NEW YORK, Aug. 29 (JTA) — When B’nai B’rith International activists gathered this week for a convention in Washington, it was the first time in the 157-year-old organization’s history that the sitting president faced a serious challenger.
Richard Heideman, the incumbent, ended up winning by a vote of 236- 111, but, say many within the organization, the mere fact that he was challenged was a sign of grass-roots dissatisfaction with this historically notable but long troubled institution.
A Washington lawyer, Heideman has overseen major budget cuts during the past two years. His zeal for change — particularly a failed effort earlier this year to form a partnership between the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and the Jewish Community Centers of North America — has rankled many members.
Interviewed before the election, Heidemann’s opponent, Daniel Frank of Minnetonka, Minn., described his campaign as “a calling from the grass roots of the organization.”
“The emphasis must be not from top to bottom but from the bottom up,” said Frank, one of B’nai B’rith’s five senior vice presidents.
It is hardly news that B’nai B’rith — buffeted simultaneously by Jewish assimilation and Americans’ shrinking interest in membership organizations — is sharply declining in the United States, although membership in the other 157 countries where B’nai B’rith exists has remained fairly stable.
Adult membership in the United States is now slightly more than 100,000, less than a third of what it was 20 years ago.
Other American Jewish membership organizations have also seen drops in the membership rolls. But serious financial problems and a lack of clarity about its mission have compounded B’nai B’rith’s woes
For years, B’nai B’rith leaders were accused of ignoring the problems and allowing a multimillion-dollar deficit to accumulate. Now its leaders are addressing the financial challenges. In the past two years, $4 million has been cut from the now $13.5 million budget, and staff has been reduced from 275 to 225.
Under the previous president, the group altered its national infrastructure, replacing a network of seven districts with a system of 18 regions.
But the various changes have fueled discontent among some longtime members.
Meyer Rosenthal, a former district president in New Jersey, said the regions “don’t have the respect or communications of the local leaders” and that “local people feel disenfranchised.”
B’nai B’rith, said Rosenthal, “has kind of lost touch with its members.”
Founded as a men’s fraternal organization in 1843, B’nai B’rith is one of America’s oldest Jewish organizations, and consists of a network of “lodges” — local groups of people who get together to socialize, volunteer and raise money for charitable causes.
That sort of group has gone out of fashion, however.
In recent decades, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, “the most successful organizations have been single-issue organizations,” such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and American Israel Public Affairs Committee, because “people know what they are giving to.”
B’nai B’rith is certainly not a single-issue organization. Ask a member what the organization does, and he or she will talk about its youth group, which has had its allocation from B’nai B’rith cut by 21 percent in the past year; its network of senior housing, funded by the federal government but managed by B’nai B’rith; its advocacy for Israel in the United Nations; and its international presence.
Rarely will anyone say what particular issues B’nai B’rith stands for.
The group is often compared to a father whose children have moved out of the house. It founded the Anti-Defamation League and the campus student organization, Hillel, but both have become independent entities with far larger operating budgets than B’nai B’rith itself.
Hillel, which in the early 1990s dropped the words B’nai B’rith from its name, still receives approximately half a million dollars from the group but receives more than 10 times that amount from Jewish federations.
Even B’nai B’rith’s wife of sorts, B’nai B’rith Women, left the house in 1990. For five years, the group, which reports membership of 40,000, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to use the B’nai B’rith name. Then it became Jewish Women International and made domestic violence its focal issue.
With budget cuts now hitting BBYO, will the 30,000-member youth group — described repeatedly as B’nai B’rith’s “crown jewel” — be the next to leave?
“It won’t become a separate agency as long as I’m president,” said Heideman, noting that B’nai B’rith recently launched a special fund-raising campaign for the youth group.
But fears of losing BBYO may have fueled the resistance this spring to Heideman’s “vision statement” for a partnership. The statement suggested making BBYO the official youth group of the Jewish community centers movement.
It was a move BBYO leaders — including the teens themselves — saw as untenable, and these opponents succeeded in ending the discussion.
The opponents, who are quick to point out that they were not consulted until the statement had already been approved by B’nai B’rith’s executive committee, say it would have ceded control to the Jewish community centers, which are only loosely joined together and thus not accountable to their national movement.
“My feeling was the individual chapters would’ve become nothing more than JCC youth groups,” said Hal Polon, chair of BBYO’s largest region, covering northern New Jersey, New York’s northern suburbs and upstate New York.
David Lewis, a Cherry Hill, N.J., BBYO member whose chapter — like 18 others — already has a relationship with the local JCC, is critical of the arrangement, noting that the time of BBYO staff there is divided with responsibilities at the JCC and that space constraints at the JCC make it difficult for the BBYO members to get rooms for meetings and events.
“I think having them connected is a good idea, but not as closely connected as our region is because it is hard to get anything done without having the JCC breathe down our back,” he said.
So, what future does B’nai B’rith have?
Leaders at the top assert that while B’nai B’rith may never return to its glory days, it is poised for a resurgence.
They point to a newly balanced budget, more young people recruited for top leadership positions and a host of new programs designed to attract young members.
The organization is launching new membership categories and affinity groups, such as ones for amateur athletes, young couples, singles, alumni of BBYO and the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi. That is in addition to existing “Impact” groups, a handful of local B’nai B’rith chapters for people in their 20s and 30s.
The group also plans to revive a long-neglected travel program and is talking about creating various e-mail networks and chat rooms.
Shari Barash, 31, an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, was one of the founders of an Impact group and now sits on B’nai B’rith’s international board of governors.
Drawn to B’nai B’rith in search of a social scene that was more community service-oriented than singles meat market, Barash is hopeful that the new networks — which require less of a time commitment than existing groups— will help attract new blood to the organization.
“This allows people to plug in suitable to their schedule,” she said.
Jack Berkowitz, a 38-year-old leader from suburban New York, joined a B’nai B’rith unit of people working in financial services 12 years ago in an effort to boost his career as an accountant. Over the years, he became more involved in the group’s community service activities and now sits on the executive committee of B’nai B’rith’s board of governors.
Berkowitz is hoping the longstanding decline in membership organizations reverses itself with the next generation.
“I have this fantasy that as kids now in junior high and high school graduate and finish college, within a few years we’re going to see a return to volunteerism the likes of which we haven’t seen in 40 years,” he said, pointing to the surge in community service requirements for high school students.
“If there’s any hope, it’s that those people, once in the workforce, may recall the pleasure and gratification they got out of volunteering as teen-ager,” he said.
But if Jewish youth group affiliation is any indicator, the next generation of Jews will be no more likely to join than their parents. Leaders in most Jewish youth groups report declining participation in year-round activities, with teens instead more likely to attend camps or Israel trips.
Even Lewis, an active BBYO member, says he does not expect to join B’nai B’rith when he grows up.
Indeed, most outsiders — and even many insiders — do not expect a reverse in the longstanding decline.
“I think the restructuring addressed the easiest part of the problem and no one bothered to address the harder part, the base problem, which is a philosophical one. Who are we? What are we? What’s our focus?” said Polon, whose involvement today is mostly limited to assisting BBYO.
“I don’t know what the future is,” he said.
Nonetheless, B’nai B’rith leaders insist the picture is brighter. “You can choose to paint B’nai B’rith as old and outdated, and that’s yesterday’s news,” said Heideman. “Today’s news is we’ve come a long way in two years. We have a lot more to accomplish, but we’re on the road in a positive way.”