As B’nai B’rith continues to celebrate its 175th anniversary, the menorah continues to be a link to the past, a commitment to the present and a promise for the future.
The founders of B’nai B’rith found their inspiration in the Torah. The name they chose, “Sons/Children of the Covenant,” referred to the covenant that the Jewish people have with God. That definition made them a Jewish organization, with the Torah as a guide to living a Jewish life. B’nai B’rith’s founders wanted each of the members of the organization to commit to becoming a better person by developing good character. This would be accomplished through their personal relationships as well as by helping others that needed assistance in their community.
They chose the menorah, one of the ritual objects described in the Torah, as their emblem. The seven-branched menorah is described in detail in Parashas Terumah. The placement within the Tabernacle is very specific.
We are told that the menorah should be made out of one piece of gold and God shared its creation in a vision to Moses. Commentaries have interpreted the design to have several meanings.
The Italian commentator Sforno interprets the branches, saying that the three branches on the right represented intellectual ideas and the ones on the left represented ideals that applied to how one made a living. The central candle represented the Torah. The six candles on the left and right are connected to the candle in the middle.
The menorah would stand in the outer chamber of the Tabernacle as an inspiration to those who saw the light it emitted. It was not to be placed in the Holy of Holies, as that was the place for the Torah, which did not need any additional light beyond its own. In Parsha Beha’aloscha, we find out that the job of lighting the menorah was given to Aaron, Moses’s brother, and the tribe of Levi. While other tribes were involved in the creation of the Tabernacle, the tribe of Levi did not have a special role until this important responsibility was given to Aaron. The menorah becomes a central piece of history later on later in the Chanukah story, as the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, were the ones who drove the Syrian-Greeks out of the Temple.
The menorah has continued to be the emblem of B’nai B’rith, and in each of our districts, regions and communities we find its counterpart. We have seen it used in many ways; on the large display banner surrounding a stage of leaders and dignitaries at special events, on invitations or on certificates of service. It is proudly displayed on a lapel pin and used as a signet ring. You will see it on T-shirts, hats or neckties.
The menorah candles are used for the induction of members, installation ceremonies, conferences and special occasions. Each candle represents an ideal that B’nai B’rith members are expected to strive for. Light, justice, peace, benevolence, brotherly and sisterly love, harmony and truth are the words and concepts described in the reading. These words and concepts are also referenced in daily prayers, often as attributes of God and how man treats his fellow man. The traditional ceremony used today is one found in B’nai B’rith guides to ritual, but many other creative interpretations exist. The honor of lighting the menorah is one that is taken very seriously, and the ceremony is given a place of honor. The candle lighting ceremony has also been used to share the work of the B’nai Brith Program Centers and /or events in Jewish history, with each candle assigned a special project or event.
B’nai B’rith has been described by scholars as an organization that helped create civil society in America. The desire and need that existed for a Jewish civil society organization helped create the mission that continues to this day. As the Jewish community spread its wings across America, activities that support the Jewish and general community grew. Across the globe, the Jewish community adopted the organization as their means of organizing themselves within the Jewish community. The menorah came with them and the ritual demonstrated a link for all of those involved.
The menorah’s message for today’s members and supporters becomes even more meaningful when it is shared at events that bring together leadership from around the world. At these gatherings, individuals are honored for their good work in the community when they are called to light one of these candles. You will see the menorah used in the logo of B’nai B’rith International. It also is a symbol of the Jewish people and our bond with Israel, as it is part of the official seal for the country and stands outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Help us keep the candles burning by introducing people you know to the wonderful work of B’nai B’rith as members and supporters. There is a pin with a menorah waiting for them.
Rhonda Love is the Vice President of Programming for B'nai B'rith International. She is Director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity. She served as the Program Director of the former District One of B'nai B'rith. In 2002 she received recognition by B'nai brith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. This June will mark her 38th anniversary at B'nai B'rith. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
It hardly mattered that few of the players representing Israel in the World Baseball Classic last month knew the Hebrew terms for balls and strikes. Nor did it cause concern that only two of them possessed Israeli citizenship.
