Happy Hanukah from HIAS, 1964

How did HIAS say Happy Hanukah in 1964? The same way most non-profit organizations acknowledge holidays today – with a fundraising appeal.

HANUKKAH 1964 Membership Letter, November 30, 1964
HANUKKAH 1964 Membership Letter, November 30, 1964 (scanned from a blurry carbon copy)

This membership appeal for donations was signed by HIAS president Murray Gurfein. Gurfein was president from 1956 to 1957, and again from 1960-1967. A lawyer and in active service during WWII, Gurfein led accomplished professional and volunteer careers. An article in The Forward on March 18, 1956 details his involvement with the Nuremberg trials after WWII, and sums up his life up to that point: “Murray Gurfein helped prosecute the Nazi Leaders—He was decorated by three countries for his activities in the second world war … now he has been elected president of the United HIAS Service. He is a son of a Galician Jew …”

For many people, that would be a satisfying summation of a life well-lived. But there was more. Gurfein had a successful law practice for more than 30 years. And in 1971 he was appointed to the United States District Court by President Richard M. Nixon. More on Murray Gurfein and his first case on the Appeals Court next week.

It is easy to forget that 1964 was a year of increased migration due to “political and economic unrest in various parts of the world,” according to HIAS’ Hanukah letter. At the end of November 1964 HIAS forecast the number of refugees they resettled at a 70% increase over 1963. The “more than 51,000 Jewish men, women and children” helped by HIAS in 1964 included those from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Cuba, 23 persons from China and 11 from India. Access to information on emigration specifics will be available when the HIAS archives project is completed at the end of 2018.

We join Murray Gurfein in his closing, “With many thanks, and with hearty Hanukkah Greetings” from the HIAS project staff – Lawrence, Elizabeth, Janet and Susan.


The Lewin-Epstein Family, and Other Leaders in the Jewish Community in early 20th Century New York

We recently learned of Marian Lewin-Epstein’s death on November 10. Familiar to me specifically because of her life-long involvement with Hadassah, Junior Hadassah and Hadassah-Israel and her presence in the Hadassah Archives, there is also a slim connection between Marian and HIAS: her husband’s grandfather E.W. Lewin-Epstein.

Marian grew up in Pennsylvania and became involved on the national level with Junior Hadassah after high school, in the 1940s. She can be found in the minutes of Junior Hadassah, attending meetings of the national board. She made aliyah to Israel after independence in 1948, and married Jacob Lewin-Epstein, a dentist at Hadassah Hospital like his father.

Jacob’s parents met aboard ship in 1918 as members of the American Zionist Medical Unit, funded through donations from Jewish communities throughout the United States, and organized by Henrietta Szold and the leadership of Hadassah in New York. The Unit left for Palestine as World War I was ending, in the summer of 1918, comprised of nurses, doctors, dentists, sanitarians and administrators and many tons of medical supplies including an ambulance donated by a Hadassah chapter. By the time the Unit arrived in Jerusalem, Madeline Epstein and Dr. Samuel Lewin-Epstein were engaged. Madeline’s memories of the trip can be found in her oral history. The business administrator of the Unit once it arrived in Palestine was Samuel’s father Eliahu Ze’ev (Wolf) Lewin-Epstein (generally referred to as E.W. Lewin-Epstein).

Madeline, E.W. and Samuel Lewin-Epstein in Palestine circa 1918
Madeline, E.W. and Samuel Lewin-Epstein in Jaffa, Palestine, circa 1918

E.W., born in 1864, was by the turn of the 20th century involved in the leadership of many Jewish and Zionist American organizations. A businessman, he also lived in Palestine at various times during his career. A brief and incomplete list of his involvements at the beginning of the 20th century include Vice-President of the Federation of American Zionists (predecessor to the Zionist Organization of America) (1907); served in some capacity in 1919 with the Zionist Commission to Palestine; treasurer of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs (1914-1916). A brief JTA article from 1923 lists E.W. as “European representative of the Remittance department”, presumably of HIAS. More information can be found in his New York Times obituary.

