The most interesting document with information on the history of HIAS is a 1918 report by the Field Bureau of the National Conference of Jewish Charities.
According to the report, an group organized a Jewish immigrant aid society in 1889 under the name itself Achnosis Orchim (in other places, styled Hachnosas Orchim, denoting the Jewish concept of “hospitality”), later changing its name to the Hebrew Sheltering House and Home for the Aged. The organization was an aid organization helping Jewish Immigrants. In 1907, it again changed its name, this time to the Hebrew Sheltering House Association.
A little over a decade after Achnosis Orchim was founded, the report states that the Voliner-Zhitomer Aid Society was organized in the store of Max Meyerson (which was somewhere on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan) and gives the exact date of its founding as December 3, 1902. Not long after that, the society changed its name to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, eventually absorbing another society, called Kamenetzer Society, and the congregation Nusach Haari.
In 1909, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society merged with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association, calling itself the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society though often going simply by HIAS.
The only official-looking document we’ve found so far related to the founding of HIAS is a Certificate of Incorporation from 1911.
The certificate isn’t specific about dates beyond the date it was filed, so it’s not immediately apparent how the two societies that merged in 1909 were previously incorporated. The annual report from 1911 (found in YIVO’s HIAS collection) gives 1888 for the founding of the organization, clearly referring to the founding of the Hebrew Sheltering House Association in 1889.
The annual report from 1914 calls it the sixth annual report, giving it a 1908-1909 founding, meaning that at this point HIAS considered its founding as the merger of the original HIAS with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association.
This date is corroborated in many primary and secondary sources. In fact, it turns out to be the only date we feel certain about.
You’ll see that in the 1948 annual report, HIAS’s founding date is given as 1884:
This 1884 date is mentioned many places in the files, including a draft chronology from 1959, which states, “1884: The Hebrew Shelter, formed by Immigrant Jews, is established on the lower East Side of NYC for the reception of Jewish immigrants.” The date of 1884 is also assumed in 1964, when HIAS celebrates its 80th anniversary.
Suddenly, though, in 1980, the founding date is given as 1880. What’s strange is that in all of our research in the secondary literature and in the files themselves, neither 1880 nor 1884 seem to be significant years for HIAS or for Hebrew Sheltering House Association. As far as we can tell, neither of these organizations existed at that time.
These early dates may have to do with the existence of an organization called the Hebrew Emigrant Auxiliary Society, which some writers have called “the nearest approach to a parent organization of HIAS” and “the true grandparent of today’s HIAS,” but there is no information that this organization had any official connection with HIAS or with the Hebrew Sheltering House Association. In fact, most information on the Hebrew Emigrant Auxiliary Society places the dissolution of the organization before 1889, when the Hebrew Sheltering House Association was founded. In the 2001 annual report, this reference to the Hebrew Emigrant Auxiliary Society is made explicit.
Even with access to the records of the organization itself, it is not easy to figure out dates. Most likely, the beginning of these organizations were informal, occurring over a span of time, and they may not have been thinking they would last all that long, and certainly, the founders of these organizations had more pressing matters to attend to, providing legal aid, employment, housing, and food to the droves of immigrants fleeing Czarist Russia.