What mattered was that the team, compromised mostly of American players of Jewish descent (persons who are eligible for Israeli citizenship could play for the team), willed and plucked its way to the second round of the international championship. In doing so, they captivated the baseball world and provided both Israeli and American fans with that most irresistible of all sports narratives: an underdog story.
Who were these guys? An compendium of has-beens and never-weres (only two of the team's players appeared on a Major League roster last year), Team Israel was ranked 41st in the world and tagged by ESPN as the "Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC." The ace of their pitching staff, 38-year-old Jason Marquis, hadn’t played organized baseball since June 2015. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway spent last season in the minor leagues with two different clubs, but as a Yale alumnus, he helped cement Team Israel’s place as the most educated squad in the WBC.
And yet they won—all three of their qualifying games, all three of their first round games, and a second round game against Cuba in the Tokyo Dome, witnessed by a visiting B'nai B'rith delegation waving Israeli flags and Purim groggers.
The players wore t-shirts that read "Jew Crew." During the pre-game playing of "HaTikvah," the Israeli national anthem, they would remove their game caps and don matching blue kippahs.
But what particularly captured the team ethos of cheekiness and unflappability was its designation of the kitschy life-sized doll "Mensch on a Bench" (the players called him Moshe) as the team's mascot. One player referred to Moshe as "a metaphysical presence" within the team.
They defeated more highly regarded squads from three different continents before succumbing to the Netherlands and Japan. What is also significant, though, is the fact that they competed on equal terms against teams who saw the matchup with Israel not as an opportunity to stoke Israel's political isolation—as is so often the case in international gatherings—but simply to play ball.
Israel's supporters view the Jewish state as blessedly unique, a source of intense pride. But what they want for Israel on the international stage is for it to be treated like any other country, subject to the same rules and standards. The WBC offered the Jewish community, and the world, a glimpse into a present and future in which Israel takes its rightful place among the nations and generates little controversy or backlash for doing so. No boycotts, no demonstrations, no extra security precautions. May the best team win.
Team Israel was a 200-1 underdog in 2017, but how can you not like their chances in the next WBC tournament, in 2021. 200-1? Feh. According to Mensch on a Bench creator Neal Hoffman, "We've faced worse."
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Fusfield.
Most of my professional life has been spent creating and running programs for B’nai B’rith International, having spent the last 39 years as a member of the professional program staff. I cannot look at a newspaper, magazine article or television show without thinking about how the subject can be utilized as a program. As social media brings this content to us at a rapid fire pace, I get this information even faster. The challenge is putting this content into perspective and seeing that there are some issues that will always be relevant for a program that will interest a B’nai B’rith audience.
As the years go by, the specifics may have changed, but I see each program taking form as a six point star (especially since it makes a very nice visual on a power point presentation!).
You do not have to be a trend spotter or a programmer to see these subjects as important to people. It is most likely a topic that is important to you. In B’nai B’rith, these topics are reviewed by the program centers and committees that provide content for the events that are brought to B’nai B’rith and the community audiences.
We have also offered an interest census to help us understand what is important in programming. The topics come from the themes mentioned above, the news headlines, or as we see them defined during an election year, the topics that are on political party platforms. It may have been a recent lecture topic at other organizations or the result of the consensus of coalitions we are part of, to provide a thematic approach to a subject for the Jewish community to educate itself and act with a unified communal response.
Amid a fresh wave of terrorism in countries including the United States, Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel – though all but the latter have been responded to full-throatedly, owing to the base politics and limited focus that now afford singular international attention only to the arm of violent jihadism that brands itself ISIS – annual elections were held last week to fill upcoming vacancies on the body most responsible for global peace: the United Nations Security Council. Despite this responsibility, though – and power surpassing that of any other U.N. organ – the Council, itself frequently deadlocked by the conflicting interests of nations large and small, has become well-known for its inability to concretely address the world’s most pressing problems.
The Security Council, at any given time, has 15 members – five veto-wielding permanent members (the U.S., China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom), with the remainder elected by the General Assembly to serve staggered two-year terms.
