Building Committee, 1920-1921

The HIAS Building Committee minutes from 1920 to 1921 are among the earliest committee materials in the HIAS archives at the American Jewish Historical Society. The committee was in existence during the purchase and dedication of the building they bought in 1920-1921, 425 Lafayette Street, described in the minutes as the “old library” building – in fact, built in 1854 as the Astor Library, by the Astor family. The building was purchased in 1965 by the Public Theater which continues to occupy it. (More on the Astor Library building in a future post.)

HIAS Building Committee minute book, 1920-1921

One of our earlier posts includes a photograph of the plaque on the building today that acknowledges the work of HIAS during the 40  years they occupied the building.

The building became available after the Astor Library merged with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Trust in 1895 to form the New York Public Library. According to Wikipedia, the New York Public Library vacated the building in 1911, and it appears to have been underutilized until HIAS bought it in 1920.

According to the minutes of the Building Committee on May 4th 1920, “The Chairman stated that the Government which is occupying the New Building of the Society as a Retail Food Store will vacate on May 16th.” No other information about the building’s use between 1911 and 1920 appears to be in these minutes.

The Building Committee minutes initially show that the Board focused on the costs of purchasing and renovating the building. Title would be transferred to HIAS on payment in March 1920 of $100,000. Loans were arranged, and a campaign plan put together to pay off those loans.

In the 1920 Annual Report, Treasurer Harry Fischel made a plea for funds to finance the new building (“the National Home for Jewish immigrant aid work in America”): “the Society is practically leading a hand to mouth existence. It has no funds to draw upon. For the Building Fund, generous as the contributions have been, another $150,000 will have to be required.”

HIAS 12th Annual Report, 1920. At this time, HIAS considered their 1909 merger to be the beginning of the modern HIAS.

The chairman of the Building Committee was Harry Fischel; members include Morris Asofsky (brother of long time HIAS General Manager/ Executive Director Isaac Asofsky, 1924-1952), and early HIAS presidents Max Meyerson (1902-1909), Judge Leon Sanders (1909-1916), John L. Bernstein (1917-1925) and Abraham Herman (1926-1947). Harry Fischel was the Treasurer of HIAS (then the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society) from 1890 to at least 1921. He was a “real estate dealer“, philanthropic in many Jewish causes, and died in Jerusalem in 1948.

The minutes contain detailed descriptions of the interior renovation of the building, including voting on placements of water fountains and the colors of the floors, and the committee’s problems after hiring the wrong supervisor for the project.

The dedication was set for June 5, 1921, plans were finalized for suitable donor plaques, and President Harding agreed to speak by telephone to the assembled audience. Unfortunately, because “it would be impossible to make arrangements for the amplifiers … his speech [was] read to the audience.”

By 1965 HIAS had moved to more modern headquarters at 200 Park Avenue. Another blog post will follow in a few weeks with more detail on the Astor Library building.

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The integration of HIAS and USNA files, 1954

In 1954, shortly before the official merger between HIAS and the United Service for New Americans (USNA), Mildred Tuffield, a files consultant, was hired to survey the file systems in use by both agencies.

Cover letter from files consultant Mildred P. Tuffield, August 1954
Cover letter from files consultant Mildred P. Tuffield, August 1954

Tuffield’s general findings included the fact that “each agency [has] a departmentalized structure organized along functional lines”, and then went on to say that the Survey and Report on HIAS/USNA Files Integration,  “had to concern itself with the major problems of the central records used by all departments”.

10 pages of the report deal with the system each agency used to maintain their case files prior to the merger; 5 pages deal with their respective systems for indexing and filing what Tuffield refers to as “General Files” – files that we refer to as “Administrative Files”; these would have been the files maintained by the central filing department, separate (although often duplicative of) individual department files. Subject headings included Executive Overseas Files, US Branch Files, Congregations and Federations.

While there were many specifics in the 15 pages of Tuffield’s report, she advises in her cover letter, above, that a staff committee be appointed immediately, with representation from both agencies, to negotiate a records merger plan.

There are just a few boxes of files from just after the merger in the 1950s that have become part of the HIAS archives project, and these early files, so far, are scattered through the US Operations department in New York, and in some of the files from the Paris office. (Many more of the USNA and HIAS files from this era can be found in the HIAS collections at YIVO.) I recently completed the processing of European Personnel and Administrative files from the HIAS office in Geneva, and many of those files begin at the time of the merger in 1954, so it is not possible to directly compare indexing systems from before and after. I would guess, however, that Tuffield’s recommendations were followed, and ultimately were successful in categorizing at the very least the documents and files created post-merger.

Committee on Work in Foreign Countries, 1924

Abraham Herman, chairman of the HIAS Committee on Work in Foreign Countries, led a discussion at a committee meeting on May 19, 1924 on the resolution recently adopted by the Board of Directors to aid refugees and immigrants stranded while in transit as immigration laws were changed in the United States.

The discussion centered on “how HIAS could begin its work in behalf of Jewish immigrants and refugees, originally destined to the United States and other countries, who, because of new restrictive immigration laws, could not complete their journey, and are now stranded at the European ports of embarkation and in foreign countries.”

To perfect a plan of how HIAS could begin to work with new restrictive immigration laws, 1924
HIAS’ plan to work with new restrictive immigration laws, 1924

At the next meeting of this committee, June 5, 1924, representatives of other Jewish organizations were present, including leaders from the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, the Council of Jewish Women (CJW), and the Jewish Daily Forward and other Jewish newspapers. The resolution adopted by HIAS’ Board of Directors to “undertake the necessary work in behalf of the immigrants and refugees wherever they may be …” was presented:

"HIAS, alone or in cooperation with other organizations, undertake the necessary work in behalf of the immigrants and refugees wherever they may be"
“HIAS, alone or in cooperation with other organizations, [shall] undertake the necessary work in behalf of the immigrants and refugees wherever they may be”
Further discussion included “the entire question of Jewish immigration …”. It was decided that representatives of HIAS, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and “some of the labor organizations” would arrange for a conference of “all Jewish National Organizations, with the object of considering and acting upon a plan for solving the problem of Jewish immigration.”

Of course the world still struggles to solve the “problem” of immigration for large groups of economic, political and religious refugees continually seeking a better life.