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Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society focuses on non-Jews

1 september 2013

What happens to an aid organization when you've outgrown your original purpose? Well, that’s been the case for one notable Jewish organization, with a storied history assisting people ranging from Henry Kissinge to Mila Kunis.


Mark Hetfield, President, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society:


"HIAS is an agency that protects refugees. We were established in 1881 to do that, and we're still doing it today, more than 130 years later." 


Mark Hetfield is the president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS. Throughout its history, the non-profit organization has played an important role for the Jewish community, helping Jewish refugees from all corners of the globe resettle into better situations. Most recently, the breakup of the Soviet Union left many Jews looking for a new home. But then suddenly, they had a good problem.


Mark Hetfield, President, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society:


"Once that subsided, the level of Jewish work, the number of Jewish refugees that needed our assistance decreased significantly." 


So HIAS decided to shift its focus, working with primarily non-Jewish refugees fleeing places like Darfur, the conflict in Colombia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. However its mission and its values remain deeply rooted in Judaism.


Alina Fiskina, Former Refugee:


"43 million refugees in this world today, so if we say, oh well, we don't really care, somehow it will sort itself out. Someone will care. That's not a very Jewish way of looking at things, you know. We're here in this world to make it a better place." 


Like many Jews, Fiskina understands the issues that refugees face first hand. HIAS helped her family resettle in the U.S. from the former Soviet Union when she was nine years old. Now she has volunteered for HIAS for the past seven years.


Alina Fiskina, Former Refugee:


"You don't know what the next day will bring, whether you're going to be in a safe area or not, whether you're going to be able to buy yourself food or not, you know basic things, for survival." 


For HIAS, it is also important to appeal to younger donors and volunteers who may be interested in supporting causes that help greater numbers of people in need, and not just those in the Jewish community.


Mark Hetfield, President, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society:


"This is something that a number of Christian agencies do in the United States and we feel it’s an imperative for Jews to do it as well since welcoming a stranger is a commandment that appears in the Torah no less than 36 times, because of our own experience, we know what it's like to be a refugee, we know what it's like to be displaced, and we know what it's like when people don't get assistance, you know, it can cost them their lives." 


While the majority of refugees HIAS works these with are non-Jewish, they still do work with some Jews in need of resettlement assistance, most notably from Iran.


Ira Spitzer, JN1, New York


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