Many people wish to relive the good times they had in high school, but Mark Ross is actually doing something to make his dream a reality.
The attorney and funeral director is hoping to rekindle the happy moments he shared with friends at Aleph Zadik Aleph, the former high school boys’ division of B’nai B’rith, and its sister organization, B’nai B’rith Girls.
While he gathers with fellow dreamers for “It’s Not Your Father’s B’nai B’rith Kickoff Event”— a first “good, old-fashioned house party” — on Sunday, Oct. 14, to watch the New York Jets play the Indianapolis Colts, Ross said, he hopes to “bring back the fun.”
“We had a lot of fun back in high school,” Ross told NJ Jewish News in an interview at his office at Ross’ Shalom Chapels in Springfield (there’s also a branch in Chatham), which he owns with his wife, Robin. “It wasn’t just about meeting people. It was about having fun with other Jews, regardless of whether they were Orthodox or Conservative or Reform.”
But Ross doesn’t want to stop there. He is eager to reinvigorate the adult B’nai B’rith organization as well. The venerable fraternal organization has been on a slide since its heyday in the 1970s, when B’nai B’rith lodges were ubiquitous hubs for Jewish socializing and community service.
“When I was growing up there were separate lodges in almost every town in Union County, but now, all of Union Country is now in one lodge,” he lamented. He is coordinating with the still extant B’nai B’rith Lodge 2093 in Springfield to give the organization a shot in the arm.
Starting with his old AZA and BBG pals, Ross is aiming to revive the spirit of his youth. Using recruiting tools that were not available when he was an adolescent, Ross set up a Facebook page that is reaping positive results. “We now have 150 people on that page. Some of those people are from as far away as Florida and Virginia, and one even lives in Argentina. But a lot of people are still local. They grew up in this area and stayed in this area,” he said.
Ross’s efforts are “definitely helpful and definitely encouraged,” said Rhonda Love, B’nai B’rith International’s vice president of programming. “B’nai B’rith has gone through transitions in many communities where we have had a presence. In many communities we have a lodge structure and community service programs. But we have places where there has been a drop-off in activity.”
In New Jersey, the organization has some 15,500 members and donors. Its total membership and donor base is about 250,000 in 50 countries, with 130,000 in the United States, according to Love. “In the 1960s and ’70s I would say there were many more members,” she said. Some accounts put its membership in the 1970s at 500,000.
Adding to the parent organization’s woes is recent news that the federal government has taken over the pension plan for B’nai B’rith International, which, the Forward reported, is more than $25 million in debt.
Back in the 1970s, when he was a student at Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights, Ross was a chapter president and a president of what was then the Suburban Council of AZA, a precursor of today’s B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. (BBYO became independent of B’nai B’rith in 2002.)
He remained active in Jewish organizations during his undergraduate years on Rutgers University’s Newark campus. Later, at Benjamin Cardozo Law School, Ross founded a group called Novat.
“It was a B’nai B’rith singles’ and professionals’ group,” said Ross. “The object was to introduce young Jewish single professionals to other young Jewish single professionals in north Jersey. It did its job so well that it married itself out of existence,” he said. It was through Novat that Ross met Robin.
Ross said he is pleased at the responses he is receiving from old friends. “We keep having the same conversations about ‘Remember the good times and the house parties we used to have? Wouldn’t it be fun to do that again?’ And I said, ‘You know what? It would be fun to do that again.’”
Making social connections across a broad spectrum of Jewish belief systems is part of Ross’ agenda. “B’nai B’rith crosses all denominational groups and everyone should feel welcome. There is no religious agenda,” he said.
It is, in essence, the way he has lived his own life.
“I grew up in Westfield as a member of the Reform Temple Emanu-El in Westfield. I am a past president of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael,” a Conservative shul in Springfield. “We have a place in Florida, and I am a member of an Orthodox synagogue there. I can go to the Orthodox synagogue and be very comfortable.”
“We put up too many walls, too many barriers,” he added. “Ultimately, we are all Jews. We all share the same path, and whatever point you are in the ladder of observance, there is always room to change. You’ve got to find what is meaningful for you. It is not for me to dictate where you should be. I just want to respect where everybody is so we can all socialize together.”
Ross expects the Oct. 14 event at a private home in Springfield, to be more than a reunion.
“Reunions are great, but they don’t have to be a once-a-year or once-every-five-years event,” he said.
Ross also hopes to reawaken Novat as a meeting place for a new generation of young Jewish adults.
Perhaps the younger generation is less committed to all-Jewish friendship links than the people in his peer group were, Ross conceded. “But I just think it strengthens us socially and in all other respects. I don’t have a problem with Jews socializing with non-Jews. I just think that there needs to be an outlet for my idea, and I don’t see it happening.”