Mark Hetfield, 45, originally from Watchung, was named president and CEO of HIAS, the Jewish immigration group, Feb. 4.
An immigration attorney with more than 25 years of experience at HIAS, he views his role as nothing short of transforming the image of the organization within the American-Jewish community.
Once synonymous with resettling Jews — from the turn of the 20th century to the heights of the Soviet Jewry movement — HIAS turned to Hetfield to better reflect the work it actually accomplishes around the world.
“The average American Jew does not have any idea what we do today, or that we even still exist,” said Hetfield in a phone interview the day after his appointment. “My number one priority is to raise awareness so people know we are performing mitzvot every day around the world.
“I want HIAS to be the place people turn to for information and for help when issues regarding refugee crises arise.”
At the top of his list of regions with refugees needing the attention of the world, especially of American Jews, is East Africa. “The atrocities in the Republic of Congo that we see in our Uganda and Kenya offices — these people’s experiences are so horrible they make the persecution of Jews by the Nazis look not that creative,” said Hetfield. “We’re talking about using rape as a political weapon, torture, mutilation — that are all part of people’s everyday lives.”
Hetfield succeeded Gideon Aronoff, a South Orange resident who led HIAS for six years until his resignation at the end of May. Hetfield has been leading HIAS on an interim basis since June.
An expert in the field of refugee protection, Hetfield has experience at many levels of HIAS, where he has worked on and off since graduating from Georgetown University nearly 25 years ago. He has worked in Rome and Haiti, as an immigration attorney, as an officer with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He worked for HIAS four times in three different cities, including a stint in the New York office, during which time he lived with his family in Oceanport in Monmouth County.
The vast majority of HIAS clients today — 90 percent in the United States and at least 98 percent abroad — are not Jewish, he acknowledged. But he doesn’t think that should make any difference to Jews. On the contrary, he said: Jews are almost always disproportionately represented among the supporters of human rights organizations. He sees HIAS as a natural fit when it comes to refugee assistance, since it is the same organization that helped so many Jewish families when they themselves were refugees.
Hetfield likes to organize HIAS’s history into two phases: the “Exodus” phase, and the “Leviticus” phase.
The Exodus phase began with its founding in the 1880s as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help what became two million Jews emigrate from Eastern Europe and Russia, and ended with the mass migration of another two million Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1980s.
With the end of mass Jewish migrations, HIAS entered the “Leviticus” stage. “We are fortunate not to have Jews in captivity behind the Iron Curtain, and to have Israel,” Hetfield said. “HIAS’s job now is to go from Exodus to Leviticus — to focus on fulfilling our values based on Jewish history and teaching, as well as the experiences we have accumulated.”
HIAS started its first major operation OF THIS STAGE focused on aiding non-Jews in 2001 in Kenya, and has since started programs to help refugees from Colombia, Ecuador, Chad, and Darfur.
While it is often recognized as a leader in refugee protection by U.S. agencies and other organizations, HIAS receives almost no private support from individuals — one of the results of having such a low profile within the Jewish community, Hetfield said. Its $32 million budget comes mostly from organizations like the UN and the U.S. government and institutional funders, with a smaller amount from endowments. Private donations account for just $2 million. Hetfield called that number “not impressive” and plans to increase it significantly.
He said he would also like to see more engagement by American Jews with refugee resettlement. “People should be more aware of people displaced overseas because of their religion, political beliefs, or ethics, the way Jews were, and make sure they are protected,” he said.
After Hetfield graduated from college with a degree in Russian studies, he landed his first job as a caseworker for Russian clients at the HIAS office in Rome. “I spoke Russian all day, and I got to live in Italy,” he said. “I was compelled by the refugee work and bringing Jews back to their roots, traditions, and practices that they were forcefully deprived of.”
The Rome experience also introduced him to his own Jewish identity. When he grew up in Watchung, his family had not belonged to a synagogue, and he didn’t go to religious school. But when he lived in Oceanport, he joined the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls. Today, he and his wife, 16-year-old son, and 13-year-old daughter live in Bethesda, Md., where they belong to the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.
Hetfield said he owes a personal debt to HIAS that goes far beyond career.
While they were living in New Jersey, his wife developed cancer. Because of the insurance they had, few oncologists would take her on as a patient. And then they found Dr. Gregory Braslavsky, an immigrant trained in Ukraine who treated her simply “because he believed it was the right thing to do,” according to Hetfield.
The irony of the situation was obvious. “If HIAS hadn’t brought him here, we wouldn’t have had an oncologist,” said Hetfield. “He saved my wife’s life.”