The U.N. as a whole is comprised of 193 member states; a majority of these have had the opportunity – some repeatedly – to be members of the organization’s most “prestigious” body, while (as of 2017) 67 will never have had the chance. These include many smaller countries. At the same time, while Israel – whose policies and engagements receive unparalleled probing across the U.N. system – has never been elected to the Security Council, countries with a smaller population have: for example, Panama (five times), Denmark (four times), Norway (four times), Ireland (three times), Finland (twice), Uruguay (twice), Singapore (once), Paraguay (once), Luxembourg (once) and Malta (once).
Arab states in the Middle East have also been elected. Among them, Egypt has served five times, Syria three times, Algeria three times, Jordan three times, Iraq twice, Libya twice and Lebanon twice.
The current Council members whose term will continue through the end of 2017 are Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Ukraine and Uruguay.
Those whose term ends at the end of this year are Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain and Venezuela.
In last week’s ballot, the countries elected to serve on the Council in 2017 and 2018 are Ethiopia (for the African Group), Kazakhstan (for the Asia-Pacific Group), Bolivia (for the Latin American and Caribbean Group), and Sweden (for the Western European and Other Group), with the Netherlands and Italy – in a rarity over recent decades, after multiple inconclusive rounds of voting – agreeing to split a term by serving only one year each.
It is difficult to predict how the altered makeup of the Security Council may impact voting on resolutions on issues such as those related to Israel – and, by extension, whether such resolutions will be proposed at all – as this is impacted at any given moment by geopolitical circumstances, by the policy orientation of sitting governments and, of course, by the specific content of any prospective motion. In the nearly half-year remaining until outgoing Council members are replaced, much can change or remain the same in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS and warfare regionally, along with related surges of migration to and recurring terror attacks in Europe, have drawn a good deal of attention away from the Palestinian-Israeli rift. However, as Western countries pledge to eradicate ISIS, a reflexive instinct to also pacify Palestinians remains. France, of late very much in Islamist crosshairs, insisted on launching a recent international “initiative” to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but its initial summit meeting excluded the parties to conflict themselves; the Palestinians, who at one point received indication that Paris would simply recognize the “State of Palestine” if negotiations with Israel failed to promptly yield it, came to endorse the effort. Absent any Israeli buy-in, the French also on various occasions have expressed a desire to get the U.N. Security Council to impose a “framework” for the resolution of the dispute.
This, that is, assuming the U.S. will not deploy its Council veto. The Obama administration has long defended Israel at the U.N., and affirmed its continued view that the conflict should be settled through direct bilateral negotiations, but it has not clearly promised to oppose any Security Council resolution on Israel during the president’s final months in office, in the absence of progress toward peace on other tracks.
Nine affirmative votes, with no veto, are needed for a Security Council resolution to be adopted. If the U.S. were to allow a Council resolution on the conflict this year – whether outlining an anticipated final-status deal or, for example, merely reproving Israel for the presence of Jewish communities in Palestinian-claimed territory – it would all but surely pass with the four other permanent members, and at least six (if not all) non-permanent members, actively supporting it. While several current Council members have shown willingness in other U.N. bodies to abstain on some overtly anti-Israel resolutions, few, if any, would abstain on (let alone oppose) a motion seen to reflect a consensus that effectively includes the White House.
As to 2017, the Security Council landscape would seem to be improving a bit for Jerusalem: three countries that dependably vote against Israel (including the vociferous Venezuela) will be out, to be replaced by only two following the same voting pattern (though the incoming three countries that typically abstain on stridently anti-Israel resolutions include Sweden, which has regularly been outspoken in criticizing Israel’s government). Israel’s effort to return to a renaissance in ties with African states like incoming Council member (and moderate-voting) Ethiopia – as well as its recent, behind-the-scenes consultations even with those like Russia, Turkey and the Sunni Arab states – may also yield subtle fruit at the U.N., if only in averting or watering down the most damaging of prospective resolutions. At the same time, of course, factors like the U.S. presidential race and now the selection of a new British premier – though a number of friends of Israel are well-placed in both contexts – offer real wildcards. Additionally, it is yet to be seen how Brexit, and global anxieties and a sense of nationalist resurgences generally, will impact the European Union and its aspiration to a bloc-wide foreign policy.
