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B’nai B’rith’s Move to New Digs is Also a Chance to Reinvent Itself

For years, many observers have compared the Washington-based B’nai B’rith International organization to parents whose children have all left the nest.

Now, with an agreement in hand to sell its eight-story building, the 158-year-old fraternal organization — like many aging parents — is giving up the longtime family home for smaller quarters.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a national gay rights organization, bought the building for $9.8 million. B’nai B’rith is seeking rental space in the Washington area.

Once among the most influential of American Jewish institutions, B’nai B’rith is now best known for the groups it founded: the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.

In recent years, the ADL and Hillel have become independent organizations that outgrew B’nai B’rith. BBYO is in the process of becoming a separate non-profit, although it will move to new quarters with B’nai B’rith and will continue to receive free office space and in-kind services.

B’nai B’rith officials said the sale will give the organization needed cash, free it of debt and relieve it of the hassles of being a landlord. Several Jewish organizations currently rent space in the building, but the largest tenant, Hillel, recently announced it has purchased its own building.

The B’nai B’rith building, which is more than 40 years old, also had become burdensome because it is in need of extensive renovations — $10-12 million worth according to its new owners.

It is not clear what will happen to the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, which recently was renovated.

Richard Heidemann, B’nai B’rith’s international president, said the museum “will remain as an arm of B’nai B’rith,” but that the group has not yet decided if the museum also will move to the organization’s new location or will move elsewhere.

Despite the move to smaller digs and the switch from landlord to tenant, Heidemann said the group continues to be vital.

B’nai B’rith has expanded its programming in Latin America, its advocacy for Israel at the United Nations and — through outreach projects in various cities in the United States — has gained new members, Heidemann said.

The group also manages a network of Jewish senior homes funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

B’nai B’rith officials report more than 110,000 members and donors in the United States and thousands of members around the world. Heidemann said that since 1998 the average age of board members has dropped from 70 to 45, and that there are more women involved now than “at any time in B’nai B’rith history.”

However, critics both inside and outside the organization for years have said that the group lacks a clear mission and has failed to adapt to modern American trends, particularly the demise of chapter-based groups in which Jews get together to socialize, volunteer and raise money.

Evan Mendelson, former director of the Jewish Funders Network and a consultant for Jewish organizations and family foundations, said B’nai B’rith has had difficulty making the change from an old-fashioned fraternal organization to something more appealing to younger Jews.

However, she said, now “it’s possible they can regroup once they focus and take the money they have and reposition themselves.

“To me the issue is whether they can take risks, find out what they’re about and market it to the next generation,” she said.

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