It began with a meeting of 12 Jewish men in a cafe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Oct. 13, 1843.
They were recent immigrants from Germany, concerned about what one founder described as “the deplorable condition of Jews in this, our newly adopted country.”
Their earliest efforts were directed at visiting the sick and protecting widows and orphans in their community.
Now, 170 years later, the organization has expanded its scope to support Israel, assist disaster victims, advocate for senior citizens, oppose anti-Semitism, and crusade around the world for human rights.
In recognition of the anniversary, B’nai B’rith International is observing different celebrations at different times.
It marked the occasion with a gala celebration at the Lowe’s Madison in Washington, DC, on Nov. 16. A letter of commendation from President Barack Obama was read and leaders of the organization from many parts of the world attended.
Through a joint resolution of the State Senate and Assembly, the New Jersey Legislature declared Nov. 9 B’nai B’rith Day in the Garden State, and Gov. Chris Christie has issued his own letter of commendation.
Union County and the Township of Springfield issued their own proclamations on that day.
Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, Springfield, also held a Shabbat celebration, B’nai B’rith Turns 170, on Nov. 9, at which the letter of commendation from Christie was read along with remarks from Freeholder Bruce Bergen, B’nai B’rith Tri-State Region president Mark Ross, and Springfield Lodge president Joe Tenenbaum.
To Ross, all these events have special resonance. He joined the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization as a freshman at Jonathan Dayton Regional High School in Springfield and rose through the ranks to become BBYO’s suburban council president and vice president of a district that included Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Delaware.
Now the Springfield funeral director oversees 34 active chapters in New Jersey with some 3,000 members. The region includes northern New Jersey, southern New York, and northeastern Pennsylvania.
Ross’s daughter Danielle is carrying on in his footsteps, serving as president of the NJ chapter of B’nai B’rith’s Young Leadership Network.
Father and daughter are committed to the organization’s future, one that looks less bright than it did in the heyday of fraternal lodges and civic belonging.
At one time B’nai B’rith had over 500,000 members. In 2013 — its press spokesperson, Sharon Bender, estimated — that number has dropped to 100,000.
“All of the Jewish organizations have diminished in membership,” said Ross.
He is currently involved in consolidating the 25 local chapters — called “lodges” — into countywide groups. “There just aren’t enough members to support lodges in each town,” he said, “but we will wind up with groups that are big enough to do some nice events.”
Ross and fellow members take pride in the fact that their organization has provided more that $100 million in money and medical supplies to disaster victims since 1868, including, most recently, some $40,000 in aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
In addition, lodges hold social activities ranging from international travel to dinner-dances and bowling nights.
Ross, who has attended numerous B’nai B’rith reunions with friends he has known since high school, said that to him, the organization is “fun. That’s what it’s supposed to be. I think the problem is a lot of organizations forgot to have fun.”