‘Look to Pittsburgh’ says HIAS head
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‘Look to Pittsburgh’ says HIAS head

Mark Hetfield is encouraged by the Steel City's example.

Mark Hetfield. Photo by Gili Getz/HIAS
Mark Hetfield. Photo by Gili Getz/HIAS

Mark Hetfield traveled to Pittsburgh days after last October’s attack. He returned to the Steel City throughout the year. This past weekend, Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS came once again from Bethesda, Maryland to demonstrate solidarity with partnering organizations and make clear that hate speech, xenophobia, Islamophobia and other fears are harming the Jewish people and society in general.

During his initial visit to Pittsburgh, Hetfield met with representatives from Jewish Family and Community Services, and congregations Dor Hadash and Temple Sinai.

All three are local partners of HIAS, explained Hetfield.

Whereas JFCS has long aided HIAS in refugee resettlement, the two congregations are members of HIAS’ Welcome Campaign. As such, representatives of Dor Hadash and Temple Sinai are committed to educating others about refugees, advocating on refugees’ behalves, fundraising to support refugees and aiding local refugees.

More than 400 congregations throughout the country belong to HIAS’ Welcome Campaign, noted Hetfield.

Members of the Welcome Campaign take action in different ways. Shortly before last year’s attack, more than 300 congregations around the country, including Dor Hadash, celebrated HIAS’ first ever Refugee Shabbat. The event was held nationwide on Oct. 19 and 20, although Dor Hadash marked the event with programming on the weekends of both Oct. 13 and 20, noted Hetfield.

At the time, HIAS was unaware that the Refugee Shabbat celebration “was something that the murderer who invaded the Tree of Life was more of less obsessed with,” said Hetfield.
Coming to terms with last year’s attack was difficult, he noted. Upon arriving in Pittsburgh days later, Hetfield, like others he noticed, was “in a state of shock.”

What he saw in the aftermath of the atrocity, however, lifted his spirits. Along with physical displays of encouragement, fundraisers and events throughout the city demonstrated solidarity with refugees and the Jewish community.

“Really it kind of restored my faith in humanity,” said Hetfield. “I cry every time I think about the buses that said ‘Pittsburgh Strong’ and the signs of support for the community.”

Seeing such markers throughout Pittsburgh was “wonderful” and it led Hetfield to believe that “maybe we’ve turned a corner.” Returning home, however, proved otherwise, he said. “I got back to Washington and nothing had changed. In fact, the hateful rhetoric that we hear on a regular basis here, including coming out of the White House, has continued to get worse and nothing was done in Washington to confront this hate.”

Mark Hetfield. Photo courtesy of HIAS

All the while, atrocities continued to occur in Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Poway and Halle, Germany.

“What I saw in Pittsburgh was really encouraging but things continued to get worse,” said Hetfield. “I really thought that at a minimum, at a minimum, after Pittsburgh, President Trump would stop using the word ‘invader’ to refer to asylum seekers. And not only did that not happen, but he actually continued to use it more often, and he would even use it in speeches he was giving where he was talking about Pittsburgh,” noted Hetfield. “I just can’t believe that after Pittsburgh that not only did that continue to happen, but he actually accelerated and did it even more often. And now he’s lowered the number of refugees allowed to come into this country to the lowest number in history.”

During fiscal year 2020, the United States plans to admit a maximum of 18,000 refugees, which is 12,000 fewer than the number of refugees admitted during the year ending Sept. 30, 2019 and would be “the lowest number of refugees resettled by the U.S. in a single year since 1980 when Congress created the nation’s refugee resettlement program,” according to Pew Research Center.

Since 1881, when it was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS has assisted immigration efforts. The organization is one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies that works with the United States government to resettle refugees.

Given this country’s history of welcoming newcomers, Hetfield believes it’s possible to change current trends and behaviors.

“It’s gonna take a lot of work and some courage. The most important thing is we need leadership and we’re not getting it,” he said.

Hetfield is well aware that his comments and visit one year after the attack may be construed as politicizing, however, this is not his intentions, he said. “It’s a really difficult line to walk and we’re really trying not to politicize it, but the fact of the matter is that we have to confront hate speech, and white supremacy and white nationalism and we need leadership to do that. And we’re not getting that national leadership and that matters. So, we don’t have a political agenda we have an anti-hate agenda.”

Moving forward, it’d be helpful as a country to look to the Steel City’s example, noted Hetfield.

“Pittsburgh has been a real inspiration I think to the entire country in the way that they responded to this as one community, a unified community, beyond just the Jewish community,” he said. “If the entire country were like this I think we’d be in a different place, a much better place.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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