A demonstrator holds a sign to protest against the refugee ban on Feb. 4. Photo by Tom Mihalek/Reuters

Embracing the Jewish community’s refugee roots


HIAS was established 135 years ago to protect Jewish refugees who were fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Today, we remain true to our original mission of refugee protection. We are helping people who have fled their countries because their lives were in jeopardy due to who they are or what they believe.

[Abraham H. Miller: HIAS should return to its roots]

When there are refugees who are Jewish, HIAS is still there to make sure they receive help. In the past year, HIAS brought Jews from Iran, the Middle East, Ukraine, and other parts of the former Soviet Union to safety and freedom in the United States.

Yet, some in our community continue to ask, why are we helping refugees fleeing genocide, even when they are not Jewish? Thankfully, the Torah provides us with a clear answer.

Our most sacred text delivers a universal message about Jewish commitment to human rights and refugee protection. We read 36 times about the commandment to love the stranger as ourselves, for we know the heart of a stranger, as we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Assisting refugees of all faiths and ethnicities is not just a fulfillment of the values imbued by our holiest scripture, it’s a recognition of our people’s own Exodus experiences. The American Jewish community’s very existence is rooted in the windows of time when the United States opened its doors to refugees. Remaining silent while others seek the same opportunity to live in safety would be morally reprehensible.

With the largest number of refugees and displaced persons in recorded history, our mission is as relevant as ever—because of our roots. That is the only reason HIAS does what it does. Not for profit, but out of love and a commitment to our Jewish-American values.

Yes, HIAS (along with eight other mostly faith-based agencies) does receive government funding to subsidize these efforts, but we do not make a profit. HIAS’ local resettlement sites receive $2,075 per refugee with which we must pay our staff and overhead while providing the refugee with transportation, a fully furnished apartment for three months, a kitchen stocked with food, English lessons and cultural orientation, a cash allowance, assistance with school enrollment, and job placement services. There is no profit; we rely heavily on local volunteers and private donations.

An America that does not welcome refugees is not an America that most American Jews recognize. Just ask the hundreds of congregationsnearly 2,000 rabbis, or thousands of supporters who attended our National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees.

We will not stand on the sidelines as Muslim refugees are turned away just for being Muslim, just as we could not stand idly by when the U.S. turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Europe during the 1930s and 40s. When we say, “Never again,” we mean never again for everyone.

We cannot protect ourselves by being only for ourselves. We can only protect ourselves by protecting and implementing universal principles of human rights. If we acted only when Jewish refugees were in danger, as opposed to constantly advocating for the protection of all refugees, it wouldn’t only wrong, it would be a rejection of our refugee roots.


Mark Hetfield is the President and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.

The children of Polish Jews from the region between Germany and Poland on their arrival in London on the "Warsaw." Feb. 1939. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

HIAS should return to its roots


Imagine you are an impoverished religious Jew living in Paris. You can no longer wear religious garb out of fear of being set upon by assailants from North Africa who will beat you to within an inch of your life, if not take it. Your children are bullied in school, as their teachers ignore their complaints, and might even take perverse satisfaction in their plight.

[Mark Hetfield responds:
Embracing the Jewish community’s refugee roots]

Even though French political figures make speeches condemning anti-Semitism and police are routinely sent to protect Jewish institutions, the anti-Semitism grows on the body politic with the onslaught of migrants from Muslim-majority countries who carry anti-Semitism with them as part of their cultural and religious socialization.

When immigrant mothers are angry at their children, they unabashedly call them “Jews” as if it were an invective, not caring who hears.

In 2014, a survey of 1,580 French respondents found that Muslims, who composed one-third of the interviewees, were two to three times more likely to be anti-Jewish than French people generally.

You, too, would like to leave France, but you don’t want to go to Israel, where the standard of living is more down to earth than luxurious, where there is terrorism and a state of siege, and where the language is difficult to learn.

Who will help you? In your grandmother’s day, there was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — the one and only agency that, with the help of private contributions, came to the aid of European Jews.

But the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of your grandmother’s day no longer exists. It has dropped the “Hebrew” and has become simply “HIAS,” avoiding the word “Hebrew” because its clients are no longer Jewish, although the last fundraising letter I received flaunted painful scenes of Jews trying to escape Europe on the eve of World War II.

The Jewish roots of HIAS go back to rescuing Jews from the Russian pogroms of the 19th century. Its role as a lifeline for Jews who had nobody else to help them is prominently displayed in its fundraising pitches to Jews, but the word “Hebrew” might “offend” the Muslim refugees from the Middle East that HIAS is now busy resettling in America.

No longer headquartered in New York, HIAS has moved to the Washington Beltway to be near its new source of funding — the federal government.

Refugee resettlement is big business, so much so that it is difficult to parse whether the emphasis is on doing well or doing good.

HIAS is the only “Jewish” organization approved by the federal government to resettle refugees, but it is a small player compared with the other religious and secular organizations in the business of refugee resettlement.

Still, HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield, in 2014, commanded a salary of more than $318,000, plus $22,000 in benefits. In the eight years of the Obama administration, HIAS received funds exceeding $157 million, most of which came from the federal government. A small percentage of this funding is used to lobby the public at the grass-roots level and to lobby legislators. Consequently, members of the American public pay for HIAS to convince them, and their elected representatives, to continue to sustain HIAS refugee programs with tax dollars.

There are 65 million displaced people in the world, so this is not a business that is going away. And after 120 days, when organizations like HIAS that bring in refugees can no longer support them and they have not found employment, the resettlement organizations take them to the local welfare office. The majority of Middle Eastern refugees are on some form of assistance, with 90 percent getting food stamps, 73 percent getting medical assistance and some 63 percent receiving outright cash welfare. Middle Eastern refugees cost the American taxpayer more than $64,000 per person.

Now HIAS, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, is suing the Trump administration over its travel ban. From his lofty perch, Hetfield is lecturing the American public on how refugee resettlement is the fulfillment of American values. This hectoring earned Hetfield a place on Tucker Carlson’s TV show, where he was asked to explain what values are being celebrated by bringing in refugees. He could not remotely articulate what those values are.

In my value system, there are Jews throughout Europe who are living lives all too reminiscent of the pogroms that gave birth to HIAS. Yet HIAS does nothing for them. Half the Jews of Malmo, Sweden — a favorite destination of Muslim immigrants — have found life there intolerable and have left. HIAS was not there to help.

European Jews will not qualify for refugee status as it is currently defined. The American government will not provide grants to assist them. But they are condemned to lives filled with ongoing terror. The difference between the pogroms of Russia and the violence against Jews in Paris is that in France, the government still attempts to protect Jews.

But as the percentage of Muslims increases in France and throughout Europe, the pogroms launched by them — like the locking of Jews in a synagogue — will get worse. Maybe next time, the mob will burn the synagogue as the French gendarmes are overwhelmed by the sheer number of attackers.

It’s time for HIAS to rediscover its roots. If it is concerned about rescuing the most victimized of people, it should begin with the Jews of Europe who are eager to escape the anti-Semitism of Islam and for whom there is no help in the West. The organization should do this even though there are no government subsidies for these people and, perhaps, no lofty salaries in the offing.

When that is done, I will be most pleased to be lectured not only about American values, but also Jewish values. And my grandmother and mother, who fled the pogroms of Russia, would have been proud of such a version of HIAS.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. Follow him on Twitter @salomoncenter

Demonstrators at Chicago’s O’Hare airport protesting Donald Trump’s executive order on Jan. 29. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Jewish groups praise court for upholding stay on Trump’s travel ban


Jewish groups welcomed a federal appeals court ruling upholding a stay on President Donald Trump’s ban on the entry of refugees and of travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“We applaud the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, and hope that it sends an important message to the nation and the world that the United States is a nation that does not exclude people based on their faith and welcomes those seeking refuge,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement it posted on Twitter just minutes after the court ruled on Thursday.

The tweet noted that the ADL had joined an amicus brief in the legal action originally brought by the State of Washington against the ban.

The unanimous decision of the Ninth Circuit panel of three judges was a narrow one, upholding last week’s decision by a federal court in Seattle to stay the ban pending further consideration of its legality.

Also commending the ruling was the American Jewish Committee. “We welcome the 9th Circuit ruling–an important moment for U.S. democracy and values,” it said on Twitter.

HIAS, the Jewish group advocating on behalf of immigrants and refugees, tweeted links to the decision. It also has joined an amicus brief against the ban, in Maryland.

One of the HIAS tweets was a reminder that its battle against the ban is not over; Trump’s ban may yet be upheld by the courts.

“We will continue fighting Pres. Trump’s executive order until we’ve re-secured the American tradition of #WelcomingRefugees to our shores,” it said.

HIAS is spearheading rallies on behalf of refugees to take place in nearly a dozen states this Sunday. A focus will be Trump’s executive order. Also backing the rallies are the ADL, the American Jewish World Service, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the rabbinical associations of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect called the court’s ruling “a victory for American freedom over Presidential tyranny.”

“The court has sided with refugees who thirst for hope over a president who yearns to hate,” the center said in a statement.

Trump appeared ready to take his case to reinstate the ban pending further legal review to the Supreme Court. “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” he said on Twitter.

Neither Trump nor his team has explained what imminent danger cannot withstand the temporary stay on his order, issued about a week after he assumed office last month; no terrorist committing a crime on U.S. soil has hailed from any of the seven nations listed in the ban.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader in the Senate, called on Trump to give up on the executive order.

“President Trump ought to see the writing on the wall, abandon proposal, roll up his sleeves and come up with a real, bipartisan plan to keep us safe,” he said on Twitter.

Alan Dershowitz, the noted constitutional lawyer, had similar advice.

“Precedent trumps President Trump,” he said on CNN.

Photo from Facebook.

HIAS sues Trump over refugee order in first for resettlement agency


A Jewish refugee resettlement agency filed a lawsuit against the federal government Feb. 7 on behalf of Muslim immigrants, a first for the 138-year-old organization.

HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, sued President Donald Trump in a Maryland district court Wednesday. As one of nine State Department sponsors, HIAS provided services to 350,000 refugees and asylum seekers last year.

The class-action suit also names the Departments of Homeland Security and State and their chiefs as defendants.

In the filing, HIAS alleges the president’s Jan. 27 order restricting entry to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries “was intended and designed to target and discriminate against Muslims.” The order also freezes global refugee admissions.

By suing the government over the order, HIAS joins a number of parties that have taken Trump to court, most notably the state of Washington in a case currently under consideration by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A ruling from a lower court in that case blocked Trump’s order. In a tweet, Trump said that ruling was “ridiculous and will be overturned!”

HIAS and its co-plaintiff, the International Refugee Assistance Project, are represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The complaint alleges that the order violates the First and Fifth Amendment rights of Muslims in the country by singling them out based on their faith.

It names as plaintiffs several Muslims legally residing in the U.S. who are negatively impacted by the order, for instance, because they can’t leave the country without fear of being permanently barred.

“Our history and our values, as Jews and as Americans, require us to fight this illegal and immoral new policy with every tool at our disposal—including litigation,” HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield said in a statement.

The suit quotes the Torah as commanding Jews to “love the stranger because ‘we were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

“The Executive Order severely impedes HIAS’s religious mission and work by intentionally discriminating against Muslims,” the suit alleges.

The lawsuit acknowledges that the order has been temporarily blocked by the Washington case, but notes that a reversal of the judge’s ruling would “reinstate the Executive Order in its entirety.”

The day before HIAS filed suit, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle filed an amicus brief with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the Washington case, referencing Jewish refugee migration in the 20th Century and asking that the appeals court “heed the lessons from the past and uphold the district court at this historic juncture in our nation’s history.”

Several Jewish families affected by Trump’s refugee ban, says HIAS


The U.S. ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries has affected several Jewish families, according to the refugee support and advocacy group HIAS.

The ban, which came Friday in an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, has plunged into further uncertainty the lives of a Jewish Iranian man in his late 20s and his middle-aged mother, who for the past year have been waiting in an unnamed country for a reply on their application for asylum in the United States, HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield, told JTA Sunday.

Citing privacy concerns and a desire not to further complicate the application process, Hetfield declined to name the applicants or reveal their whereabouts. The man and his mother, he said, are trying to reunite with two of the mother’s daughters who are already in the United States.

Last year, HIAS handled 159 applications by Jews for asylum in the United States, among them 89 Iranians and several Jews from Yemen.

Founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS was recognized in 1976 by the Justice Department as an agency authorized to assist immigration. It now has hundreds of staff and is active in over 30 countries, processing more than 4,000 refugee asylum applications annually – most of them for non-Jews.

HIAS applicants from the Middle East — who are vetted and screened in a process which can take as long as two years – often travel to the United States through Ukraine or Austria if they have a visa.

HIAS is among several American Jewish groups that have protested Trump’s executive order.

“The ban affects hundreds of our clients, for whom it may be the difference between life and death,” Hetfield said.

The executive order prohibits refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, with an indefinite ban on those fleeing war-torn Syria. Citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are barred from entry for 90 days.
Hetfield also noted a case involving a non-Jewish family of asylum seekers from Syria, which despite having obtained on Jan. 20 visas to enter the United States as refugees following a Homeland Security Department vetting, were turned back in Ukraine to their camp in Jordan on Jan. 27. Airline officials cited Trump’s executive order in nixing the family’s flight to the United States.

The mother and her daughters, ages 5 and 8, seek to reunite with the father of the family, who is already in the United States. They were allowed back into Jordan, “but in such cases, there is a risk that people who leave to become refugees in the United States will not be let back in, or worse,” Hetfield said.

Beings of no nation, but a world of refugees


So the world is awake.

We thought all we needed was the indelible image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi and his delicate little body washed up on a beach to rouse us from passivity to passion regarding Syrian refugees.

It wasn’t enough that for four years, we saw images of beheadings, massacres, ancient relics reduced to rubble and heard about a head of state using chemical weapons to smite his own people. We read the headlines as the death toll rose and rose, by now to more than 320,000 souls, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But until we saw little Alan, it had not hit hard enough.

And now it has hit hard again. This time in Israel, with the indelible, bloodied image of 29-year-old Mila Habtom Zerhom, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, who on Oct. 18 was mistaken for a terrorist, shot and then trampled to death by an angry mob. “People took out their rage on him,” a bystander told Ynet news.

So this week we wake to the challenge of the 50,000 or so Sudanese and Eritrean refugees living in Israel, many of whom face problems even more severe and profound than those of typical asylum seekers. So we’re awake, again, and we must suffer the consequences of conscience.

“Three months ago, I would have said our biggest challenge is to get the word out that Jews should care about refugee issues,” Riva Silverman, vice president of external affairs for HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said during a recent appearance in Los Angeles. “Today, our biggest challenge is: Can we respond quickly enough to all the hundreds and thousands of people that are saying ‘We want to get involved, we want to help, what can we do?’ ”

During the High Holy Days, which occurred about a week after Alan’s image was disseminated all over the world, HIAS raised more than $1 million for its ongoing efforts aiding refugees in places like Syria, Chad, Uganda, Ukraine and Ecuador.  “It was our most successful season of fundraising in decades,” Silverman said, outdoing last year’s sum of nearly $250,000. “The refugee experience is in the Jewish DNA, so I think this issue touched a chord in the Jewish community in a very profound way. It’s been our history for the last 2000 years.”

The Syrian refugee problem is most acute. Silverman estimates that 11 million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict, a number, she adds, which is equal to roughly half the Syrian population. Seven million are internally displaced, after being forced to flee their homes, and nearly 4.2 million, according to the latest figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have fled the country – most of them now living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

“Good hosts,” Silverman said, “but overwhelmed.”

One in every five people in Lebanon right now is a refugee. “Imagine if that was the case on your block,” Silverman told a small crowd gathered at the West Hollywood home of philanthropists and activists Bill Resnick and Michael Stubbs, who regularly host a salon series, Petrichor, exploring major global issues.

Without healthcare, education or enough access to food, many of those refugees preferred to risk the perilous journey to Europe. We know how that ended for Alan and his family.

Unfortunately, the Syrian refugee problem isn’t the half of it. As I write, tens of thousands are fleeing escalating violence in Nigeria, spilling into neighboring regions like Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Nearly two and a half million from South Sudan have been displaced by violent conflict there. “Ten years ago,” Silverman said, during the genocide in Darfur, “everyone was very passionate [about refugee issues], but I guess we got kinda bored because those people are still living in camps.”

The number of refugees worldwide is staggering. It is estimated that nearly 60 million people are displaced around the world, and some 22 million of them are living in exile from their home countries. But here’s what’s worse: the total number of resettlement slots available to 22 million people, from all the countries in the world combined, amounts to a paltry 105,000.

The United States accepts up to 70,000 refugees each year, though Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the U.S. would increase its quota by 15,000 per year for the next three years in order to accommodate those fleeing Syria. Germany announced it will take in 800,000 Syrians this year. But by and large, Silverman said, “Less than 1 percent of refugees will ever be resettled in another country.” Millions will be born and die in camps.

For a refugee, the state of statelessness can last a lifetime.

But the concept of a refugee is still fairly new: the UNHCR was created in 1950, just after World War II, in order to help European Jews and others who were displaced by the conflict. HIAS has been around even longer: Founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, the organization considers itself “the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S.” In Israel, its work primarily consists of helping the Israeli government integrate the 50,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers who crossed the border into Israel in the mid-2000s. What happened on Sunday is proof of how badly their services are needed there.

“It was a horrible tragedy and highlights that there are [many] asylum seekers in Israel whose cases have yet to be resolved,” Silverman said.

In fact, it was the Israeli Ministry of the Interior that invited HIAS to help create a processing system for asylum seekers, which Israel lacked. Now, more of these asylum seekers are receiving legal representation, which is the only way to expand their rights and get them out of detention camps. “Anywhere in the world an asylum seeker has a lawyer, their chances for a positive outcome skyrocket,” Silverman said.

It’s comforting to know that when the world turns its back, HIAS is there, doing its holy work, caring for the most vulnerable strangers, orphans and widows on earth, providing them with legal assistance, psychosocial support and helping to resettle 3,500 refugees in the U.S. each year. Israel would do well to follow the example of others in the Jewish world.

“One thing we often say is: We used to protect refugees because they were Jewish,” Silverman said. “Now we do it because we are Jewish.”

Frank Lautenberg leaves legacy of American Jewry’s profile


This story originally appeared on JNS.org.

Someone searching for the legacy of Frank Lautenberg, the longtime Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey, might simply look to Baruch College in New York. Of the 1,900 Jewish students there, 60 percent are from the former Soviet Union, 15 percent are Persian and 10 percent are Syrian.

Or one might look to the dozens of newly minted U.S. citizens who lined up at a New Jersey citizenship ceremony in the mid-1990s, waiting for Lautenberg to autograph the back of their citizenship papers, grateful to him that they were able to come to America.

“He stayed and signed every single one,” said David Mallach, who had frequent contact with Lautenberg when Mallach directed the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest in New Jersey. “For him, this was such a powerful statement of what he was all about.”

Lautenberg, who died Monday morning at age 89, was the oldest member of the Senate and the only one representing the World War II generation. During his Senate tenure — he served twice, from 1983 to 2001 and then again from 2003 until his death — he was responsible for numerous major pieces of legislation, including one that outlawed cigarette smoking on domestic flights and another that prohibits individuals who have been convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm.

But the signature piece of legislation that most resonates in the Jewish community is the Lautenberg Amendment. Passed in 1989 and enacted in 1990, that law allowed thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union to immigrate to this country by permitting them to use historic religious persecution to receive refugee status.

“I, and many of my Hillel colleagues who work on campuses here in New York, bear witness every day the impact of the Lautenberg Amendment,” Matt Vogel, executive director of Baruch College Hillel, last week told an audience gathered in New York to honor Lautenberg with the Renaissance Award from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Lautenberg’s wife, Bonnie, told the gala that her husband — too ill to attend — considered the amendment his “proudest achievement.”

“Without the amendment, hundreds of thousands of Jews would not have been able to enter the United States,” said Mark Levin, the director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “Without the amendment, the profile of the American Jewish community would be very different—in terms of numbers, in terms of making the community better.”

Senator Frank Lautenberg with Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan. Photo from Hillel News & Views.

Levin said that Lautenberg saw that with the fall of the communism, there was a rise in nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. At the same time, “the rate of denial for people coming to the United States was skyrocketing,” Levin said.

Lautenberg recognized that he needed to do something to help these refugees. “Something in his body just clicked; this was something he had to do,” said Stephen M. Greenberg, a longtime friend as well as NCSJ chairman. He said there was a moment when Lautenberg realized, “I’m here for a reason, a Jewish man in the Senate, and I have to do something.”

Alla Shagalova, assistant director of pre-arrival and immigration for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), was one of the refugees waiting permission to come to the United States, having left Russia in 1989 with her husband and 2-year-old son. “We really felt we had to leave as possible,” said Shagalova, who came to this country via Austria and Italy, assisted by HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “We were in jeopardy,” she said. “Anti-Semitism, which had been kind of controlled by the oppressive regime, was now out of control and could become violent at any time.”

Without the Lautenberg Amendment, she said, “We might have been denied refugee status and would have been stuck in Italy in limbo, stateless for an unpredictable amount of time.”

A New Jersey resident who works for HIAS, Shagalova says she was honored to be able to vote for Lautenberg as her senator.

The legislation has since helped persecuted religious minorities fleeing Iran, Burma and Vietnam as well.

“He never stopped working for populations at risk, particularly those persecuted for their religious beliefs,” said Melanie Nezer, senior director for U.S. policy and advocacy for HIAS. “He was a real inspiration for those who care about immigrants and who fight for immigrants’ rights,” she saod, noting that the immigration overhaul bill currently in the Senate includes an extension of the Lautenberg amendment would give the president discretion to designate particular groups as refugees for humanitarian reasons or if in the national interest.   

Lautenberg was also “a fervent believer that government could be a force for good,” said David Mallach, who had frequent contact with Lautenberg when Mallach directed the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest in New Jersey. Lautenberg would speak about “how the GI Bill make it possible for him to get out of being a poor kid,” according to Mallach.

Mallach recalled how the senator used some of the power of government in 1987 in the run-up to the December Soviet Jewry rally on Washington. Mallach thought it would be terrific to charter an Amtrak train to bring participants down to DC. Since Amtrak is federally funded and Lautenberg sat on the Transportation Committee, Mallach said he “called Frank’s office and said, ‘How do I rent a train?’”

“The senator called up Amtrak, and I got a call saying you are to call this person in the Amtrak office,” said Mallach, who would charter a 1,600-passenger “Freedom Train” train for the rally.

A millionaire, Lautenberg made his fortune as co-founder of Automated Data Processing and eventually became involved in the Jewish community, serving as national chair for the United Jewish Appeal (now known as the Jewish Federations of North America), establishing the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology, a major cancer center at The Hebrew University in Israel, and serving on the American Jewish Committee’s national board of directors, Hebrew University’s board of governors, and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive committee.

Lautenberg grew up in Paterson, NJ, with little attachment to organized Jewry, but was strongly influenced Rabbi Shai Shacknai of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, NJ. “He and the rabbi really hit it off,” Greenberg said. “Something was in his gut, in his kishkes that came out.”

Initially reluctant to get too involved with Jewish issues as a senator, he “became more comfortable on Jewish and particularly Israel issues,” said Doug Bloomfield, a columnist who worked as a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during Lautenberg’s early years in the Senate.

Jewish groups ask Kerry to fight anti-Semitism in Hungary


A dozen Jewish organizations sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressing their concern over the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary.

The May 14 letter commended Kerry for his offices’ recent human rights report that detailed the rise of the xenophobic and anti-Semitic Jobbik party and encouraged Kerry “to keep the issue of intolerance and discrimination squarely on the U.S.-Hungarian bilateral agenda.”

The Jobbik party has called for the creation of a list of Jewish public officials and labeled Jews a national security risk, according to the letter, which also asked Kerry to raise this issue personally in any dealings he has with Hungarian officials.

There have been attempts toward “rehabilitation and glorification of World War II-era figures, who were openly anti-Semitic and pro-fascist,” the Jewish leaders wrote.

“We view U.S. leadership as indispensable to the advancement of human rights,” the letter continued.

Signers of the letter included representatives from Agudath Israel of America, American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Hadassah, HIAS, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Federations of North America, NCSJ, the Rabbinical Assembly, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Simon Wiesenthal Center, World Jewish Congress and World Jewish Restitution Organization.

There are more than 100,000 Jews living in Hungary today.

Iranian Jews honor local Jewish nonprofits, HIAS


Nearly 500 local Iranian Jews packed two auditoriums at UCLA’s Fowler Museum on Jan. 28 for an event honoring three prominent Los Angeles-area Jewish nonprofits and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). 

The gathering, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation and the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), marked the first time in more than three decades that the Iranian-Jewish community has publicly thanked HIAS, the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) and Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) for helping community members immigrate, often under duress, from their native Iran and resettle in Los Angeles.

“Today, after 30 years, we can now stop and recognize these incredible four organizations for the kind help they offered us from the moment we left Iran until today,” Younes Nazarian, chair of the foundation, said. “It is now our community’s duty to return the kindness bestowed on us by these groups by not only donating to them, but volunteering our time and serving on their boards.”

Iranian-Jewish community members at the event expressed gratitude for the help extended by the larger Jewish community as these new immigrants dealt with the trauma of fleeing a revolution-torn Iran in the late 1970s and 1980s.

“These Jewish institutions opened their doors graciously and offered their services to us that were culturally sensitive and confidential — this was vital for our community that has a collective culture in which there is a strong pathology of guilt and shame in receiving help,” said Morgan Hakimi, the event’s emcee, who is also a former president of the Beverly Hills-based Nessah Synagogue.

Individual Iranian Jews shared personal stories with the audience about how each nonprofit had aided them. Elnaz Panbechi, a 20-something recent immigrant and pharmaceuticals graduate student, said she was overwhelmed with joy after receiving a no-interest loan from JFLA.

“I started to realize and appreciate the people that were behind these loans,” an emotional Panbechi said. “I became thankful for being in a community and amongst people that were so caring and have their hands to help another person like me build a better life for myself.”

Among the programs offered by JVS is a women’s career mentoring program, called WoMentoring; according to JVS, over the past seven years, one-third of JVS’ scholarship recipients have been high-achieving Iranian-Jewish students with financial difficulties.

At the same time, the larger Iranian community has also benefited from JFS’ Iranian Peer Counseling Helpline, which offers Farsi-speaking counselors to help with family problems. JFS has also provided seminars and programs for Iranians dealing with drug abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse, depression, homelessness, mental illness, poverty and other social problems that are cultural taboos to discuss within the community.

Perhaps the most emotional aspect of the event came in the outpouring of love for HIAS, which since the 1979 Iranian revolution has been instrumental in rescuing and resettling Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran, including Christians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians. 

“HIAS has played a very important role in influencing elected officials in Congress to keep the doors of immigration open to religious minorities escaping Iran — particularly under the leadership of Jerry Teller, one of HIAS’ past chairmen, who was instrumental during some of the most challenging times,” said Elliot Benjamin, an Iranian-Jewish attorney and member of the Resettlement Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Since 1979, approximately 80,000 Jews have fled Iran and now reside in Israel, Europe or the United States. Today, between 10,000 and 20,000 Jews are believed to be still living in Iran and are gradually leaving the country every year with the help of HIAS.

Shahla Javdan, president of IAJF, said HIAS has helped roughly 47 percent of the Jews who have left since 1979 to resettle in Los Angeles, and the organization has also given nearly 350 scholarships to Iranian immigrants in the United States. 

“The immigration experience is unpleasant, and when Iranian Jews or any other refugees are experiencing it, they grumble and complain about it to HIAS just as the Hebrews complained to Moses when they were escaping from Egypt,” Mark Hetfield, the interim president and CEO of HIAS, said. “So it is very moving to see so many Iranian Jews understand today that we at HIAS were trying to help them all to move to a better place.”

Out of fear of repercussions within Iran, HIAS and local leaders have not publicized the group’s efforts in helping religious minorities to flee their country, yet recent political trends in Washington, D.C., have transformed their policy. Specifically, the expiration in September of legislation in Congress known as the Lautenberg Amendment, which allows for religious minorities in Iran to more easily seek asylum in the United States for humanitarian reasons. As a result of the expiration, HIAS has gone public to encourage members of Congress to renew the law.

The evening also marked a growing trend in the often insular and tight-knit local Iranian-Jewish community to connect with the larger Jewish community, as well as a new spirit of volunteerism. 

“It is now time for us as a community of Iranian-Americans to get engaged and involved in these community organizations in order to bring about real change,” Sharon Nazarian, president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, said. “We need to be at the table in order to be relevant, to have a say and to be a part of the decision-making process.”

For more information on the Iranian-Jewish community’s night of appreciation, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at www.jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews

Availability of kosher food aboard Titanic sheds light on immigration via England


Of the 2,225 people aboard Titanic on its maiden voyage, 1,512 perished in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic when the ship went down in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

Charles Kennell was among the nearly 700 crew members to die that night. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, the 30-year-old Kennell signed on to the White Star Line’s Titanic on April 4, 1912. He listed his address as 6 Park View, Southampton, the port city in southeast England from which the Titanic would embark.

Kennell had already served on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, which took its maiden voyage in 1911. Now he came aboard the larger, more luxurious Titanic for wages of four pounds a month. Kennell was the ship’s “Hebrew cook.” The Titanic had kosher food service.

Midway through the great wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to America—which brought two million Jews to the United States between 1881 and 1924—major passenger lines crossing the Atlantic began instituting kosher food service for its Jewish passengers, mainly immigrants in third-class steerage.

But historians and authors who explore and preserve the body of knowledge about Titanic know little else about kosher food and Jewish life aboard the ill-fated liner.

“It’s been a very tough subject to get much on,” said Charles Haas, president of the Titanic International Society. “My research has generated more questions than answers. It’s been, in a way, frustrating because I haven’t been able to find anybody who knows for sure almost anything.”

Haas and John Eaton are authors of five books on Titanic including the meticulous “Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy,” which has just been released in a newly expanded third edition.

Over the years, they’ve cultivated friendships with Titanic survivors and their descendants, conducted Titanic research in England and Northern Ireland, and have plunged to the ocean floor to see the Titanic’s wreckage.

The two will be among the guest lecturers on the Titanic Memorial Cruise from Southampton to New York, April 8-19 aboard the Balmoral cruise ship.

The White Star and Cunard lines, as well as the German lines all had kosher facilities by the time Titanic sailed, Haas said.

Based on information Haas has found about kosher kitchens on other ocean liners of the time—particularly on Titanic’s sister ship Olympic—he believes, “we have some probably reasonable assumptions in terms of Titanic.”

The earliest reference Haas has found about kosher service on an ocean liner dates to 1904.

“There’s an article in the Trenton Times in June 1904 and it says, among other things, ‘American Line officials arranged another innovation in the form of special kosher cooks for the Jews. The English will have their meals served separately and their cabins will also be separate from those of the Jews.’ And that was on the S.S. Philadelphia.”

One of the big names in shipbuilding at that time, Haas said, was Albert Ballin, chairman of the Hamburg-American Line. In 1905, Ballin, who was Jewish, decided to place separate kosher facilities on all of his steamships between New York and Bremen.

According to a contemporary news article about the Hamburg-American line, the addition of kosher service was “in accordance with a request from a number of representative Jewish organizations.”

Valery Bazarov, director of family history and location services for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, also confirmed the first decade of the 20th century as the beginning of kosher food service on liners crossing the Atlantic. He added that HIAS, which continues to help resettle Jewish refugees to America, established a kosher kitchen at Ellis Island in 1911.

Jewish steerage passengers on Titanic—as was the case on other liners departing from England for America—were primarily refugees from Eastern Europe. But why would they stop over in England first?

“To get out of immediate danger, and more than that,“ Bazarov explained. “It was not only immediate danger like a pogrom; it was also immediate danger if someone was drafted to the Russian army.”

Transmigrants through Britain

A century ago, the term of conscription to the Russian army was three mandatory years. Bazarov referred to conscription as “the underground pogrom, only much longer and much more painful.”

The Jews of Eastern Europe, he added, were limited in their successes because of pervasive antisemitism. “It was not just immediate danger but just the quality of life as a whole,” he said, that also led them to flee.

“To travel abroad, all Russians, not only Jews, needed foreign passports,” Bazarov said. “And to get it, they wrote a petition to the local authorities. They needed to bring the certificate about their relationship to the military service. Without that, they wouldn’t be allowed.”

That’s why so many Eastern European Jews forged or purchased forged passports, he said.

Some Jews fled to England because they couldn’t afford the ocean passage; some tried to make lives for themselves there. Others were required by law to keep moving.

“Even at that time, two stop-overs cost less than a ‘direct flight,’ like now,” Bazarov said.

England’s National Archives has estimated that between 1881 and 1905, up to 100,000 Eastern European Jews settled in England. Parliament curtailed this immigration in 1905 with the Aliens act. Most Eastern European Jews could then only stop over in England as “transmigrants,” on their way to other destinations.

The British National Archives has also estimated that between 1880 and 1914, approximately one million Jewish transmigrants arrived at England’s eastern ports, crossed the country “quickly,” and departed via England’s western ports.

Before liners offered kosher food, Jews who kept kosher had to fend for themselves, bringing their own food. Some didn’t survive. Despite the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh—that saving a life takes precedence even over keeping kosher—Haas cited a Washington Post article from Nov. 2, 1909 about Gisella Greiner, a “young Hebrew immigrant,” who died of starvation in Ellis Island’s hospital. Kosher food was not available during her nine-day voyage across the Atlantic; she chose to fast.

Even for those passengers who didn’t keep kosher, food service in the old steerage system could be a vile experience.

In December 1909, the U.S. Immigration Commission reported on steerage conditions to the U.S. Congress. The report described the “disgusting and demoralizing conditions of the old steerage,” in which 300 or more people would sleep in large compartments. There were no regular dining rooms for steerage class. A minimum number of tables and seats were set in common areas.

An immigration commission agent described the sleeping compartment of one of these liners as subdivided into three sections: “one for the German women, which was completely boarded off from the rest; one for Hebrews; and one for all other creeds and nationalities together. The partition between these last two was merely a fence, consisting of four horizontal 6-inch boards. This neither kept out odors nor cut off the view.”

That particular liner did have a separate galley and cook for kosher food. “They used the same tables with others if they used any, and were served in the same manner,” the agent reported. “Their food seemed of the same quality.”

It was competition for steerage passengers, the 1909 report continued, that led the major lines to develop improved steerage conditions.

Haas said, the “new steerage” arrangements of the White Star Line, particularly those of Olympic and Titanic, provided third-class passengers with foods they had neither seen nor could ever afford before, such as oranges.

“The White Star Line, although we tend to think of them as the steamship line of luxury, they really catered to the third class, because they made more per head on the third class tickets than they did on a first-class,” Haas said. “And if they could get word-of-mouth advertising where immigrants reached America and wrote home and said how wonderfully they were treated on the White Star Line’s ships, that was the best kind of advertising they could hope for.”

On Olympic and Titanic, Haas said, the largest cabins in third class accommodated six. In some cases, there were cabins for four and even two.

“The third class, in most cases, were accustomed to waiting on others,” Haas said. “And here for the first time they had stewards serving them. And there’s even a notice on the bottom of the menu saying, ‘any complaints regarding the lack of civility from a steward should be reported to the chief steward immediately.’”

As in all steerage arrangements of the time, Titanic’s third-class passengers were segregated by gender. The men were in the bow of the ship, unmarried ladies in the stern, and families were also in the stern.

Haas, who is not Jewish, has attempted to track down details of Titanic’s kosher facilities while conducting research in Belfast, where the Titanic was built, at Harland and Wolff shipyard. He’s never seen a kosher-only menu card specific to Titanic.

“All of the existing menus for the Titanic, to the best of my knowledge, there’s not specific reference to that,” Haas said. “I don’t know whether that would have been done by word of mouth or it might possibly have been at the time passengers booked their tickets.”

He and Eaton have seen a generic 1911 White Star third-class menu that indicates the availability of kosher meat. The menu was part of an advertisement for Olympic.

“In terms of artifacts that have been retrieved from the ocean floor,” he said, “we’ve not seen any kosher service dinnerware, although we do know from the Olympic, what the design (for dishes) looked like and everything.”

Karen Kamuda, vice president of Titanic Historical Society Inc. and Titanic Museum in Indian Orchard, Mass., said in an email that her understanding of kosher food service on Titanic comes from Paul Louden-Brown, a former society vice president and author of “The White Star Line, An Illustrated History.”

She explained that on Titanic, all kosher “china, stoneware and silver-plate or other serving utensils were marked in Hebrew and English either ‘meat’ or ‘milk.’” The same standards, she indicated, “applied for all classes, and even first class silver-plate was marked ‘milk’ or ‘meat.’ Kamuda added that “rabbis regularly inspected the liners’ catering departments in both Southampton and New York.”

A few clues

Eaton, Haas’ writing partner, puzzles at the scarce documentation of kosher service aboard the Titanic.

“There are fundamental questions of when and who decided to hire a ‘Hebrew Cook’ for Titanic’s kitchen,” he explained in an email. “Who and when were (which) Jewish authorities called in for consultation? For the actual implementation of the facility…the ‘victualizing’ inventory for the Titanic is well known: all sorts of cookware as well as serving plates and tableware are categorized and listed. But nowhere is there any mention of or separate designation for ‘kosher’ items.”

But Eaton did remember that about 20-25 years ago, likely at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Holywood, Northern Ireland, he caught a brief glimpse of a Titanic deck plan that included a space indicated by an arrow for kosher service.

“It was a small space as I recall,” he said, “scarcely large enough for a single sink or workspace. It was not the size of a full installation of ranges and sinks, by any means.”

Eaton made a return visit to the Ulster museum last spring and asked if staff could find that deck plan again. They were unable to locate it. At the end of March/beginning of April, he and Haas were scheduled to be in Belfast for a week, ahead of the centennial cruise, and “will likely make an effort to locate the plan then.”

Haas said that before Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, was scrapped in 1935, all the contents of the ship were sold via auction. The auction included Olympic’s kosher kitchen and supplies, including a cooking range with rack and hood, stoking irons, dressers, cupboard, sink, tilings and light fittings.

Tim Sluckin is secretary of England’s Southampton Hebrew Congregation, which dates to 1833. According to England’s Jewish Year Books, the seaport city was home to 20 Jewish families in 1905, 60 Jewish families a decade later.

Though Sluckin isn’t aware of any hard documentation, in an email conversation, he indicated that, “It is known that for many years the kosher butcher (in Southampton) was kept in business by supplying the ships…our butcher was getting the meat from our rabbi, who was also the shochet (kosher slaughterer).”

Martyn Rose, president of Southampton Hebrew Congregation, also affirmed in an email that, “Although there was kosher food on the Titanic, it would have been the same for all liners calling or using Southampton as a base at that time. Indeed until the mid 20th century, when liner travel to the USA and beyond Southampton had kosher meat suppliers, and our minister (rabbi) was the shochet.”

The 1909 U.S. Immigration Commission report on steerage conditions may give an indication of the role of Charles Kennell, Titanic’s Hebrew cook.

An immigration agent who reported on “new steerage conditions” wrote of the unnamed line she investigated: “The Hebrew steerage passengers were looked after by a Hebrew who is employed by the company as a cook, and is at the same time appointed by Rabbi as guardian of such passengers. This particular man told me that he is a pioneer in this work. He was the first to receive such an appointment. It is his duty to see that all the Jewish passengers are assigned to sleeping quarters that are as comfortable and as good as any; to see that kosher food is provided and to prepare it. He has done duty on most of the ships of the _______ Line. On each he has instituted this system of caring for the Hebrews and then has left it to be looked after by some successor.”

This immigration agent also reported that friends and acquaintances, and “various nationalities” were quartered together as much as possible, and that “the few Jewish passengers were assigned staterooms distantly removed from all others.”

Yet all of these upgraded accommodations for steerage passengers in general and Jewish immigrants in particular couldn’t substitute for the absence of common-sense safety measures at every level on Titanic.

Speeding through a North Atlantic ice field, its crew ignoring warnings from nearby ships, lifeboats for only half of those on board, poor communications among crew members, and an off-duty wireless operator on the nearest ship, Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 and sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15.

Of the 710 third-class passengers on board, only 174—one fourth—escaped death. Most died of hypothermia in the 28-degree ocean after the ship sank.

