Undaunted by Tree of Life attack, HIAS continues its mission

“We’d always known there were people out there who hated HIAS, hated our work. We’d always kind of ignored them as fringe and paid no attention whatsoever to them.”

HIAS SUPPORTERS take part in a pro-immigration rally in Washington last year. (photo credit: TED EYTAN)
HIAS SUPPORTERS take part in a pro-immigration rally in Washington last year.
(photo credit: TED EYTAN)
The gunman who killed 11 Jewish worshippers in Squirrel Hill last year targeted the synagogue based on a congregation’s October 2018 participation in a Shabbat service for refugees. The national organizer of those special services — the Hebrew International Aid Society — continues to forge ahead in its mission to resettle and welcome refugees.
That’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed, said Mark Hetfield, chief executive of the nonprofit known as HIAS. Founded in 1881 to aid Jewish refugees, the nonprofit provides resettlement help to any refugee coming to America.
“It changed everything for us,” he said. “We’d always known there were people out there who hated HIAS, hated our work. We’d always kind of ignored them as fringe and paid no attention whatsoever to them.”
HIAS organized Shabbat services for refugees Oct. 19 and 20, partnering with more than 300 congregations, including Dor Hadash, which shared space in the synagogue with Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha and New Light. A list of congregations was posted to the HIAS website. According to the charges against him, Robert Bowers responded to the list on the social media website Gab: “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided …”
Now, Hetfield said, those “fringe” detractors must be taken seriously.
“HIAS has always prided itself on not having to take all the security measures … because what we do isn’t controversial – we’re just a refugee resettlement agency,” he said. “It shouldn’t be polarizing.”
He’d hoped that anti-immigrant rhetoric would be toned down in the aftermath of the attack, as Bowers parroted some of that rhetoric on Gab prior to his attack. Hetfield pointed to President Donald Trump’s use of the term “invaders” to describe immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and others coming to the border.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers posted to Gab a few hours before he entered the synagogue and began shooting. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Like Hetfield, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers hopes to bring civility back to public discourse.
Myers was leading Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha the morning of the shooting. He survived, but seven of his congregants were among the 11 killed. He said he believes he survived because God still has work for him to do.
Part of that work, he said, is to eliminate what he calls “H-speech.” He won’t say the word “hate,” calling it a “four-letter obscenity.”
“I think that our language in America has become way too severe, way too uncivilized, and we need to tone it down,” he said. “When we don’t tone down language, we then get more emotional when we speak, and those emotions lead to violence such as what happened in the Tree of Life of Oct. 27.”
Myers said that’s particularly true of elected officials.
“They model for us who we can be and who we should be. I think for many, they are the most egregious examples of H-speech,” he said, pointing to attack ads on television. “These are examples where our elected officials say to us, ‘It’s OK to do this, I’m going to model it for you.’ They’re giving us permission to behave that way.”
Both Hetfield and Myers continue to work to make the world more civil and welcoming in their own ways : Hetfield by continuing to welcome and resettle the refugees directed to his organization by the U.S. government, and Myers by working to eliminate the word “hate” and all it entails from the collective vocabulary.
“In the end, we’re all human beings – we’re all alike,” Myers said. “The things that are different about us are so insignificant when you consider how much alike we all are.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer.
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