Read: A broken Jewish community
Over the course of its history, HIAS has helped resettle more than 4.5 million people. Until the beginning of the 21st century, its main task was to assist Jews in need. In its early years, it helped Jewish immigrants and refugees fleeing the pogroms in czarist Russia as well as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. In addition to providing food, shelter, and translation services, HIAS operated a bureau on Ellis Island, where it helped prevent deportations. But when the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration to the United States, HIAS shifted from supporting new arrivals in the U.S. to taking on a more global role.
In 1927, it merged with the Paris-based Jewish Colonization Agency and the Berlin-based Emigdirect and formed HIAS-HICEM. In cooperation with other Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, but also with non-Jewish organizations, HIAS-HICEM helped tens of thousands of Jews escape Europe during the Holocaust. After the end of World War II, HIAS helped an even larger number of displaced persons leave former war zones and find new homes in the United States, Israel, and other parts of the world.
During the Cold War, HIAS continued its work as the representative of American Jewry in the field of migration and resettlement. It still focused mostly on helping Jews in danger, such as Egypt’s Jewish community after its expulsion following the 1956 Suez Crisis. In addition to aiding rescue operations for Jews from Ethiopia, Iran, and Syria, HIAS played an important role in the exodus of Soviet Jewry. HIAS was also an advocate for immigration reform and was instrumental in passing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
Amy Weiss-Meyer: HIAS welcomed my grandfather to Pittsburgh.
Although HIAS supported non-Jewish refugees—for example, it aided in rescue and resettlement efforts after the fall of Saigon in 1975—it remained a Jewish organization, dedicated above all to helping Jews in need. The resettlement of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union remained its central task well into the 1990s. But 2006 marked the last year when most of the refugees HIAS resettled were Jewish.
In 2007, under the leadership of Gideon Aronoff and in response to a declining caseload, HIAS adopted a new strategic plan. The plan paved the way for HIAS’s transformation from an organization designed to help Jews into one providing nonsectarian humanitarian aid. HIAS took inspiration from the 2,000-year-old teaching of Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” While the mission of tikkun olam was one driving force behind this transformation, of equal importance was the idea of al hamishmar, of being “on guard.” The group’s leadership decided that the best way to maintain an infrastructure ready to help Jews was to build an organization that supports refugees of other ethnicities and faiths.