More than 4 decades ago, a 20-year-old student took a trip which changed his life. He spent two months in the United States in 1968, meeting some of the leading thinkers of American Jewry. That student was Jonathan Sacks, now the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, who recalls how his formative experience in the US was made possible by a travel grant awarded by B’nai B’rith UK.
“I owe the organisation a great personal debt,” he says. “That trip changed my life. Because of it, I eventually decided to become a rabbi and dedicate my life to serving the Jewish community. That I owe to B’nai B’rith First Lodge, and I am sure there are many others who could tell a similar story.”
His tribute comes as the organisation celebrates its centenary — the First Lodge of B’nai B’rith UK was established 100 years ago, in February 1910. A celebratory dinner will be held next week, with the Chief Rabbi as guest of honour.
It is a landmark anniversary, but B’nai B’rith is actually much older. It was born in October 1843 when a group of 12 young Jewish men of German origin met in New York to establish a support organisation for the Jewish immigrants flooding into the country.
The original constitution read: “The Independent Order of B’nai B’rith has taken upon itself the mission of uniting Israelites in the work of promoting their highest interests and those of humanity… of inculcating the purest principles of philanthropy… alleviating the wants of the poor and needy…”
Our basic values remain the same
A month later the group adopted the motto “Benevolence, Brotherly Love and Harmony” and a symbol — a menorah — drew up a set of “by-laws” and opened the first lodge. Soon its members began work on charitable and communal projects, meeting regularly for debates and lectures.
Lodges began spreading worldwide. In the UK, a Women’s Auxiliary was formed in 1919 which became the First Women’s Lodge. In 1925 there were six lodges; by 1952 there were 27 with 2,500 members. In 1970 membership peaked with 6,000 members in 68 lodges. Membership nationally now stands at 1,200 in 18 lodges.
Among some of its achievements, the First Lodge provided legal aid to immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century, established the first Hillel Houses for students in 1953, and established the first B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation (BBYO) chapter in 1940 in Leeds. Prominent members have included Lady Jakobovits, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and Gerald and Dame Gail Ronson.
Martin Aaron, president of the First Lodge since June 2009, says: “One of the main purposes of B’nai B’rith is its humanitarian work and its inclusiveness. You can be Orthodox, Reform, anything. It’s for the whole community. It tries to keep the community together and not create divisions.”
Derek Levy, co-president of the Leeds Lodge and B’nai B’rith’s northern representative, has been involved with the organisation since he was 10 years old, when he joined one of its junior lodges. “There were the usual Jewish clubs going at the time but they didn’t attract me,” he says. “B’nai B’rith appealed because it was peer led and there was no hierarchy. I stuck with them because it met my needs. It was a very good training ground for my own profession as a teacher and lecturer in terms of speaking and debating.”
Levy represents the three remaining lodges in the north — Manchester, Cheshire and Leeds. Others in the region have closed due to the dwindling Jewish communities. “We used to have a thriving youth organisation but there are so many other opportunities for young people now and they’re not as interested in joining,” he says.
The average age of members is now over 70 — Levy believes younger people are deterred by the misconceptions they have about the organisation. “The word ‘lodges’ puts young people off,” he says. “They think it’s like Freemasonry, but we’re no secret society.”
But despite acknowledg-ing the current structure is slightly “outdated”, he says he likes the traditions at his own lodge — at every meeting there is an opening ceremony, the B’nai B’rith principles are proclaimed and candles lit. “B’nai B’rith has changed in a number of ways over the years but its basic values and principles are the same,” he says. “It’s the society it functions for that’s changed.”
Martin Aaron believes that recruiting younger members is the main priority to ensure the organisation’s future. “Young people are just not as involved as they used to be. There is no point resting on the success of the past. We’re trying to promote the whole ethos to the younger community. Within First Lodge, we want to create a subdivision for 25-45 year olds.”
Martin Kudlick, national president of B’nai B’rith UK, says that building a stronger link with BBYO may attract younger members. “We won’t keep to the rigid guidelines of the old days any more. We’d like more young lodges set up and hope to bring our same basic principles into the 21st century.”
One initiative that has proved a great success is the European Day of Jewish Culture and Heritage which B’nai B‘rith introduced in the UK in 1999, and which sees sites of Jewish interest open their doors to the public. The person behind the move was Valerie Bello, who joined the First Women’s Lodge in 1977. She points out how B’nai B’rith has promoted the role of women in the community. “Women are standing side by side with men doing the same work,” she says.
For the Chief Rabbi, B’nai B’rith remains integral to the community, despite the challenges it faces. “It has never ceased to be a source of leadership, blessing and inspiration to British Jewry and the wider Jewish world,” he says. “B’nai B’rith encouraged Jews to become leaders — and it still does.”