Update note, 5/7/2019: This story has been updated to remove the proper name of an individual who preferred to remain anonymous.
A few months after Judith Bernstein-Baker had assumed the top post at HIAS and Council Migration Service in 1998, she was working late when the phone rang.
She picked up, figuring it must be her husband at that hour.
Instead, it was a U.S. customs official at the airport.
He had a family there from Kosovo who somehow managed to get on the plane without visas. That meant he had no choice but to put them in detention unless an approved agency like hers could temporarily take responsibility.
Bernstein-Baker worked the phones until she found someone to house the family. Over the next few weeks, she helped them weigh their options for asylum.
Four months after they left for Canada to live with a relative, news reports confirmed the ethnic cleansing the family had described, and Bernstein-Baker knew the man had been telling the truth about his missing fingers.
“If they had been returned to Kosovo, they could have easily been killed,” she said.
That was the first time, she said, that “I really understood what it meant to save lives. We were doing it all the time, but this was really saving a life.”
Now, 13 years later, Bernstein-Baker has dozens of stories like that. She’s too modest to disclose just how much she’s become immersed in the well-being of the hundreds of immigrants who come through her office every year for legal and social services.
But she’s got plenty of fans who will. Despite her initial objections, they celebrated her achievements last week at the agency’s annual fundraiser.
Three Computers, One Broken
While Bernstein-Baker, 65, has been at HIAS longer than any other job, she’s devoted most of her adult life to social justice.
She met her husband, Karl Baker, while picketing against segregation in college. After graduating from State University of New York at Binghamton, she went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.
Though she’d been rejected from law school before, she applied again in her late 30s. When she graduated from Temple Law in 1986, the couple already had two small children.
She clerked for a judge and trained attorneys at a nonprofit that represented abused children before returning to Penn to found and direct the law school’s public-interest center.
She’d been there for eight years, helping law students arrange pro-bono service projects, when friends urged her to apply for the opening at HIAS.
She thought about her mother, who spent her childhood in Poland hungry and fearful of being raped during a pogrom.
It was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society that had helped Rae Bernstein travel to Ellis Island in the 1920s, and HIAS who sent a doctor when immigration officials, fearing she would spread an eye infection, moved to immediately send the 12-year-old back home.
“It was probably a totally emotional decision,” said Bernstein-Baker. “But I’m glad I made it. Where else can you work at a job where you can travel to other foreign countries without leaving your desk, and learn about the world and learn about yourself because of that? And it’s cheap. For a nonprofit person, that’s pretty important.”
When she arrived at HIAS, she found three computers — one of them broken. Technical upgrades aside, she set about restructuring the office and hiring additional attorneys to address major restrictions in immigration law that were just being implemented. Today, her 16-member staff includes five attorneys and four accredited specialists who can provide free or low-cost legal services.
Last year, they opened about 600 cases, from Russian families applying for citizenship to Haitians seeking temporary protective status after the devastating 2010 earthquake. That’s on top of resettling 135 refugees — an increase of more than 500 percent in the last three years.
Social-service programs have also shifted as partnering Jewish agencies pulled back — a financial response to the dwindling number of Jewish refugees. But unlike HIAS affiliates in other parts of the country that became paperwork centers, Bernstein-Baker insisted on maintaining social workers, said Adele Lipton, who has been on the board for the past 25 years.
Under her leadership, the agency received more grants than ever before, noted Lipton.
Still, the $1.3 million annual budget never covers enough, which is where volunteers come in. Bernstein-Baker counts at least 50 Jewish volunteers in the refugee program alone, not to mention others at synagogues like Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood who regularly send welcome baskets and donations.
Then there are clients who return as volunteers, like a 29-year-old man who left Indonesia after facing violence and discrimination because of his identity as a gay Christian.
“It feels good that I can give back to what they gave me in the past,” said the volunteer. “If [Judi] wants me to work for her unpaid, I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Because of Bernstein-Baker’s “quiet charisma,” when she reaches out to ask for something, people respond, said Linda Harker, vice president of the board.
As board president Wendy Castor Hess put it, “you eventually give in because she asks you in such a nice, gentle way.”
Even the board initially gave in when Bernstein-Baker resisted being honored at the annual fundraiser last year.
“She said, ‘Why honor me? I’m not special, I’m not rich, none of my friends are rich. No one will come,’ ” recalled Hess.
“Judi, I think you’re wrong,” Hess said, gesturing at the 250 people seated before her at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall.
In her typical fashion, Bernstein-Baker brushed off the litany of compliments when she took the podium, deferring to the quality of her staff.
“In order to do this work, you have to have some very strong beliefs or you have to be totally insane. Maybe I’m totally insane, I don’t know,” she said.
But seeing the hope in the faces of those who seek asylum and the success of those who establish lives here makes it all worthwhile, she said.
These clients “give me much more than we could give them. They take that little piece of assistance, and they build new lives and contribute back.”
Bernstein-Baker pointed to a Russian couple who decided to join their daughter and now teach math, as volunteers; a Colombian who founded a Spanish-language weekly newspaper; and a Burmese girl who, despite lacking formal education in her native country, just got a “straight A” report card.
“I feel like I’m helping the city of Philadelphia,” she said. “We are truly rich by those we serve.”