By Hannah Lee
While social media fixates on the latest outrage over an iconic photo of a child washed ashore, Judi Bernstein-Baker has put in 18 years at the helm of an organization that has been assisting refugees for 134 years. She led a small staff, funded by Jewish Federation to resettle Jews from Eastern Europe, and grew it into a multilingual, groundbreaking institution. “Before, we helped Jewish refugees. Now, we help refugees because we’re Jewish,” Judi proudly declared at the farewell luncheon on Wednesday. True to her passion for her work, she declined a gala event in favor of the annual luncheon honoring many others for their work.
During her tenure, HIAS PA (formerly Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) has served over 36,000 refugees from over 100 countries. In 2002, it established the Asylee Outreach Project, which remains the only program of its kind in Pennsylvania. It expanded its Immigrant Youth Advocacy Initiative in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America, some as young as two. It is part of the Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience to assist survivors of torture and the Victims of Interpersonal Violence Initiative to promote healing and self-reliance for victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other violent crimes.
Among the people honored at the event were Michael Matza for his courageous coverage of migration issues at the Inquirer and Helen Gym, Councilwoman at Large, for her passionate championship of the segments of the population who are marginalized from skilled care and public resources. It concluded with remarks by Cathryn Miller-Wilson, the incoming Executive Director.
How did Judi come by her passion? According to long-time board member, Adele Lipton, it was in Judi’s genes. Both of their mothers came as young girls, at age 14 and 15, from Poland, arriving on steerage. They were both greeted by HIAS. They were both told repeatedly by their mothers, that if it were not for HIAS, they would not be alive now.
In 1939, quoted Judi from HIAS archives, two-thirds of Americans wanted no more refugees, including the 10,000 children awaiting visas from Eastern Europe. Now, we have governors and presidential candidates who want to close our borders. Last month, HIAS PA resettled 53 refugees. It is a world that is worse off for many people, with 60 million people displaced from their homes.