WASHINGTON (Sep. 27)
B’nai B’rith International will celebrate its 140th year beginning October 13 by doing what it does best: serving the community, it was announced here. Ceremonies denoting the start of the Jewish service organization’s 15th decade will be held throughout the year by members around the world.
Gerald Kraft, president of B’nai B’rith International, said, in announcing the year-long anniversary celebration: “At 140, B’nai B’rith is more robust than ever, and continues to play a leading role in preserving, protecting and promoting Jewish life the world over — and confident that our greatest achievements still lie ahead.”
The organization, whose half a million members in 48 countries comprise the largest democratically organized group of its kind, was founded in 1843 by 12 emigres in New York City. Their objective was to unite Jews “in the work of promoting their highest interests and those of humanity.”
Early in its history, B’nai B’rith focused on bringing together American Jews with disparate backgrounds. At the same time, members widened their attention to help widows and orphans. In short order, they were also helping victims of natural disasters and launching their first fight against anti-Semitism — in 1851, by persuading the United States to withhold approval of a treaty with Switzerland until several Swiss cantons removed legal restrictions against Jews.
Today, B’nai B’rith is still aiding disaster victims and fighting religious and racial bias. Its Anti-Defamation League, founded 70 years ago to thwart the growing menace of the Ku Klux Klan, is widely considered to be one of the foremost human rights advocates in the world. The ADL has offices in North and South America and Europe and works hand-in-hand with other B’nai B’rith human rights groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
ASSISTANCE TO IMMIGRANTS
In the 1880′s, as the first massive wave of Jews from Europe reached the United States, B’nai B’rith set up manual and technical schools and the first free employment bureau, all aimed at making these immigrants both self-sufficient and comfortable in their new surroundings. A hundred years later, B’nai B’rith volunteers continue to assist immigrants–mostly from the Soviet Union — to become “at home” in America.
At about the same time, B’nai B’rith’s first overseas lodge was established — appropriately, in Israel. Today members reside in countries from Austria to Australia, from Japan to Jamaica. Israel, of course, remains special.
Not only are there more than 200 lodges in that country, each engaged in social and educational welfare projects, but there are some 5,000 teenage members of Noar Lenoar, Israel’s B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) counterpart, and thousands of students active in the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations at various college campuses. In addition, Jerusalem is the site of B’nai B’rith’s world center, which serves as a program resource agency for the organization.
Just as Israel is special, so, too, are Soviet Jews. For nearly two decades, B’nai B’rith has spearheaded efforts to prod the USSR to permit Jews and others who desire to emigrate to leave. During that time, some 270,000 Jews did leave, most of them going to Israel. Last March, in face of a virtually complete emigration shutdown, B’nai B’rith led a worldwide rally to let those Jews remaining in the Soviet Union know that they have not been — and will not be–forgotten.
B’nai B’rith is also a world leader in seeking positive resolution to other issues of Jewish concern. Through its International Council, members are kept informed on what is happening around the world both in front of and behind the scenes of formulating public policy. An accredited Non-Governmental Organization by the United Nations, B’nai B’rith maintains a close watch on activities affecting Jews at the UN as well as in other nations.
AWARENESS OF JUDAIC BACKGROUND
In recent years, as ethnic neighborhoods disappeared in many countries, B’nai B’rith has attempted to keep its members strongly aware of their Judaic background through education programs.
The organization prepares, through its Adult Jewish Education Commission, a variety of publications and audio/visual tapes that range from how to conduct Sabbath services at home to interpretation of the Bible; it also sponsors summer institutes at which noted authorities in religion, philosophy, history and politics discuss issues of Jewish interest in the light of their expertise.
At the same time that ethnic neighborhoods are disappearing, the populations of many countries are growing older. As with Soviet Jews, B’nai B’rith has been making it clear that the elderly are not forgotten. In place of the orphanages it had sponsored from the Civil War through World War I, B’nai B’rith over the last 15 years has been sponsoring low-rent, non-sectarian apartment projects.
In the United States alone, some 5,000 senior citizens reside in these homes in 17 cities, with more projects planned. Thousands of additional elderly reside in B’nai B’rith apartments in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. The purpose of the program is to enable these people to participate in their communities and to enjoy to the utmost the sunset of their lives.
THE ROLE OF YOUTH
And while B’nai B’rith helps the elderly, it looks to youth to maintain the organization’s vigor in the future. In 1923, the first B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation was founded at the University of Illinois. Today, 60 years later, there are B’nai B’rith Hillel offices on more than 400 college campuses in a dozen countries, offering religious, educational, cultural and social activities to some 300,000 students. B’nai B’rith offers similar activities to teenagers through its youth organization, which was established in 1924.
Both BBYO and B’nai B’rith Hillel also offer leadership training, the purpose of which is to prepare young people to become leaders in B’nai B’rith and both the Jewish and general communities as they mature. Among the alumni of BBYO are three former Ambassadors to the United Nations, two members of President Carter’s Cabinet, scores of American Congressmen, and thousands of local executives and legislators.