Remarks by Mark Hetfield, President and CEO, HIAS, at HUC-JIR Ordination 2017

Monday, May 8, 2017

The 2017 Roger E. Joseph Prize was presented to HIAS, the Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, at the Ordination Ceremonies of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on Sunday, May 7, 2017 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue at 65th Street, New York City. The Joseph Prize was accepted by Mark Hetfield, President and CEO, HIAS. Read his remarks: 

HIAS was founded in the 19th century here in New York City as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in order to ensure that refugees who were fleeing the Pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe would be welcome to the United States.  HIAS was to make sure that the immigration authorities at Castle Garden and, later, Ellis Island, did not turn these refugees – who were fleeing a genocide – back to countries where they would be totally unprotected.

One world war, two million Jewish refugees and 40 years later, in 1921, the United States Congress enacted the Emergency Quota Act of 1921.  This legislation, which set severely discriminatory country-by country limits on immigration, slammed the door on refugees and immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.  It was essentially a “Jewish and Catholic ban.”  Not banning all Catholic and Jews, but severely restricting immigration from those countries which had been the largest sources of Jewish and Catholic immigration.

In the words of Congressman Albert Johnson, who chaired the House Immigration Committee in those days, a large number of Jews were “unassimilable” “filthy un-American” Jews prone to “radicalism. And bolshevism.” Never mind that the Jewish families coming to this country were refugees who, by definition, were fleeing terror, not seeing to bring terror to this country.

HIAS and the American Jewish community fought for decades – through the Nuremberg laws, through kristalnacht, through the Second World War and the Holocaust – to re-open America’s doors to refugees.   This was a slow and painful process, which finally culminated in the Refugee Act of 1980.  Today, under the authority of that Act, HIAS is one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies – and the only Jewish one – that works in partnership with the United States government to welcome refugees to the Unites States.  HIAS does this in partnership with Jewish family service agencies and other local partners across the country.  We are also working in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Europe to ensure the safety and dignity of refugees in those places.  Today, around half of the thousands of refugees assisted by HIAS each year are Muslim.  Over the last decade, only couple of hundred our clients each year are Jewish.

And it is because of our concern for all refugees, that HIAS was the only one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies to file suit against the Trump Administration’s January 27 and March 6 refugee and muslim-majority country refugee bans.  The courts ruled in our favor on March 15, but the appeal will be heard tomorrow. Pray for us and for the refugees whom we serve.

There are some critics who say that HIAS has betrayed its mission.  The Jewish newspaper in one community recently stated in an editorial – “We believe Jews must look out for Jews. If HIAS chooses to resettle refugees and take Jews out of the equation, then acknowledge that and remove its Hebrew veneer. Immigrant Aid Society has a fine ring to it.”

I am happy to say, however, that this view is a minority view.  HIAS is doing the same work that we have done for over 130 years, which makes us the oldest refugee agency in the world.  The only difference is that HIAS used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish, and today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.

It would be enough for us to say that the work of HIAS is as “Jewish” as ever because welcoming the stranger and loving the stranger as ourselves – because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt - is repeated as a commandment 36 times in the Torah.  Dayenu.

It would be enough for us to say that the work of HIAS is as “Jewish” as ever because the Jewish refugee experience did not end with the escape from Mitzrayim, but has happened over and over and over again through many centuries of Jewish history. Dayenu.

It would be enough for us to say that the work of HIAS is as “Jewish” as ever because the American Jewish community owes its very existence to those times in its history when America opened its doors to refugees. Dayenu.

And it would be enough for us to say that the work of HIAS is as “Jewish” as ever because this year, over 2000 rabbis from over 48 states signed our statement urging that the United States keep its doors open to refugees.  I do not mind telling this crowd that, while rabbis from all movements of Judaism signed this commitment, no movement was better represented than the Reform movement.   

Now that you are all ordained rabbis – mazel tov -  I hope you will join us in standing up for the Jewishness of welcoming refugees.  I hope you too will sign that statement, join the HIAS welcome campaign for refugees, and continue to stand with us.  HIAS and our advocacy for refugees is only as strong as the community that stands behind us, and you will all now leaders of that community.

The Roger E. Joseph Prize is awarded to honor those who have fought for the causes of human rights and Jewish survival.  As I’ve said, welcoming refugees is about both human rights and Jewish survival – the history of the Jewish people is the history of a refugee people – a people who would no longer exist had their ancestors not found refuge.

In fact, it is worth noting that the first recipient of the Joseph Prize in 1978 was Victor Kugler, who gave refuge to Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam when they could find asylum no place else. 

I actually have a copy of the Frank family refugee file, as they were HIAS clients who were desperately trying to get visas to come to the United States whom HIAS tried to help but could not because they were trapped inside a genocide.  Kugler tried to give the Frank family what HIAS could not give them and what the United States would not give them.

And last year, in 2016, the Joseph Prize the award was given posthumously to Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia.  These recipients of the Joseph Prize, and many other recipients in between, have demonstrated just how Jewish it is to welcome and stand up for the human rights of refugees. 

I will end by recalling the question that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of  the Union for Reform Judaism, asked in his keynote address to the Union of Jewish Communities General Assembly in 2016:  What is the more Jewish Act – welcoming the Sabbath bride, or the refugee from Darfur who has fled persecution?

HIAS looks forward to working with all of you to welcome both.  Once again, mazel tov.

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Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu