Anti-HIAS rant by accused Pittsburgh shooter leaves Cleveland Jewish refugee group ‘heartbroken’

December 9, 2018 GMT

Anti-HIAS rant by accused Pittsburgh shooter leaves Cleveland Jewish refugee group ‘heartbroken’

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Hours before Robert Bowers allegedly shot 11 people to death in a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27, he was suspected of posting a message targeting the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).

The posting read: “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” The shooting was a horror, but the posting also came as a shock to officials of the group created in 1881 to aid Jewish immigrants to America who were fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe.


“I’ll never forget that comment. We’ve never been on the receiving end of threats of violence,” said Bill Swersey, HIAS senior director of communications.

“That he invoked our name at all is off the charts,” he added. “I don’t have anything to compare that to. There are people who don’t support us, but it has never gotten to that level.”

The posting may have reflected the group’s changing role in recent years.

While noting that “almost every American Jewish family has some connection to HIAS,” Swersey said the group has expanded to include non-Jewish refugees from more than 20 different countries.

“We understand, we have an empathy for refugees,” Swersey said. “Helping refugees and welcoming a stranger is repeatedly mentioned in the Torah, and is a very strong expression of Jewish values.”

HIAS is one of nine resettlement agencies working with the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Admissions program, sending new arrivals to 20 sites across the country.

Working through a network of local social service agencies, its services include resettlement assistance, counseling, citizenship and education programs.

Since 2016 the number of HIAS-assisted refugees has dropped from 4,191 to 1,632 in direct relation to the lowered levels of refugees allowed into the U.S. by the Trump administration.

In Ohio, HIAS has partnered with the nonprofit US Together, headquartered in Columbus with with offices in Cleveland and Toledo.

Nadia Kasvin, US Together director, whose family came to this country from the Ukraine 25 years ago, said the group was created in 2003 by Eastern European refugees, and continues to be largely staffed by former refugees.

She said HIAS is one of several US Together partners in an effort that has re-settled 7,000 refugees in the past 15 years.


But the possible mention of HIAS by the accused synagogue shooter left Kasvin disheartened.

“I’m really heartbroken by all that rhetoric about HIAS ‘bringing invaders,’” she said. “It really hits close to home.

“We are Jewish refugees, giving back to our community,” she added. “We were given so many opportunities when we came to this country, and made a success.

“I want be sure that everybody who comes after us is given the same opportunity to reach their full potential.”

To that end the group offers some 30 programs covering housing, employment, financial literacy, education, and other support services.

Kasvin said neither the synagogue shooting or comments regarding HIAS will “affect what we do. We believe in our mission very strongly. We will continue to do what we do.”

Northeast Ohio has had a long tradition of aiding new Jewish immigrants starting in the late 19th century with two groups – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Hebrew Relief Association – that merged in 1883 and later became known as the Jewish Family Service Association (JFSA) of Cleveland in 1943.

As one official of the Hebrew Relief Association noted in 1895, “We have tried to make some of the applicants independent by giving them horses and wagons or establishing them in little places of business, and I am pleased to say we have accomplished a great deal of good.”

The JFSA’s immigrant assistance continued through and after World War II, resettling refugees and Holocaust survivors, and into the 1990s with Russian refugees, but has since been largely discontinued.

Swersey, of HIAS, noted that the group is often supported by local synagogues in refugee resettlement assistance.

In Northeast Ohio this includes Beth El – the Heights Synagogue where a group of members have provided donations of household items and financial support to local refugee resettlement agencies including US Together.

“If you’re Jewish in the United States, you’re not very far removed from being a refugee or immigrant yourself,” said Robin Koslen, a member of the synagogue.

She remembered her mother talking about the help she got from HIAS at Ellis Island when she came to this country from the Ukraine in 1920.

“She just talked about how scary it was, and how great it was to have somebody meet you there who could speak your language,” Koslen said.

“It was so interesting to me, all these years later, when I started becoming familiar with HIAS and realized that Jews don’t need it (refugee aid) right now, so they took the skill set and applied to the next group needing help.”

Koslen, who previously taught English as a second language courses, said synagogue members have been particularly supportive of the new refugees from Bhutan who have settled in the area.

Her first reaction to the Pittsburgh shooting was personal because her sister lives in the same neighborhood (but does not attend that synagogue).

Secondly, “It was just so sad,” she said. “Here is this group doing something so positive, and here were people who see this as something to be afraid of and work against.”

Three years ago the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood invited representatives of US Together to speak at the synagogue.

“From that, sprang a stronger interest in volunteering, getting to know refugees, and what kind of needs these people have,” said Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk.

Staff members of US Together meet with members of the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple to promote support of refugee resettlement efforts in Cleveland.  Photo courtesy of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

The outreach to refugees by some 20-30 synagogue members included greeting a family of Syrian refugees when they arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport last year.

The greeters included Rabbi Joshua L. Caruso of the Fairmount Temple.

“That family was not only meeting its first Jew, but meeting a leader of the Jewish community,” Nosanchuk said. “Imagine, the first person who tells you welcome, and prays for you, is a rabbi.”

The effort is in keeping with Jewish tradition, according to Nosanchuk.

“There are no less that 36 times that the sacred Torah scroll commanded us to welcome the stranger and to not oppress them,” he noted.

He also recalled personal family experience in that his late grandmother, who died this year at age 101, came to this country with her family as refugees when she was just 16.

“Where would my life be without the resources that were dedicated to help her find her way?” he asked.

In addition to the airport welcome, synagogue members have donated food to local refugee families, and, in Nosanchuk’s case, a set of bunk beds.

With the recent decline in refugees admitted to the U.S. – down to a cap of 45,000 from 110,000 in 2016 – Nosanchuk said there has been a corresponding loss of local US Together staff to coordinate local refugee aid.

However, “we’re actively looking for ways to help whenever and wherever the opportunity exists to advocate for policies that would be more affirming to this nation’s history of immigration, including refugees,” he said.

It’s a mission, according to Nosanchuk.

He referred to an observation once made by a HIAS official: “We used to help refugees because they were Jews. Now we help them because we are Jews.”