Listed in his 1932 obituary as a director of HIAS, he was also a member of the board of the National Refugee Service (NRS), which was in existence from 1933 to 1946 and whose work was eventually folded into HIAS.

E.W. Lewin-Epstein was among the handful of Jewish men (and fewer women) of his generation living in New York around the turn of the century, who became prominent leaders of relief and social service organizations, and Zionist organizations, such as the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, HIAS, NRS, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. The leaders listed as involved with the Provisional Executive Committee at the start of WWI are good examples: Louis Brandeis, Henrietta Szold, Louis Lipsky, E.W. Lewin-Epstein, Stephen Wise, Judah Magnes and Harry Friedenwald. Others, such as Solomon Lowenstein and William Rosenwald, can also be found funding and/or leading organizations. Working largely as volunteers in some capacity – financial, political – they were for decades the driving force in the rescue of Jewish refugees, in providing a better life for recent immigrants and the poor in New York and around the United States, and in helping to create an infrastructure in Palestine in anticipation of a Jewish homeland there.

“Understanding U.S. Refugee Policy”: HIAS, the Personal, and the Political

This post originally appeared as a talk presented at the ART Symposium in New York City on October 20.

While HIAS leadership was influential in shaping and advocating for immigration policy reform, HIAS’ Communications Department was busy attending to the personal side of these political machinations.

United States refugee policy is shaped to correspond with U.S. foreign policy interests. This creates a legislative reality in which some refugees are welcomed, while the rest are excluded in all but name. In the case of Soviet Jewish refugees in the late 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. refugee policy worked in their favor.

With restrictions somewhat eased, HIAS created publications specifically to explain U.S. refugee policy to prospective Russian Jewish refugees. One such publication is a 1992 pamphlet titled “Understanding U.S. Refugee policy,” printed in English and Russian.

understanding-us-refugee-policyPamphlet cover in both language editions; Roberta Elliott headed the HIAS Communications department when this pamphlet was released.

The pamphlet clearly outlines the steps necessary to apply to emigrate to the United States as a refugee. Though the restrictions were somewhat relaxed, it was still a complex process. For example, one of the opening paragraphs reads, “Under present guidelines of the U. S. refugee program, certain categories of people within the former Soviet Union (Jews, Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics and members of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Churches) are identified as likely targets of persecution. If you are a member of one of these designated groups AND if you have a close relative in the U. S., you will be granted priority in the processing of your application for refugee status and in the scheduling of your interview at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.”

It details what, in the eyes of US immigration law, constitutes a “close relative,” and outlines policy exceptions. It explains the two components of the application process–a Preliminary Questionnaire to provide biographical information, and an Affidavit of Relationship to prove relationships between the prospective immigrant and their US relatives–and explains why these steps were put into place.

Through the publication and distribution of this pamphlet, the HIAS Communications Department was able to take its Executives’ lobbying and influence, and bring those politics down to the individual level, empowering those who may have otherwise been shut out.

1957 Holiday Message from Murray Gurfein

In the fall of 1957, Murray Gurfein was Chairman of the United HIAS Executive Committee. A holiday message was printed on the front page of the September-October 1957 issue, number XXI, of “Inside United HIAS Service”:

Holiday Message from Murray Gurfein
1957 High Holy Day Message from Murray Gurfein

Always “on message”, Gurfein’s words emphasized the many Jews still living in difficult circumstances in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East:

Hope for assistance in immigration to welcoming havens
Hope in the new year for assistance to Jews seeking “welcoming havens”

“Inside United HIAS Service” was published beginning in 1954 (after the merger between HIAS, the United Service for New Americans (USNA) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Migration Department), and appears to have continued at least into the mid-1980s. The archives include issues from 1954-1961. A successor publication, “Inside HIAS”, includes issues from 1981-1983.

