B’nai B’rith Magazine: When did the process of transferring the B’nai B’rith archives to the AJA begin?
Gary P. Zola: As soon as I became the director of the American Jewish Archives, a number of people came and spoke to me. They all spoke to me and said it would be wonderful if we could bring B’nai B’rith’s records to Cincinnati. Then we were doing everything we could to persuade the leadership of B’nai B’rith that the American Jewish Archives was the place for the B’nai B’rith records.
B’nai B’rith did a lot of due diligence in terms of looking for where they felt the best place would be for their history, and of all the places they reviewed, they…picked the American Jewish Archives.
BBM: What was your sales pitch to B’nai B’rith? Why did you say the archives would be best housed at the AJA?
GPZ: I wanted them to see, number one, our resources. I consider our physical resources—the ability with which we have to care for all of our historical records, the size of our institution and its ability to serve the community of researchers—[to be] without parallel, without peer. I wanted them to come and see the AJA for themselves.
Number two, and this was to me equally important, is that, although [even though] the records of the national B’nai B’rith includes correspondence regarding B’nai B’rith lodges all over the world, the American Jewish Archives had many, many records from the 19th century of individual [B’nai B’rith] lodges all over America…I wanted to show them that this collection would integrate into a mass of materials that we already have on B’nai B’rith. I wanted them to see that with their own eyes.
BBM: Will the B’nai B’rith archives be separate from the materials you already have, or will it be integrated?
GPZ: By arrangement, this will be a discreet collection, it won’t be integrated…Just to have the national history together with the regional and local history is a huge, huge boost to scholars who are going to be able to see what the national office was doing or what it wanted done, what the officers wanted and then how that was translated into local lodges.
And the final thing, and this is also important, is that in the 19th century…the overlap sociologically between the people who were Reform Jews and B’nai B’rith was a very important overlap. Some of the early lodges bear the names of important, prominent Reform leaders, and many of the early prominent Reformers were presidents active in B’nai B’rith. [The AJA’s] strength is the non-Orthodox religious community in America. This too was another remarkable phenomenon that I thought beckoned these records to Cincinnati.
BBM: Why do you think that the B’nai B’rith archives are significant, and how do they contribute to understanding the history of Jews in America?
GPZ: B’nai B’rith was, without question, the first national, federated [Jewish] benevolent organization in the history of our country...It moved the nature of Jewish life outside the doors of the synagogue and into the general Jewish community. In other words, before B’nai B’rith all organizational Jewish life was anchored in the synagogue. But, you start to have this drive to go beyond the boundaries of the synagogue, and, of course, this is connected to the creation of multiple synagogues in a city. You bring [the Jews from different synagogues] together to do good deeds together, to study together, to socialize together, to do projects together. And this is the impetus for the creation of the lodge.
B’nai B’rith becomes in a way reflective of the American Jewish community and its interests in a very important way. B’nai B’rith is extremely important to scholars and historians to the understanding of the American Jewish experience in 19th century [in particular.] As you get into the 20th century, you have the creation of a whole bevy of Jewish organizations that do some of the same things that B’nai B’rith does…But, in the 19th century, B’nai B’rith is the first, it dominates…it is indispensible to the study of the American Jew.