It was 1980 when I first became involved in B’nai B’rith. Several friends and I created a new lodge in the Philadelphia District, which would soon mature into a group of over 200 Jewish civic minded members. We were focused and very active in volunteerism, fundraising, supporting the Jewish State of Israel, developing new leaders, and fighting against anti-Semitism.
For over twenty years I served in several local leadership positions at B’nai B’rith, which culminated around the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when I was voted in as President of the Philadelphia Council – serving 40 lodges and 7,000-8,000 B’nai B’rith members. Prior to my presidency I was the VP for fundraising and warmly remember leading an annual phone-a-thon to support our local Jewish community.
During my presidency, B’nai B’rith celebrated its 150th anniversary. As then-International President Kent Schiner visited Philadelphia, as a part of our wider anniversary celebrations, I was honored to present to him a check for $25,000 that came from our council’s efforts in producing an ad book for B’nai B’rith. We were good at fundraising in Philadelphia.
Although proud of these accomplishments, what I remember most about my years in leadership at B’nai B’rith wasn’t just the dollars that we helped raise; but it was the impact that we made in our community.
I recall standing in front of the Philadelphia Council after a local synagogue was defamed with anti-Semitic graffiti. We would not stand for such hatred, therefore we organized a protest on the lawn of the synagogue to show that we stood up for our community, for religious freedoms, and against hate speech. In five days from standing before the council, I stood with over 200 individuals on the lawn of the synagogue – including a U.S. Senator, our local U.S. Congressman, Catholic priests, and members of B’nai B’rith Women. We then all joined together and entered the synagogue for a powerful service. Two days later, the criminals who defamed the synagogue were arrested!
Our focus on fighting anti-Semitism continued with what I recall as the most memorable event that I attended as President of the B’nai B’rith Philadelphia Council. Our Holocaust Remembrance “Dor L’Dor” program was held in-conjunction with the March of the Living. We converted each room of another synagogue into a different concentration camp. And in each room of the concentration camp was a survivor from that concentration camp. Each survivor told his/her story to the young participants so they could experience what it was like. From such sorrow the participants were then “boarded” onto an “El Al journey” to another room, which metaphorically brought them to Israel. In this new room the participants learned about the current affairs of Israel – a Jewish State that provides a home for the Jewish people so another Holocaust, like the one the survivors experienced, could never happen again.
I was succeeded in my presidency by Ellen Ray Kuchner. Ellen was the first woman president of the council. Like Ellen, many great B’nai B’rith leaders were mentored through our lodge and local operations. Horace Stern became the International Chief of Justice of B’nai B’rith. Buddy Kanefsky and Dennis Glick went on to serve in B’nai B’rith International leadership roles. And so many more came through our ranks.
Jewish life in Philadelphia is strong today because of the seeds planted by B’nai B’rith.
Every year we would host a B’nai B’rith Shabbat at a synagogue where members from across Philadelphia would attend. Every year we would change to a different synagogue. And every year, all members would come together to share in the Jewish community. But, as Jewish leaders, we also reached out to inter-faith groups. B’nai B’rith was the first Jewish group to reach out a hand and extend it to then-Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia Anthony Joseph Bevilacqua. He came to speak to B’nai B’rith at a large forum that we organized on the commonalities of our interfaith values.
I’m thankful for my time serving B’nai B’rith and serving our Jewish community.
You may be interested to know that it was B'nai B'rith in England which sponsored me to get to that country in 1939 on a Kindertransport. I also lived in a B'nai B'rith sponsored hostel in London and their committee continued to be in charge of me and other German and Austrian refugee children until the age of 18.
Once I joined B'nai B'rith in the United States, it gave me the opportunity to develop leadership skill - especially in public speaking. Much of this eventually evolved into my very frequent speaking to students about the events the led to the Holocaust.
B'nai B'rith International has served as the Global Voice of the Jewish Community since 1843.