‘If We Didn’t Do It …’

August 1, 2013
BY Maayan Jaffe
HIAS editorial sparks dialogue, shows there is still a place for Jewish refugee organization
There are nine national refugee programs, which collectively  resettle an average of 70,000 people annually.

There are nine national refugee programs, which collectively
resettle an average of 70,000 people annually.

The July 26 editorial, “HIAS In Search Of A Mission,” spawned great debate in the Baltimore community — and a lot of upset. Why? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has been considering a move to the area, and local leaders don’t seem convinced that HIAS is ready for, as the editorial put it, “an orderly sunset.”

And the United States and United Nations are not ready for that, either.

HIAS received roughly $25 million from the U.S. government and the U.N. to resettle refugees from countries in which they were being persecuted — that’s out of a $32 million budget.

“HIAS has been — and hopefully will continue to be — a strong advocate for refugee resettlement,” said Dan Kosten, senior vice president for the World Relief program of the National Association of Evangelicals. Kosten, whose organization is one of the nine national organizations working on refugee resettlement (HIAS is a second), said he works closely with HIAS and has seen the Jewish organization be the most effective voice for refugee advocacy.

“HIAS presents a strong and considered voice at the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] meetings in Geneva each year,” said Kosten.

And that may be.

But admittedly — even by HIAS Executive Director Mark Hetfield — there are few Jewish refugees in 2013. So why can’t someone else take over?

“If we want to leave and just have Christian organizations involved in refugee resettlement, that would be a real shanda,” said Hetfield, who noted that HIAS is not determining a new mission in 2013, but rather has been operating in its current capacity for more than a decade.

Of the nine national refugee programs, more than half are faith based — Lutheran, Evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, etc. Kosten, whose program is headquartered in Baltimore, said this is logical because faith-based organizations welcome the stranger.

“For HIAS — and for us, as well — we take it from our faith traditions. … If we didn’t do it, our constituencies could challenge us, especially when it comes to those being persecuted for their faith,” he said.

Linda Hartke, executive director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, headquartered in downtown Baltimore, said her organizations sees it similarly. She noted that unlike the average NGO, faith-based groups are present before, during and after an emergency situation, “really standing by the people for the long haul. The concepts of love they neighbor and of hospitality to stran-gers, of justice, are grounded in the Old Testament and in the Christian tradition, as well.”

The nine organizations work closely together, sitting on a conference call weekly. Collectively, according to Hartke, they resettle an average of 70,000 people per year.

“The number of organizations resettling refugees has declined. It is intensive work … and it’s not a crowded field by any means,” she said.

The Jewish community invests in HIAS, of course, but not at the level that one might envision. Hetfield said donations by the organized Jewish community amount for roughly 1 percent of the annual budget, although those are unrestricted funds, which are useful and essential. (Most government funds are restricted.) Furthermore, Hetfield explained, federations are looking to HIAS to help engage a younger generation of Jews who are more passionate about tikkun olam and secular social justice rather than with traditional Jewish ways of giving.

“Young Jews are much more interested … in using their Jewish identity to engage with the rest of the world to make the world a better place,” said Hetfield. “Protecting refugees provides a good opportunity to do that.”

Frank Risch, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Dallas, said the younger people are right on target.

“Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means healing the world, strongly suggests a shared responsibility that we have to transform the world. The pursuit of justice is so important to us as Jews,” said Risch. “We are not only responsible for creating a model Jewish society, but we are also responsible for the welfare of the larger community — the society at large.”

Risch’s parents were German imm-igrants assisted in their move from the motherland to Baltimore in the 1930s. His parents, he said, built a life here, became successful and raised two sons. In 2007, Risch and his wife, Helen, established a $100,000 endowment with the Jewish Museum of Maryland to fund an annual performance, discussion or lecture on immigration. Since then, the Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch Memorial Program has taken place each year.

“Our [Jewish history] is full of episodes where Jews were in need of help and resettlement,” said Risch. “Imm- igration is one of the critical elements making this country as strong as it is.”

Baltimore’s Martha Weiman said she feels similarly. The daughter of immigrant parents who were helped by HIAS, she said she will be forever “grateful and I am so proud they have taken their expertise and spread it around the world.”

However, she noted, while she thinks HIAS should help everyone, she likewise worries that letting the organization close removes a safety net that the Jews might once again need.

“We can never diminish the thought that maybe there will be an immigration need for Jews again. I hope not. I hope we are past that,” she said. “But history shows it will happen again, somewhere.”

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