HIAS, once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is looking for a new purpose. Founded in New York at the turn of the 20th century, the organization was created to assist with the resettlement of Jewish immigrants who needed help getting acclimated to their new homes. The organization thrived through its first half-century and experienced a revival, which invested it with new purpose, in the 1980s and 1990s, when HIAS helped absorb and resettle hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled the Former Soviet Union.
Since then, the Jewish world has experienced unprecedented change: There are virtually no more Jewish refugees. Rather than being held against their will in one place and expelled from another, virtually every Jew today has freedom of movement, and the vast majority of Jews live in democratic societies. The era of the wandering Jew is over.
This raises the question: Is there still a need for HIAS? We are not so sure.
We do know that there is no need for an agency with the Jewish resettlement mission of the early 1900s. And the current leadership of HIAS knows that, too. So, HIAS is planning to shift its focus from Jewish immigrant aid in North America to broader refugee care and resettlement overseas. According to reports from HIAS, the agency is planning to take its resettlement expertise and infrastructure across the ocean and apply those skills to the many millions of non-Jewish refugees who could benefit from them. Under this new approach, the HIAS name would live on, and it is hoped that the newly focused organization would be supported by Jews and others as a universal cause in favor of world immigrant resettlement.
HIAS has other choices.
There are some highly active and successful organizations, such as the Avi Chai foundation, that have a built-in sunset timetable. Among other things, sunset provisions stem from the recognition that missions change and that organizations lose effectiveness over time. But it takes a certain maturity and healthy doses of self-confidence and self-awareness for an organization to declare success and move on. Very few organizations are able to do that. Instead, they get caught up in their own stories and start believing their own PR, and they view themselves as indispensable societal contributors.
HIAS has had its successes. It served well for close to a century as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Now its leadership acknowledges that the organization’s original mission is no longer necessary. 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.