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HIAS Event Celebrates Life of Immigrants

May 10, 2007 By:
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Professor Peter Rose
By all accounts, Daniel Aaron led a rich and varied life.

An astute businessman, he co-founded Comcast Corporation, one of the largest cable-television providers in the country. A doting father, he raised five children with his wife of more than 50 years, Gerri. And as a committed philanthropist, Aaron started a foundation in Philadelphia for those with Parkinson's disease.

Yet none of these accomplishments would have been possible had it not been for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia, which rescued Aaron -- then age 12 -- from Nazi-occupied Europe in 1938.

The Jewish organization celebrated its 125th anniversary last week by honoring the contributions of immigrants like Aaron. The event, held downtown at the National Constitution Center, included a posthumous presentation to Aaron -- surviving family members received a Golden Door Award, as well as proclamations by State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-182) and City Councilman Frank Rizzo -- and a keynote speech on the sociology of immigration by Smith College professor Peter Rose.

According to HIAS executive director Judith Bernstein-Baker, the organization, which began in 1882, was initially formed to help Eastern European Jews flee pogroms. The agency handled the paperwork, sponsorship and trip logistics of refugees.

Today, HIAS offers services to those seeking asylum, family reunification, permanent legal status and U.S. citizenship. Its constituents are both Jewish and non-Jewish, and hail from more than 100 countries worldwide.

'A Tale of Survival'

Those who attended the gala were greeted by a short violin performance by David Zaychik, a Russian musician who was rescued by HIAS after suffering repeated discrimination there.

With a projector displaying old black-and-white photos of Aaron in the background, family and friends of the honoree proceeded to share memories of a man they described as a "tough-as-nails" survivor.

After fleeing the Holocaust, Aaron's parents both died when he was 13; the teen spent the rest of his youth in foster homes. He still managed to take care of his younger brother, Frank, and to graduate from West Philadelphia High School with honors.

"His was a tale of survival," daughter Erika Aaron, a nurse practitioner, told the crowd.

Comcast executive Ralph Roberts also praised his late friend's fighting spirit. "The travails and tragedy he lived through in the early part of his life should have been too much to bear," he said. "But instead, that made him independent and fearless."

Aaron "came to this country with a dream, and asked only for a chance to pursue it," continued Roberts.

Keynote speaker Rose, the Sophia Smith Professor Emeritus and senior fellow of the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute at Smith, underscored the continued need for immigration-relief organizations like HIAS.

Although he suggested that "Jews are no longer among the principle targets of hate groups," nativist scholars still see foreigners as an affront on the white, Christian values of the "Protestant establishment."

"Except now, it's not just traditional European immigrants," he noted. "People across the Rio Grande and the Pacific" are considered as "aliens in their midst."

In reality, argued Rose, these waves of immigration are not so dissimilar.

"Like the many Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms," the newer migrants are "dirt-poor people wanting better lives for themselves, and especially, for their children."

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