HIAS PA’s Cathryn Miller-Wilson Motivated by Desire to Serve

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Cathryn Miller-Wilson (Courtesy of HIAS PA)

Cathryn Miller-Wilson, 56, has been the executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania since 2016. For more than two years before that, she served as its deputy director.

The Wynnewood resident and Temple Sholom in Broomall member is married to Laval Miller-Wilson, the deputy secretary in the Office of Children, Youth and Families for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. The couple had both of their sons go through the bar mitzvah process at Temple Sholom.

For Miller-Wilson, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the law, service and Judaism have always been connected. She talked about why.


The Law

Miller-Wilson’s mother, Marjorie Miller, and her father, Matthew Miller, worked as a philosophy professor and businessman, respectively. Both were socially conscious and active. Marjorie Miller was “active in the Civil Rights Movement,” according to her daughter.

They talked about it at the family dinner table.

“They thought it was important to be aware,” Miller-Wilson said.

At Tufts University, Miller-Wilson studied music and literature. But as graduation approached, she didn’t feel that either would help her help the world.

She thought instead of going into law or medicine. But since she was “never good at science,” medicine was out of the question.

At Penn, Miller-Wilson studied in the public service program and sought the advice of Judi Bernstein-Baker, the future director of HIAS PA from 1998-2016.

“I didn’t understand how to be a public service lawyer,” Miller-Wilson said. “She became a mentor of mine.”

While still a student, Miller-Wilson helped start the Custody and Support Assistance Clinic for victims of domestic violence. She realized that she wanted to focus on people.

“I’m a people person,” she said. “It made sense to go into people work.”

Service

Miller-Wilson worked under Bernstein-Baker for more than two years, then replaced her. It was November 2016.

Donald Trump had just been elected president on a promise to build a wall at the southern border. He was not planning on allotting federal money to refugee resettlement programs, such as the one HIAS ran.

Cathryn Miller-Wilson, second from left, at a HIAS PA event with elected officials to her right: Rue Landau (Philadelphia city council) and state Rep. Jared Solomon (Courtesy of HIAS PA)

The new executive director realized something.

“Immigrants and refugees are going to need our help more than ever before,” she recalled. “We can’t shrink in the face of that need. We have to be there for them.”

Miller-Wilson had an idea: Go to the private sector.

She made presentations about the holistic services, social, legal and others, that refugees would need “from arrival to citizenship,” she said.

“My theory was if I could convince private donors to invest in that dream, then we could afford to keep on our refugee resettlement staff,” the director said. “For social services generally as opposed to resettlement services which are very specific.”

HIAS PA raised enough money to increase its staff from 25 to 60 people. Its budget also expanded from $2.5 million to $5 million.

“That resulted in us serving way more people and providing more services as well,” she said. “So, I really am very proud of the work we did during that moment.”

Four years later, when the pandemic broke out, HIAS developed a three-part program to keep immigrants on their feet.

First, Miller-Wilson and her team built an emergency fund to offer two months of case management plus $800 in cash. Secondly, they went to donors and asked for Chromebooks because all the local resources were moving online. HIAS got enough computers to give one to each incoming refugee and many immigrant clients. And finally, the organization developed a contactless grocery delivery system so immigrants could get their food.

“Clients had no money for groceries and no cars,” Miller-Wilson said. “We got an army of volunteers who were willing to do this.”

Judaism

HIAS PA lives out the value repeated often in the Torah of welcoming the stranger. Growing up, Miller-Wilson and her family celebrated all the Jewish holidays. And as an adult, she has continued the same traditions with her husband and sons.

“The values have always been important to us,” she said.

The night before her interview with HIAS PA, Miller-Wilson was talking on the phone with her mother. When she mentioned the interview, Marjorie Miller informed her daughter that the organization had once welcomed a stranger in their own family: Uncle Bala, a prisoner of four different concentration camps.

Miller-Wilson’s relatives were desperate to get him out, so they went to the national HIAS organization for help. They eventually got him out of Romania and resettled him in the U.S.

“Needless to say, my job interview was great,” Miller-Wilson said.

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