HEBREW IMMIGRANT AID SOCIETY (HIAS), international immigrant and refugee service. HIAS was founded in New York City in 1881, when the Russian Emigrant Relief Committee, a temporary body established to help Jews escaping Czarist Russia, formed the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society. The new organization provided meals, transportation, and employment counseling to arrivals at New York's Castle Garden, the main immigrant-processing center of that time. In 1882 the first Jewish shelter was established on the Lower East Side. In 1889 the shelter adopted the name Hebrew Sheltering House Association and was reorganized by East European Jewish immigrants under the Hebrew name, Hachnosas Orchim. In 1909 the Hebrew Sheltering House Association (1884) and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (1902) merged. Responding to the growing needs of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the organization soon grew to national dimensions, providing help in legal entry, basic subsistence, employment, citizenship instruction, and locating of relatives for nearly half a million newcomers to the United States during the organization's first decade. Under President John L. Bernstein (1917–26), HIAS offices were opened in Eastern Europe and the Far East.
In 1927 HIAS joined the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) and the European Emigdirect to form the collectively run HICEM. Although the economic depression of the 1930s resulted in demands for additional domestic services to Jewish communities all over the world, most of HICEM's efforts were devoted toward financing and assisting emigration from Nazi Germany and finding outlets for refugees from Eastern and Central Europe in Western Europe and South America. HIAS continued its European activities throughout World War II, while imploring Western governments to open their gates wider to Jewish war refugees. In 1945 HIAS dissolved its partnership with HICEM, and in 1949 it cooperated with the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in forming the Displaced Persons Coordinating Committee. As in previous years, HIAS continued to fight against restrictive U.S. immigration laws following World War II, and worked with Israel and with other Jewish immigrant services.
In 1954 HIAS merged with the United Service for New Americans and the JDC Migration Department into the United HIAS Service, a single international agency which helped thousands of East European and North African immigrants – especially following the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the Middle East crises of 1956 and 1967 – to find new homes, mainly in Western Europe, the United States, and South America. Today about 30 percent of HIAS's budget comes from the U.S. Department of State; the remainder comes from private donations.
During the 1980s there were tensions between HIAS, representing the American Jewish community along with some of the Soviet Jewry movement's agencies, and the Israeli government over whether and how to aid Soviet Jews seeking freedom in countries other than Israel. The Israeli government felt that the Soviet Jewry movement was a Zionist movement and that since it had issued the visas under which Soviet Jews were able to leave, all Soviet Jews should go to Israel and emigrate, if they so chose, from Israel to other countries. HIAS, some local federations, and the Union of Councils felt that the Soviet Jewry movement was a human rights and human freedom issue and therefore, they were prepared to assist Soviet Jews just as they assisted Jews leaving other lands of oppression. The divisions were deep. Each side was faithful to the truth of their experience. In the end HIAS helped those Soviet Jews who wished to come to the United States directly and local federations assisted in the resettlement.
In addition to its world headquarters in New York City, HIAS maintains offices in Buenos Aires, Charlotte, N.C., Djabal and Goz Amir, Chad, Kiev, Moscow, Nairobi, Quito, Ecuador, Tel Aviv, Vienna, and Washington, D.C. Since its beginnings in 1881, HIAS has helped more than 4.5 million people to immigrate to the United States and other countries of safe haven around the world.