You would not recognize America without HIAS.
The 137-year-old Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was relatively unknown to the mainstream until the horrific events of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting thrust it into headlines this week.
The terrorist who killed 11 Jews worshiping on Shabbat morning in Squirrel Hill was reportedly “obsessed” with the organization, which once shepherded Jewish immigrants to America and is now responsible for assisting non-Jewish refugees from countries as far-flung as Bosnia, Haiti, Ethiopia, Iran, and Vietnam.
From loaning the $25 resettlement fee to the “homeless, tempest-tossed” immigrants who washed up on Ellis Island in 1904, to serving survivors of gender-based violence in Uganda in the 2000s, HIAS has saved lives and held fast to the highest principles that make America great. During the Trump administration, HIAS has had a primary role in suing federal and state governments on behalf of immigrants and refugees.
We can’t name the 4.5 million people HIAS has aided in their escape from persecution. We can’t tell you which of your friends or neighbors or family members are with you because of the work of HIAS. But here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the high profile Americans who are safe and well because of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society:
A-list Hollywood star Mila Kunis makes hilarious spy movies and welcomes Shabbat with her children thanks to HIAS. She immigrated to America with her family from Ukraine, fleeing anti-Semitic persecution with only $250 for the seven of them. “We came here on a religious-refugee visa,” she told Glamour in 2016. Who facilitated it? HIAS.
Today, Sergey Brin is known as the man who co-created Google. But when Brin was six, he was just another Jew in Soviet Russia facing religious persecution. His family made their way to America with the help of HIAS, and he has thanked the non-profit by giving them million-dollar gifts and serving on their board. “I would have never had the kinds of opportunities I’ve had here in the Soviet Union, or even in Russia today,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “I would like to see anyone be able to achieve their dreams, and that’s what this organization does.”
Yep! Dr. David Glosser, the maternal uncle of presidential advisor Stephen Miller, says that despite Miller’s work on major anti-immigrant and anti-refugee legislation, Miller himself is in America thanks to aid from HIAS. Glosser writes in Politico that the Miller family came through Ellis Island, fleeing anti-Semitic violence and discriminatory conscription in Belarus, with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“Lolita” author Nabokov brought his explosive reflections on the light of his life and fire of his loins to America with the help of HIAS, which chartered the 1940 ship that took the Nabokov family from the increasingly imperiled Germany to the US. HIAS sponsored the family so that their fares were sold at half the cost. Nabokov biographer Robert Roper quotes Nabokov crediting HIAS not just for facilitating the family’s escape but also for their “first-class” accommodations on the America-bound ship.
What’s up? Well, a lot, thanks to HIAS. Creator of the globally popular texting app WhatsApp Jan Koum came to America as a teenager from the Soviet Union thanks to HIAS, the New York Times reports.That’s something to message about.
Masha Gessen and Keith Gessen
Masha Gessen wrote “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” Her brother, Keith Gessen, wrote the novel “A Terrible Country” (which comes highly recommended by the Schmooze.) Masha Gessen writes wonderfully for the New Yorker. Keith Gessen also writes wonderfully for the New Yorker. Both are activists as well as journalists. Both are in America because of HIAS.
Cow eyes, floating brides, upside-down lovers, eerie violins — these are the glorious images associated with the artist Marc Chagall. Add to that visual library the $500 given by HIAS to Chagall and his wife to help buy them passage from Marseille, in occupied France, to the US in 1941. Jewish makeup entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein also donated $100 to the Chagalls’ escape fund. Gorgeous.
Novelist Gary Shteyngart calls HIAS, which resettled his family after their escape from the USSR in 1979, “one of the greatest organizations that ever existed.” That’s a super happy true love story.
If you don’t know Avner Gvaryahu’s name yet, you will. The Israeli paratrooper-turned-anti-occupation-advocate heads up the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence, which creates a community of former IDF combat soldiers who speak openly about their experiences in the occupied territories. Gvaryahu is Israeli, but his family came to America as refugees with the help of HIAS.
Beloved singer-songwriter Regina Spektor has continued to give back to HIAS since the organization brought her family to America from the USSR when she was just nine years old. She sought donations for HIAS in a “brokenhearted” Twitter post on Sunday.
Golodryga, co-host of CBS This Morning, credits HIAS with her family’s resettlement in America after fleeing the USSR. She has been outspoken on Twitter about the aid her family received from HIAS, spearheading donation efforts. As an 18-month-old, Golodryga came to America with an airline ticket purchased by HIAS, she shared.
“Until I emigrated to America, my family and I endured progressive ostracism and discrimination,” Henry Kissinger said. The first Jewish Secretary of State came to America with the help of HIAS.
Like Chagall, Arendt and her family slipped out of occupied France by way of Marseilles, with a ticket paid for by HIAS. Arendt spoke regularly about her certainty that she would have been executed if she had not been able to leave Marseilles at that time.
So there you have it — HIAS has brought America artists, thinkers, pop-stars, statesmen, and even Forward employees.
Thanks a lot, HIAS.
Jenny Singer is the deputy lifestyle editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny
This story "Mila Kunis, Stephen Miller Came To America Via HIAS" was written by Jenny Singer.