When Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, comes to speak at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth on Shabbat, he will do more than reference Lev Golinkin’s new memoir, “A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka.” (The book is the centerpiece of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s “One Book, One Community” program this year.)
As guest speaker at a Shabbat program designed to celebrate the book, he will talk not only about HIAS’s role in the immigration of Golinkin’s family, but about the organization’s evolution from a refugee agency that helps people “not because they’re Jewish — but because we are.”
A note about HIAS’s cryptic name – according to the group’s website, hias.org, “Originally, we were the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. But as we expanded our mission to protect and assist refugees of all faiths and ethnicities, our name no longer represented the organization. We are now known as HIAS.”
HIAS is featured prominently in Mr. Golinkin’s memoir, which is the author’s attempt to understand his past by retracing his family’s escape from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
“We assisted the family in Vienna,” Mr. Hetfield said. “And we got them admitted to the U.S. as refugees and sent them to Lafayette, Ind., where they were resettled.”
Mr. Hetfield, who said he has worked with HIAS four separate times during his career, was a caseworker for the group in the late 1980s, when Mr. Golinkin’s family began their long trek.
“In most cases, refugees like Lev would get an invitation to go to Israel and would stop in Vienna en route; but then many people decided to go to the U.S., Canada, or New Zealand instead,” he said. “Normally, once they declared their intention, they would stay in Vienna a short time and then go to Rome. “
But Lev Golinkin’s family made a different choice.
“In his case, something strange happened. They stayed in Vienna, and never went to Rome. That’s exceptional, and there are theories in the book about that.”
HIAS was founded in 1881 to help Jews from Russia who were fleeing tsarist pogroms.
“We focused mostly on Jewish refugees and migrants for the first 120 years, including Lev’s time,” Mr. Hetfield said. “We resettled tens of thousands during that period,” including some 400,000 between 1970 and 2000. Many were resettled between 1979 and 1980, and again from 1989 to 1993, he added.
Today, while the agency still helps Jews, particularly from Iran, the vast majority of those served by the agency “are of all ethnicities: Congolese, Burmese, Bhutanese, Eritrean, Iraqi, Iranian, and some Syrians.”
Of the latter, Mr. Hetfield noted that while the government is resettling a few Syrians, “they take a long time to be processed.” Iranian Jews still go to Vienna, he said, “and we help them at all stages of the process. But with Syrians, we help them once they get to the U.S. airport — then we take over.”
Mr. Hetfield said that HIAS works through partnerships with Jewish Family Service Agencies around the nation. Describing his organization as one of nine groups throughout the country that work on the issue of resettlement, he said “the majority are faith-based. We’re the only Jewish one.
“Not that many Jews are moving any more,” he continued. “They’re not trapped behind an iron curtain, and the Jews in the Middle East have already left. It’s basically depopulated of Jews. Now we’re focused on protecting refugees in general.”
That change in mission “wasn’t a simple or fast transition; it was evolutionary,” Mr. Hetfield said. HIAS has received a lot of attention since the High Holidays. Around that time, a photo was published showing the body of a 3-year-old Syrian child who died off the Turkish coast when the boat ferrying his family to Greece capsized.
“That was the focus of many services,” Mr. Hetfield said. “Rabbis talked about us, and we provided materials for their sermons. It drew attention to the change” in the mission. “Those who support us are aligned to our new course.”
Over the years, he said, the biggest change in HIAS was “making this evolution to help refugees because we’re Jewish and guided by Jewish values. For a 134-year-old agency, that was not an easy change.”
Mr. Hetfield noted that there are more refugees now than at any time since World War II. While his agency’s goal — ideally — is to put itself out of business, “that is not likely to happen.”
HIAS has a presence in 12 countries right now, he said, including representatives in South America, Austria, Israel, Ukraine, and Africa. Unlike in 1948, when “Jews could talk about what county they wanted to go to, other refugees do not have that choice.” That country, of course, was Israel, which was founded that year and welcomed all Jews; it was a haven for Holocaust refugees, many of whom were helped by HIAS. “Most can’t go anywhere in most cases. When we can, we get them to some other place. We mostly try to make them safe in the first country they flee to.”
Resettlement efforts include helping them secure legal documentation and trying to ensure that they “can legally work, support themselves, that their kids can go to school; and helping to develop community in their country of first asylum.”
Jews who now seek to immigrate, he said, “generally are people who are taking advantage of economic opportunities around the world. They don’t need charity like their grandparents did. The exception is Iranian Jews. They need assistance navigating the U.S. bureaucracy. We also help Jews in Ukraine,” he said. But while the number of those Jews are rising, they are still small. Indeed, while HIAS resettles some 3,500 people a year, less than 200 are Jewish.
Mr. Hetfield said that Mr. Golinkin’s book, which he called “touching and poignant and true to life,” provides a very realistic account “and is good in terms of understanding what a refugee goes through at every stage.”
He highly recommends it.