Rescuing Refugees

  • Prosperity
  • 1881

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitic riots in Russia and Eastern Europe killed many Jews, and caused hundreds of thousands of Jewish families to leave or be expelled from their homes. Many of these ended up on ships to the U.S., with meager resources and little help. In response, Jews in America banded together to form aid societies to help their immigrant brethren and relatives settle and prosper in America. The largest and oldest of these groups is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, whose roots go back to 1881 in New York City.

Nearly all of the early Jewish refugees arrived at Ellis Island. Some of them were severely malnourished because there was no kosher food available on their steamships. Others had lost all their property in pogroms. Most spoke no English, and all needed jobs. HIAS set up its own office at Ellis Island which provided translators, kosher food, and assistance toward becoming a legal entrant to the U.S. HIAS lent new arrivals money for their landing fees, or for railroad tickets that would take them to relatives in other places. The large numbers of Jewish immigrants who stayed in New York City were offered language classes, instruction in occupations like dressmaking, and, later, civic training that would allow the refugees to become U.S. citizens. Funding came from successful Jews who sponsored and donated funds.

The outbreak of World War I caused a new surge of refugees—140,000 Jews arrived in the first year of the war alone. The Russian Revolution killed about 50,000 more Jews and generated many additional refugees, some of whom made it to the U.S. During World War II, HIAS helped settle more Jewish refugees, and after the war the charity relocated a third of a million of Europe’s scattered and battered Jews. Later, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped co-religionists uprooted from Hungary, Egypt, and Cuba during upheavals and attacks of the 1950s, and assisted more than 400,000 Soviet Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in the later years of the Cold War. The Hebrew Bible has 36 different injunctions calling on believers to help strangers, and with most Jews now safely consolidated in the U.S. or Israel, HIAS has shifted much of its effort to assisting threatened refugees of other religions and ethnicities. The organization has foreign offices that help reunite families, resettle those in danger, and integrate the displaced into receiving countries, whether the U.S. or some other land. It is estimated that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has aided nearly 4.5 million people in its century and a quarter of charitable operations.