A B’nai B’rith Life
by Charles Kaufman, Senior Vice President, B'nai B'rith International
My history in B’nai B’rith goes back to my childhood, when my parents took my brother and me to B’nai B’rith Institutes at such Texas outposts as Salado, Texas and Mineral Wells. While my parents, Sondra and Stanley Kaufman, B’nai B’rith devotees — my father was a District 7 president in 1958 and was head of B'nai B'rith’s Career and Counseling Commission; my mother later formed a Unit in his memory and traveled to Cuba in one of the early B’nai B’rith missions — were off with friends and scholars, we kids were engaged in such summer fun as swimming, riding horses and looking for fossils and arrowheads.
B’nai B’rith District 7 conventions were part of our summer vacations. One of my earliest memories of convention life was in Galveston, where I had an outbreak of chicken pox. Dr. Joe Cahn, the district’s long-time, beloved executive director, would periodically check on me and I was introduced to room service. What a dear friend Dr. Joe was to my parents and grandparents and a wise counsel to me as a district president.
The Kaufman household played host to many wonderful B’nai B’rith leaders, including Label A. Katz, a former B'nai B'rith president from New Orleans, Sidney Closter of the B’nai B’rith Foundation, David Blumberg, a former B'nai B'rith president from Nashville, and Billy B. Goldberg of Houston, a force in U.S. Jewish affairs. Sid also was fond friends of my grandfather, Harold M. Oster, also a former district president and former member of the B'nai B'rith International Court. Oh, how Sid could reminisce.
As a teen, I was active in BBYO in Dallas, a member of Rubin Kaplan AZA; and even a beau for Jennie Schepps BBG. B’nai B’rith followed me to college, where I had wonderful memories of Hillel rabbis Jimmy Kessler at The University of Texas at Austin and Marc Gellman at Northwestern University. ‘Loved the Pesach meal plans.
My B’nai B’rith lodge life began in Little Rock, Ark., and continued in Austin, Texas. While in Arkansas, I became involved in the Leo N. Levi Hospital in Hot Springs as a national trustee, when Harry Levitch of Memphis, Tenn., and Elvis’s jeweler, was president. I’m honored to continue supporting this fantastic hospital today, even though it operates independently from B’nai B’rith. The Levi Hospital still recognizes its proud history with our Order.
In both Little Rock and Austin, our lodges produced wonderful service programs, from Operation Snowflake to networking luncheons. Milton Smith, a former district president and active with B'nai B'rith publications, was a wonderful guiding light in Austin. The Hill City Lodge even organized a couple of B’nai B’rith Institutes in Bruceville, Texas.
I was proud to serve the seven-state District 7 as president, gosh, almost 20 years ago. Before my term I was involved in the district level as the editor of the B’nai B’rith Voice. During my term, the district initiated top-quality leadership conferences; grew our convention attendance with tremendous name speakers, from astronauts and Schindler’s List survivors to former House Speakers and experts on terrorism. We boosted fundraising with a couple of dinners, thanks to Director Tom Wolff, and conducted advocacy work. Our disaster relief efforts, driven strongly by Lu Dorfman, then of Gulfport, Miss., took us to Oklahoma City to identify funding opportunities for the more than $500,000 raised in the wake of the Murrah federal building bombing. The district reached out to many communities that hadn’t heard from B’nai B’rith in years. We also targeted Latino Jews in Houston for terrific, large events. I had terrific officers and board members. As noted earlier, my mother organized a B’nai B’rith Unit in my father’s memory, and my brother, Aaron, an attorney and now judge with the City of Dallas, was instrumental in organizing lunch meetings for Dallas lawyers under the name of B’nai B’rith.
I have met so many wonderful friends at district and international conventions. B’nai B’rith clearly has been a constant throughout my life and my wife Vonne, and we are proud to say we have made B’nai B’rith relevant to our own children. We are a Dor l’dor family and I have always felt that the work we did was important for the community. Still is. We are more global today than ever; and still the most prestigious and internationally respected Jewish organization in the world.
In the fall of 1991 when I returned to Detroit from Boston, Mass., I found myself looking for a connection back to the Jewish community. Fortunately for me, a good family friend, David Bittker advised me to contact Bobbie Levine, then the director of the local B’nai B’rith office. I scheduled a meeting with Bobbie and she invited me to attend the next board meeting, which I did and met John Rofel, the president. This was the start of my involvement with B’nai B’rith.
I began to learn about this international organization and what an impact it had on the Jewish people in every community. Then I was told there was a need to get more young people involved, so I agreed to help form a new unit of young adults. After awhile we successfully chartered a new unit , called Leadership Network and I became the first president.
The group focused on not just social activity, but also community service, sporting events and Jewish identity. Many of the young people in the unit met, dated, fell in love, got married and had families. Most of the new friendships I cultivated at that time are still alive and well today. Sadly, however, as time passed, the group itself dissolved, but the friendships remained intact. And, because I truly believed in the good work of B’nai B’rith I remained involved. I held many positions on the regional board, and just this year accepted the position of president. B’nai B’rith Great Lakes Region has a long history of leadership and doing for the community. I am committed and excited to follow in the footsteps of great leaders.