“It’s brought thousands of people to demonstrate in the streets and organized hundreds of synagogues to lobby Congress. And it’s about to stand before the Supreme Court as a plaintiff in a suit challenging the second version of Trump’s ban, which two judges blocked in March.
“And it’s still resettling refugees.”
“The problem we have now is [American Jewish volunteers] want to do much more in terms of servicing refugees, welcoming refugees than we can give them, because the refugees are simply not arriving in the numbers they should be.
“It’s really important that American Jews have our back because our biggest partner is the United States government, and that’s going to be changing over time to our biggest partner being the American Jewish community.”
Founded in the 1880s, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was a shelter and resource for newly arrived Jewish immigrants. During and after World Wars I and II, it worked to resettle waves of Jewish refugees.
Now however, that “the waves of Jewish immigration slowed to a trickle in the 2000s, HIAS began resettling non-Jewish refugees” and it is one of the “nine agencies tasked with resettling refugees in the United States.”
Trump’s opposition to admitting Syrian refugees has thrust “HIAS has joined the front lines of what anti-Trump protesters call ‘the Resistance.’”
The group’s anti-Trump activity has had the most impact in court.
HIAS is one of nine plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against Trump’s second travel ban, which the Supreme Court is set to rule on this month.
The suit claims the focus on Muslim countries violates the Constitution’s prohibition on preferring one religion over another, and asks for an injunction against the ban because it would cause HIAS to lose revenue and possibly cut staff. (To move forward with the lawsuits, plaintiffs have to prove harm, or “standing.”)
While it fights the administration in court, HIAS has capitalized on Trump’s opposition to refugees to mobilize a growing base of Jewish-American supporters.
HIAS began building that base in 2014, when its leaders realized that most American Jews were unaware of its work since the Soviet Jewry movement faded 25 years ago following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The group began a Welcome Campaign for synagogues that wanted to assist refugees — from a few that have headed hands-on resettlement efforts to others that have committed to advocacy and education about refugee issues. HIAS also began organizing activists to help lobby for its goals.
As many social justice causes have experienced, the Trump presidency has turbocharged the work. Before the election, the Welcome Campaign included just over 200 synagogues. Eight months later the number is up to 360.
On a national Day of Action two weeks after the initial refugee ban, HIAS mobilized protests in 20 cities, including 1,000 people opposite the Statue of Liberty in New York City and 600 in Washington, D.C.
And Hetfield said the group has seen a “significant rise” recently in private donations. In 2015, the group’s operating expenses totaled $41 million. This year its budget is $55 million.
Over the weekend following Trump’s initial refugee ban, HIAS raised more than $100,000 and garnered 1,800 new donors. In 2016, the group exceeded its fundraising goal by 25 percent.
“The silver lining of Trump coming into the presidency has been the uptick in a sense of urgency and an uptick in activism,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president of community engagement for HIAS. “There are rabbis and other community leaders who were more reluctant before to take stands or say things that were quote-unquote political, who after the election have been less cautious.”
HIAS is championing an issue of particular consensus in the usually fractious American Jewish community. The Jewish organizational world, with the Zionist Organization of America among the few exceptions, opposed the refugee ban nearly unanimously. (ZOA included HIAS in what it called an “unholy consortium of Jewish and anti-Israel groups” ignoring the potential of ISIS sympathizers among Syrian refugees.)
But Rosenn said HIAS has still encountered opposition to refugees, especially in communities she called “inward looking,” based on concerns about security threats from radical Islam. The group has attempted to assuage those concerns by describing the vetting and resettlement process for refugees and drawing a parallel between today’s refugee crisis and the plight of European Jewry in the 1930s.
“As we explain the very rigorous vetting processes that are already in place, that goes a long way in reassuring people,” Rosenn said, as does “reminding people that throughout history, Americans have been fearful of refugees, and reminding folks that people didn’t want to welcome Jews.”