October 28, 2018


America -- and Judaism -- at Its Best: The man accused of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh seemed fixated on HIAS, the refugee organization that helped save my family. (Lev Golinkin, Oct. 28, 2018, NY Times)

For the next six months, HIAS became the most important entity in my life. It was HIAS workers who were pulling us, and tens of thousands of others, off the trains in Austria; HIAS that got us settled in refugee camps; HIAS that rallied American Jewish communities to sponsor refugees in the United States. "HIAS will help," I silently intoned, as we hitchhiked like phantoms along Austrian roads and went through awful asylum interviews at the American embassy.

HIAS was what remained when the rest of your life had disintegrated, when there was no money, no way to communicate, no going back. HIAS was what kept you tethered to the world when you became a ghost, but weren't yet ready to die.

Two decades after I came to America, HIAS found itself at the crossroads. For the first time in memory, there weren't large numbers of Jews in need of resettlement. It was other people who needed help: children fleeing gang violence in Central America, victims of wars in East Asia, and most of all,  refugees from the wars in the Middle East -- people who had endured horrors that make my family's experience seem like a luxury cruise in comparison.

Some felt it was inappropriate for HIAS, a Jewish group, to devote resources to aiding Muslims; HIAS, to its eternal credit, disagreed. As Mark Hetfield, the president and chief executive of HIAS, once told me, "We decided to help, not because they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish." On Oct. 19, HIAS organized a national refugee Shabbat.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society became simply HIAS, to reflect the fact that about 90 percent of its clients were no longer Jewish. Offices sprang up in Kenya, Greece, Venezuela and Chad. The group engaged the same American Jewish communities that had adopted families like mine; today, more than 400 Jewish communities -- including Pittsburgh's -- have committed themselves to helping refugees. And after Donald Trump became president, HIAS became one of the most vigorous and vocal opponents of the White House's attempts to ban refugees.

Posted by at October 28, 2018 9:30 AM