Jewish Immigration to America

Jewish Aid Organizations

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Passover seder for newly arrived Jewish immigrants at Ellis Island, organized by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), New York City, ca. 1920s. 

The East European Jewish immigrants were not always warmly welcomed by the Jews who had already settled in. There were cultural and class differences between the newcomers and already Americanized Jews. Jews in New York and other large cities feared that antisemitism would be the consequence if too many Jewish immigrants concentrated on the East Coast.

But most didn't turn their backs on their fellow Jews or oppose their immigration. They felt a kinship with newcomers. Communal leaders accepted responsibilities for them and transformed their own concerns into activism and aid.

HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) was founded in 1909 as a merger of two earlier organizations to become the main communal organization providing aid and guidance to Jewish immigrants. At Ellis Island, the main port of entry for immigration, HIAS provided translation and advocacy services, ran a kosher kitchen, and lent money for payment of official entry fees.

The Educational Alliance, established in 1889 on New York's Lower East Side, provided services designed to help immigrants Americanize. These ranged from English lessons to cooking classes. The Educational Alliance also offered summer camps, a rooftop playground, public baths, and pasteurized milk stations funded by Nathan Strauss, the brother of its first president, Isidor Strauss, co-owner of Macy's Department Store.

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Health inspection document at a U.S. port for a newly arrived immigrant, Frieda Tenen, a passenger on the SS Minnedosa. 

He pinned a white piece of paper with the word "HIAS" to my jacket, and said I should not worry, they would take care of me.

—Chaim Kusnetz, about his arrival at Ellis Island in 1923

Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer. My Future Is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
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HIAS staff assisting Jewish emigrants in Warsaw, Poland, 1921.

Then came a new cry. This time from Eastern Europe. The war raged in all its intensity and erstwhile Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, long settled in the United States, had lost all trace of their nearest and dearest on the other side. The Society stepped into the breach, re-established communication, and letters began to pour in for people here.

—From Souvenir History Program for the Dedication of New Building – Week of June 5th, 1921 

HIAS ARCHIVE: HIAS and HICEM Main Offices, New York: Reports & Minutes of HIAS Meetings & Conventions RG 245.4.1 - Box 2 - I25a, YIVO Archives
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Class for immigrants at the Education Alliance, New York City, ca. 1920s.

The real, the fundamental work of the Educational Alliance, of which it must be more proud than anything else, is that of making American citizens.

—Activities of the Educational Alliance 1923

Educational Alliance, RG 312, YIVO Archives