Best wishes from the HIAS project staff for a good New Year and an enjoyable Sukkot.

PR stories from London Office, 1952

Earlier this year I worked on about a box and a half of Ben Touster files from the first two years he was president of HIAS, 1952-1954. The files that survived long enough to make their way to the HIAS archives appear random, and pre-date most of the HIAS files that are part of our project. Perhaps these files survived an earlier purging. Or perhaps, like other lay leaders, much of Touster’s HIAS work was done at home, or he had his files sent home after his presidency. Or, also like other lay leaders, he may have directed the organization and led the board of directors, but left the paperwork to the paid staff.

Unfortunately we have so far in this project identified only a few other boxes of files from the Executive Office from the early 1950s; with the merger in 1954 of HIAS with USNA to form United HIAS Service, it is possible that many files were inadvertently lost or destroyed.

Touster’s files include a thick one on HIAS founder John L. Bernstein, and two files of financial reports. And 13 files, over a third of the total Touster subseries, deal with HIAS offices – international offices in Canada, Africa, Australia, Europe, Israel and South America, as well as offices in major cities in the United States – Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. These files are filled mostly with correspondence and reports to and from each of the offices.

One particularly interesting memorandum found in the Europe office file was sent to Touster by Martin A. Bursten, then the Director of HIAS’s Public Relations department in New York. Written in a breezy 1950s style it is marked “personal”.

Marty Bursten lists PR stories learned in London office
Marty Bursten lists PR stories learned in London office, 1952

Bursten recaps some of the stories he has seen and heard first hand by spending some time in the London office of HIAS. He “studied the files and listened to the cases being handled”, and exclaims, “If anybody … ever tells me that there is nothing doing here, I’ll wave my notes violently to belie the claims.”

He briefly describes the work of the London office, primarily supplying funding or help with visas for people trying to join relatives in America, Canada or Israel. “I am taking pictures of these people today in their homes, and here in the office. THIS IS WHAT MY DEPARTMENT WILL LIVE ON IN THE MONTHS TO COME.”

In a way, that statement in caps sums up what HIAS was doing in those post-WWII years, helping people reunite with relatives or simply get started in a new country. Although few in number, the Touster files give us a snapshot of that work.

I’ll end with Bursten’s post script: “P.S. This cockney typewriter should apply for a HIAS pension!”



At the HIAS board meeting on Tuesday, February 9, 1965, President Murray I. Gurfein gave a report on a recent LCBC meeting – a meeting of the Large City Budget Committee, part of the hierarchy of budgetary meetings arranged by the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) and held during their annual GA (General Assembly). It was an opportunity for representatives from Federations in large cities to discuss local budgets collectively. Because HIAS was considered a “national” organization, they would have had the opportunity to give a report to the Federation representatives, making their goals for the coming year known to fundraisers and people with financial responsibility from cities with large Jewish populations – and fundraising – around the country.

Very large doodle on Murray I. Gurfein's notes for the Board of Directors Meeting, February 9, 1965 on the January LCBC Meeting
Very large doodle on Murray I. Gurfein’s notes for the Board of Directors Meeting, February 9, 1965 on the January LCBC Meeting

Notes for the report Gurfein gave at the HIAS board meeting on the recent LCBC presentation appear to have been distributed to the attendees. At least one unknown board member left a lasting, very dense and detailed doodle on his set of notes.

Passover Message, 1971

As we head into the season of Passover, the HIAS archives team would like to share with our readers the following message from Harold Friedman, the president of United HIAS Service in 1971:

Passover 1971

“… our thoughts turn to the tragic plight of our brethren in distant lands who today valiantly struggle to cast off the yoke of persecution and degradation … Our hearts … are with our countless less fortunate brethren to whom this festival will have no significance until they, too, are free.”



Consistently through their history, HIAS has focused on refugees, rescue and immigration. Unfortunately there continue to be people to help all over the world. Fortunately, HIAS is there.