Judith Bernstein-Baker admits she’s sort of a modern-day Moses.
Dragging her new walking stick around the office as she proudly points out the many employees — most of whom came from outside the United States — Judith Bernstein-Baker admits she’s sort of a modern-day Moses.
And who could argue about the woman who’s credited with transforming the local chapter of what used to be known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — today, it’s just HIAS — from a virtually a mom-and-pop operation into a major force.
There’s no dispute that when she leaves her post as Philadelphia HIAS’ executive director on Oct. 31 after 18 years, the organization will be in a much different place than when she arrived.
Yet, like Moses, who could only stand on Mount Nebo and watch his people enter the Promised Land, she won’t be there to witness the fruits of her labors and see the finished product.
“I brought the organization to a certain stage, and I’m leaving it stable,” said Bernstein-Baker, whose successor likely won’t be named until the end of September. “It just seemed like the right time to go.
“I’d like to have freedom to pursue some interests. The organization is strong. We have a strong board and a strong staff and, as far as funding goes, which is never, ever enough and never predictable, it was stable enough for somebody coming in.
“I’m very proud of what HIAS is doing both locally and nationally and very proud of our Jewish community, which has really shown an outpouring of support and wants to engage refugees regardless of their background. It really is a testament to our people who feel we, as Jews, have a special sensitivity to war and genocide because of our own experience.”
Not everyone is as open to immigrants as HIAS, which, of late, has been involved in rescuing children trying to escape Central America countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador, where drug wars have made life unsafe. The climate of fear and distrust we read and hear about every day as the election nears worries her.
“There was a lot less fear of immigrants when I started here and a lot more welcoming,” recalled Bernstein-Baker, who had a small office with a handful of employees on the top floor of what was then the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s building at 16th and Locust streets in Center City. “All the political pandering and inflammatory comments we’re hearing are hurtful to our organization and could be hurtful to America.
“It’s the same rhetoric we heard during the 1920s when they instituted immigration restrictions and kept out all the Jews and other persecuted groups. It’s dangerous talk.”
That talk has taken on a life of its own.
“We have a toxic mix,” continued Bernstein-Baker, whose mother was rescued from Poland by HIAS, settling in the Bronx, N.Y., where she grew up. “People are worried about getting jobs with decent wages and worried about their children’s future.
“When that happens, they look around for someone to blame. They blame immigrants, who are easy to blame because they can’t vote. But if you actually look at the facts and work with immigrants, you would see it’s always a plus to have them.
“Immigrants bring new skills. They bring new revitalization because cities with large immigrant populations are doing well. Of course, it gets lost in the rhetoric because the rhetoric is not based on facts. It’s based on fear. And it’s going to come back and haunt whoever is spouting it.”
That won’t be the Jewish people, who can appreciate what it’s like to be persecuted with lies and fear, she said. According to Bernstein-Baker, the ideals of HIAS are basic tenets of Judaism.
“People naturally want to fear the stranger,” Bernstein-Baker said. “That’s why there are so many sections of the Torah that say you must welcome the stranger.
“It’s one of the most repeated commands in the Torah, and it’s there for a reason. We were always also the stranger. This is a very strong value in our tradition.”
And Bernstein-Baker has always practiced what she’s preached. Walking around HIAS’ offices is like being in a virtual United Nations, with employees from around the world. Some have just arrived. Others have been there longer than she has.
“It’s like a totally different agency,” said Marina Merlin, who came from Russia and has been with HIAS for more than 20 years. “We had very few people then.
“Everyone knows Judi. The agency has become more and more recognizable. It’s not possible to find another Judi, because she’s always worked as many hours as needed — even 16-hour days — and who can do that now?
“We’re going to miss her, but it’s not like we’re losing her. We hope she’ll still be around.”
She will be, just not as often. Bernstein-Baker plans to stop by periodically. But she’ll also be busy teaching immigration law at Philadelphia Community College, dealing with some health issues, volunteering and, best of all, visiting her three grandchildren.
“It’s a good time to retire,” she said. “I’ll be teaching. I have my textbook. And I’m not going to be executive director, [but] I’ll be associated as a consultant.
“It is true that the organization has grown while I’m here, and I am very much identified with the organization. But we have many other people in the organization who’ve taken leadership roles.
“People are saying, ‘HIAS won’t be the same without you.’ They’re right. It won’t be the same, but it’ll still be wonderful in a new way.”
Judith Bernstein-Baker, though, will only be able to observe that from a periphery. Like Moses, she has her walking stick and her own special handwritten book to help her lead the way for immigrants. The difference between them is her plea.
“Let my people stay.”
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