What is B'nai B'rith
’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant) is the oldest Jewish fraternal organisation in the world. It was founded in 1843 in America by a small group of German immigrants who met in Sinsheimer’s Café on the Lower East Side in New York. They spoke Yiddish, calling their newly formed association Söhne des Bundes, and their original aim was to improve the ‘deplorable condition of Jews in this, our newly adopted country’. They based the structure of the rapidly growing organisation on the masonic system of lodges and their first action was to introduce an insurance policy which would award members’ widows the sum of $30 towards funeral expenses and a grant of one dollar a week for the rest of their lives. Their children also received an allowance and their sons were taught a trade.
The new group's purpose, as described in its constitution, called for the setting up of the traditional functions performed by Jewish societies in Europe, such as visiting the sick, helping widows and orphans, and communicating with other Jews around the world. They soon adopted English, instead of Yiddish, as the group’s language, changing their name accordingly.
In 1851, B’nai B’rith erected Covenant Hall in New York City as the first Jewish community centre in the United States, and also what is widely considered to be the first Jewish public library in America, soon followed by the Maimonides Library and later the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Home.
Although originally confining their work to matters concerning American Jewry, it was not long before the group’s leaders became aware of oppression and tragedy of Jews in other countries, the cruel treatment of Jews in Romania, a cholera epidemic in Palestine and disabilities in Switzerland. The movement spread to Canada, then Egypt and to Jerusalem. Discussions took place regarding the group’s expansion to Britain, and the First Lodge of England was founded in 1910 at the home of Charles G. Montefiore in the City of London. Two years later another was established in Manchester with Israel Sieff and Chaim Weizmann on its council; they were to have considerable influence on B’nai B’rith’s attitude to Zionism.
Throughout the First World War, the organisation continued its charitable and philanthropic work, with the number of lodges expanding throughout the country, and by 1925 there were six lodges and District 15 – the umbrella body – was created, later to become B’nai B’rith UK.
With the suffrage movement having achieved votes for women in 1929, B’nai B’rith too opened its membership to women - though with their own lodges. They finally found equality in the setting up of unity lodges and all forms of Judaism - with their rabbis - are welcome. The last barriers were finally overcome with the setting up of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation in 1940, so that young people too could participate in the aims and ideals for which the movement stands.
With the coming of war there was much for Jewish organisations to do. By now there were eighteen lodges in Britain with more than a thousand members. Help was offered to refugees, particularly children, coming to this country from occupied nations in Europe. Composed mainly of German refugees, the ‘1943 Section’ was later renamed the Leo Baeck Lodge. Rabbi Leo Baeck arrived in London in July 1945 from Theresienstadt. He was welcomed with open arms and agreed to become Honorary Life President of the new Lodge. Leo Baeck was not only an academic, but also a businessman and that is why he chaired the B'nai B'rith Rehabilitation Fund, which was supported by other German-speaking Lodges in New York, Israel, Switzerland, South Africa and Australia.
The work continued after the war and when the movement in Britain celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1960 there were twenty-seven lodges with 2,500 members. It created the B’nai B’rith Housing Society and the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation. Over those years it had played an important part in helping Jews in many different fields. In its early years it lobbied Parliament on Sunday Trading, helped to found the Anti-Defamation Committee, supplied food to Jewish internees on the Isle of Man, helped in setting up the Balfour Declaration, and sent banned publications to Russian scientists.
As the years went on, more assistance was needed. A lecture committee was established to provide lecturers on Jewish matters to the general public, kosher meals were offered to students at Oxford and the group participated in the Jewish Day School Movement, the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, the B‘nai B’rith Music Festival and the Enterprise Scheme of 1989. The work goes on and new members of all ages are always welcome. The movement believes it is vital to promote Jewish heritage and culture, to advocate and defend the rights of the Jewish people in the UK, in Israel and throughout the world and to support their own charities. The British President, Alan Miller, says, ‘B’nai B’rith has a long and well-established history which focuses on advocacy, human rights, charitable work and Jewish Culture and Heritage, not only in the United Kingdom, but also in Europe and worldwide. Our social activities play an important part in the life of our Lodge membership and provide the basis for our wider activities. B’nai B’rith offers a warm welcome to those who join our family, whatever your age, be it younger or older or whether you are single or married or just good friends. We are an inclusive membership organisation that brings together Jews from across the whole spectrum’.
(This article appeared in the July 2019 edition of the Westminster Quarterly, the magazine of the Westminster Synagogue)