The survivors arrived at New York’s Pier 54 at 9:30 p.m. on April 18 aboard their rescue ship, the Cunard liner Carpathia. Third-class passengers had to wait until 11 p.m. to disembark. According to Haas and Eaton, “federal immigration officers waived the usual examination of steerage passengers.”

The following day, The New York Times reported that “A score of the Titanic’s steerage were taken to the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Immigrant Aid Society, 229 East Broadway for the night.” According to HIAS records, the agency assisted 27 Titanic survivors.

If the body of Titanic’s Hebrew cook, Charles Kennell, was ever retrieved, his remains were never identified.

Marshall Weiss is the editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer. 

See More Coverage of the Titanic Disaster Centennial on the Website of The Dayton Jewish Observer

Living and Working [Il]legally in America — It’s Not Just for Latinos Anymore


Hardly a day goes by without some news about them — the undocumented. Congress debates the issue of how to handle them, and pundits argue even as the number of illegal immigrants grows. Supposedly, there are more than 12 million of them in the United States. Thinking about them, we tend to see the shadowy figures on this week’s cover: Mexicans or Central Americans scurrying across the road at night, abandoned by their coyote in the desert dust. They pick our fruit, cut our lawns and bus our dishes. But what does illegal immigration have to do with us?

More than you might think. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), during 2004 alone, 540 Israelis were deported or about to be deported. If that many Israelis were caught, it stands to reason that there are many thousands more — in Los Angeles as well as the rest of the United States — who have not yet been located by authorities. And we know from interviews we conducted that — besides Israelis — there are many Jews from Latin America and elsewhere who also fall into this category.

Morris Ardoin, who handles media relations for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), said that he knows of no way to determine how many Jews are in the United States without a valid visa or working in contravention of the law. “Making a guess on that would be a shot in the dark,” he said. “Like asking how many stars in the sky.”

Maybe there aren’t quite as many as there are stars in the sky, but there are undoubtedly many thousands of illegal Jewish aliens throughout the United States and in Los Angeles, and they have their own stories to tell. The following are three very different stories of the Jewish experience of illegal immigration.

Details Wanted on Immigration Plan


Jewish groups are pleased with President Bush’s initiative to give illegal immigrants temporary legal status in the United States, but they are withholding accolades until they see how Congress fills in the details.

"The most important thing is that the president recognized and stated publicly that immigrants are a tremendous value to the United States and that our immigration system needs to be fixed," said Gideon Aronoff, vice president of government relations and public policy for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush has been focused on the war on terrorism, paying little attention to the immigration issue. However, his new immigration initiative announced Jan. 7 has "put the issue front and center, back at the top of the agenda," Aronoff said, "and that is a very good thing."

The initiative would offer temporary legal status to illegal immigrants who want to enter the U.S. workforce. They could fill jobs for which no American employee can be found for up to three years, after which their permits could be renewed. Immigrants who currently work illegally could qualify for the temporary worker status after paying a one-time fee that has yet to be decided.

Critics say the initiative fails to provide a long-term solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Immigrant advocates point to the dangers illegal immigrants face on the nation’s border with Mexico, where most enter the country, and of exploitative U.S. employers.

Since Sept. 11, undocumented workers in the United States have been called a potential threat to homeland security.

Bush’s plan is only a "quick fix," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works to strengthen Jewish ties with blacks and Latinos. The program doesn’t provide meaningful access to permanent visas or a path to citizenship, he said.

In addition, while Bush has praised undocumented immigrants’ economic contributions to the country, the initiative ultimately will relegate temporary workers to second-class employee status, Schneier said.

"The Latino leaders I have talked with are disappointed with the initiative," he continued. "As part of intergroup relations, it behooves the Jewish community to take its lead from Latino leadership."

The president’s plan is targeted primarily at Latinos, though Jews, too, have a stake in comprehensive immigration reform. Of the estimated 8 million-10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, a few are Israeli, Russian and Latino Jewish immigrants.

"In the Russian Jewish community, no more than 7 percent is illegal," said Alec Brook-Krasny, executive director of the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, an umbrella group for 25 Russian Jewish organizations in New York. Bush’s initiative would affect no more than 10,000 Russian-speaking Jews in New York, he said.

There is no comprehensive estimate of illegal Israeli immigrants in the United States, according to Ido Aharoni, consul for media and public affairs at Israel’s New York consulate.

"I can only assume some will be affected," he said, if they have overstayed tourist visas or are working illegally.

Still, the Jewish community traditionally has felt a sense of responsibility on immigration issues for historical, humanitarian and political reasons. As recently as this summer, HIAS and several other Jewish organizations lobbied the U.S. government for comprehensive immigration reform.

An immigration resolution will be on the agenda at next month’s annual meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), said Reva Price, the group’s Washington representative. The resolution, which is still being drafted, will reaffirm the group’s commitment to open immigration policies and will address the backlog in family immigration, among other issues.

Part of the problem with Bush’s plan may be its lack of detail. While groups like HIAS, JCPA and the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) — longstanding backers of generous immigration policies — support Bush’s idea, they’re withholding final judgment until the specifics of the plan are determined in Congress.

Bush’s speech set forth the broad outlines of the plan, leaving details — such as how to apply, who may qualify and what might disqualify someone from the program — for Congress to decide.

Bush "brought up critical issues favoring migrants and those coming over the border," Price said. But, she added, "the devil is in the details, and we will have to wait and see what the proposal looks like."

Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel at the AJCommittee, called the plan a "step in the right direction." He cautioned, however, that the plan may not set forth a path by which immigrants who have lived in the United States for a set period of time could become citizens.

Aronoff of HIAS said Bush’s plan also doesn’t resolve concerns about backlogs in family immigration, one of the group’s main concerns.

The groups were careful not to criticize the president’s proposal too harshly, however.

"I think the choice for the Jewish community and the country is stark: Either we bury our heads in the sand and pretend there is no problem and do nothing, or we come up with a sensible, long-term approach that helps on humanitarian and security needs," Aronoff said. "The national conversation on immigration reform got a shot in the arm from President Bush — and what the final conclusion will be has yet to be written."