For the last 130 years, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) has provided rescue and refuge for persecuted and oppressed peoples – both Jews and, more recently, refugees and immigrants from all backgrounds – around the world.
On February 23rd, HIAS is throwing a benefit concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City in honor of their 130th anniversary. Headlining the concert is Regina Spektor, one of America’s most beloved young singer songwriters – and also an immigrant who, with HIAS’ help, moved from Russia to the United States in the late 1980s.
In the lead up to the concert HIAS Young Leader representative, Alexis Ortiz, talked with Repair the World about how she got inspired by HIAS, how their work around immigration has remained vital throughout the organization’s history, and what it’s like to work with Regina.
How did you get involved with HIAS?
I first got involved in Washington DC about two years ago. I had led some trips for AJWS in Central America, and wanted to stay involved with that community. HIAS in DC has a partnership with the Central American Resource Center, which is a one-stop center for Latin American immigrants in DC. I volunteered through HIAS teaching ESL and citizenship classes. We would hold big celebrations for Christmas and Hanukkah where we’d make papusas and latkes. I also got involved on Capitol Hill, lobbying for refugee policy. I recently moved to New York City, and have continued my work with HIAS here.
Why does HIAS’ mission speak to you?
Issues of immigration are so important in our country. There is so much contentious, negative legislation being passed – but at the end of the day, we’re all immigrants. My own background is Jewish and Puerto Rican. I was born here and because of my family’s resources, we’ve been able to adapt easily. But a lot of people don’t have that option. Being involved with HIAS has offered an opportunity for me to provide a needed service – both on the direct service front and doing policy work. Also from a social perspective, some of my best friends are people I met through HiAS. The Young Leaders are a group of really committed, smart, fun people.
Have you always connected service with your Jewish heritage?
I didn’t grow up with strong Jewish background. In the past 5 years, I’ve grown more connected to my Jewish heritage, and it’s all been through this social justice lens. Before HIAS, I was always involved with service – but I’d never looked at it through that perspective. Now I understand that there is this deep tradition around the issue, and it’s powerful for me to understand where my own impulses towards justice come from.
Why did you reach out to Regina Spektor for the HIAS benefit?
Regina’s family was helped by HIAS. They left Russia in 1989 when she was 9, and traveled to Vienna where HIAS ran a processing center. Then they went to Rome and from there ended up in the Bronx – the move was all facilitated by HIAS. Today her parents are pillars of the Russian Jewish community in New York. Meanwhile, it’s HIAS’ 130th anniversary and we wanted to do this benefit to celebrate. When we reached out to Regina, she was really excited about the chance to give something back. [Learn more about Regina's immigration story at the video below]:
What is the goal of the benefit concert?
HIAS’ goal in its 130th year is to bring awareness around immigration and refugee policy to young people. A lot of people in the audience will be Russians who came over in the 1980s and 1990s – we want to get them, and more people involved and excited about HIAS’ activities, and of course to raise funds. HIAS does incredible work all over the world. Now that Jews aren’t as endangered as they once were, they work on asylum review for other places, like religious minorities coming out of Iran. It’s such vital work that is completely rooted in Jewish values.
Any last thoughts?
I think it’s wonderful that we can work with Regina for the concert. There are so many people that HIAS has helped – like Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall, actress Mila Kunis and Google’s founder, Sergey Brin – and I think working with someone famous for the benefit highlights the role that immigrants have played in our country since it’s founding. What a source of innovation they’ve been, and what amazing contributions they’ve made.
Learn more about HIAS’ work around immigration here.