcome the stranger.
“For HIAS — and for us as well — we take it from our faith traditions. … If we didn’t do it, our constituencies could challenge us, especially when it comes to those being persecuted for their faith,” he said.
Linda Hartke, executive director of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, headquartered in downtown Baltimore, said her organization sees it similarly. She noted that unlike the average NGO, faith-based groups are present before, during and after an emergency situation, “really standing by the people for the long haul. The concepts of love thy neighbor and of hospitality to strangers, of justice, are grounded in the Old Testament and in the Christian tradition, as well.”
The nine organizations work closely together, sitting on a conference call weekly. Collectively, according to Hartke, they resettle an average of 70,000 people per year.
“The number of organizations resettling refugees has declined. It is intensive work … and it’s not a crowded field by any means,” she said.
The Jewish community invests in HIAS, of course, but not at the level that one might envision. Hetfield said donations by the organized Jewish community amount for roughly 1 percent of the annual budget, though those are unrestricted funds, which are useful and essential. (Most government funds are restricted.) Furthermore, Hetfield explained, Federations are looking to HIAS to help engage a younger generation of Jews who are more passionate about tikkun olam and secular social justice than traditional Jewish ways of giving.
“Young Jews are much more interested … in using their Jewish identity to engage with the rest of the world, to make the world a better place,” said Hetfield. “Protecting refugees provides a good opportunity to do that.”
Frank Risch, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Dallas, said the younger folks are right on target.
“Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means healing the world, strongly suggests a shared responsibility that we have to transform the world. The pursuit of justice is so important to us as Jews,” said Risch. “We are not only responsible for creating a model Jewish society, but we are also responsible for the welfare of the larger community — the society at large.”
Risch’s parents were German immigrants assisted in their move from that country to Baltimore in the 1930s. His parents, he said, built a life here, became successful and raised two sons. In 2007, Risch and his wife, Helen, established a $100,000 endowment with the Jewish Museum of Maryland to fund an annual performance, discussion or lecture on immigration. Since then, the Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch Memorial Program has taken place each year.
“Our [Jewish history] is full of episodes where Jews were in need of help and resettlement,” said Risch. “Immigration is one of the critical elements making this country as strong as it is.”
Baltimore’s Martha Weiman said she feels similarly. The daughter of immigrant parents who were helped by HIAS, she said she will be forever “grateful and I am so proud they have taken their expertise and spread it around the world.”
However, she noted, while she thinks HIAS should help everyone, she worries that letting the organization close removes a safety net that the Jews might once again need in the future.
“We can never diminish the thought that maybe there will be an immigration need for Jews again. I hope not. I hope we are past that,” she said. “But history shows it will happen again, somewhere.”
Maayan Jaffe is managing editor of WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.
by Mark Hetfield
The Torah reiterates, no less than 36 times, the commandment to love the stranger as ourselves, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. The Exodus narrative is not just about the suffering and flight of the Jews, but delivers a universal message about Jewish commitment to human rights and refugee protection.
With this in mind, I was disappointed to read the editorial in Washington Jewish Week (July 25) and the Baltimore Jewish Times (July 26) advocating to close HIAS. The newspapers declared: “The era of the Wandering Jew is over” and, with it, the need for HIAS, concluding with the suggestion: “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.”
HIAS is not searching for a new mission. We remain true to the original one of refugee protection. What HIAS has done is moved from the “Exodus” period of our first 120 years, in which HIAS focused on bringing Jews from oppression to freedom, to HIAS’ “Leviticus” period, in which we fulfill Jewish values and assist refugees of all faiths and ethnicities based on our own Exodus experiences.
The changes to HIAS’ work are not just theologically motivated. They are based on the lessons of history, especially from the Holocaust period when HIAS, the Jewish community, and the world failed to protect the 6 million Jews who perished. The evolution of HIAS is about fulfilling our community’s promise that never again will we permit anything like the Holocaust to happen. What is the most effective strategy for doing this? By acting only when Jewish refugees are in danger, or by constantly advocating for the universal protection of all refugees? HIAS has chosen the latter path.
One reason we failed during the Shoah was that, at that time, the world had no internationally recognized right to flee and seek refuge. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol — advocated for heavily by the Jewish community, Israel and HIAS — now provide us with the principles to help ensure that never again will refugees be pushed back into the hands of their persecutors.
We cannot protect ourselves by being only for ourselves. We can only protect ourselves by protecting and implementing universal principles of human rights.
In Washington and in meetings convened by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, HIAS advocates for the U.S. government and the international community to respect the principles of refugee protection that arose from the ashes of the Holocaust. HIAS is already working on five continents to protect refugees of all faiths who have fled ethnic cleansing and other forms of persecution. In addition, we resettle 3,000 refugees each year through our U.S. network, primarily consisting of Jewish Family Service agencies which, like HIAS, have decided to continue programs welcoming refugees even though most refugees whom they now resettle are not Jewish.
HIAS’ mission has not changed. In 1881, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was established to help refugees find welcome, safety, and freedom. HIAS has not strayed from that path. Today, HIAS does not help refugees because they are Jewish. HIAS helps refugees because we are Jewish.
Mark Hetfield is president and CEO of HIAS.