Last Friday, the so-called international Quartet on Middle East peacemaking – which includes high-level representatives of the U.S., U.N., E.U. and Russia – resurfaced with a report that again sought to project an urgent need to end the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate. However, the report provoked a furious backlash from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who yesterday called on the Security Council to reject the text, which notably included not only Israeli settlements but also Palestinian incitement to violence among the impediments that it perceives to peace.
More likely than heeding Abbas’s call, the Council can be expected over the coming weeks to shift focus to the process of selecting a U.N. secretary-general to replace Ban Ki-moon at the start of 2017, after ten years in office. Though formally elected by the General Assembly – which this year has been given the opportunity to interview declared candidates – the world body’s top official is traditionally chosen through intensive private haggling within the Security Council, specifically its permanent members. Like candidacies for Council membership, the role of secretary-general is (unofficially) seen as tied to region, doled out on a basis of rotation. It is now widely seen to be Eastern Europe’s turn to place someone at the helm.
While the array of candidates vary in their prior record on Middle East issues – secretaries-general are limited in what they can do to ameliorate anti-Israel bigotry at the U.N., and most have to different degrees disappointed in their efforts to at least try – Eastern European countries have, in the post-Communist era, often been characterized by considerable sympathy for the Jewish state. During a period when Eastern Europe may have some greater autonomy from centralized E.U. decision-making – or, in fact, a more influential part in shaping it – it would be a true contribution to peacemaking, and to the standing of the United Nations, if a senior-most U.N. official from that region were to model bold leadership in promoting fairness and responsibility on Israel at the world body itself.
More from David Michaels:
For more than a year now, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council document Nostra aetate, on Catholic relations with other faiths, has been celebrated. Though lamentably still unknown by most people irrespective of their religion, Nostra aetate is indeed of great importance in a positive sense. Catholic bishops’ formal post-Holocaust adoption, not without internal struggle, of an essentially constructive approach to Jews marked a pivoting away from the contempt and estrangement that had characterized much of nearly two millennia of relations between the church and the Jewish people. Even more substantial, though, has been the remarkably rapid and continual deepening of Catholic-Jewish friendship in the few decades that followed 1965.
At the same time—ironically, since Nostra aetate is probably more often commemorated by Jewish institutions than by Catholic communities worldwide—the document is not quite, from a Jewish vantage-point, a “perfect” one. The text, which makes clear the special status afforded by the church to Judaism in light of Christianity’s Jewish roots, is nonetheless a decidedly Christological one, written by Christians for Christians. Even as it continues to be abhorred by a tiny fringe of Catholic ultraconservatives, its content fell somewhat short of what Jewish communal professionals at the time (and some theologically progressive Catholics) had hoped for. The declaration established, vitally, that “the Church… decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures,” and that a charge of responsibility for the death of Jesus cannot be applied to “all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” It does say, though, that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ,” and that most Jews did not adopt Christianity, adding, “indeed not a few opposed its spreading.” Finally, Nostra aetate affirms belief that while God “does not repent of the gifts He makes,” including to the “chosen people,” “the Church is the new people of God.” Its all-but-explicit eschatological vision is one in which all people ultimately find salvation through acceptance of the truth represented by the church. Accordingly, the text’s assertion that achieving “mutual understanding and respect… is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies,” and not only of “fraternal dialogues” and cooperative coexistence, deserves more attention by Jewish readers.
The Holy See and Israel have established diplomatic relations (if rarely convergence on Middle East politics). And successive popes have regularly met with such Jewish organizations as B’nai B’rith, paid tribute at sites where the crimes of the Holocaust occurred (Francis is expected to do so in Poland this July), visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
Arguably, Jews should also be better attuned more broadly to the theological framework within which, and the lexicon using which, modern Catholic overtures to Jews have been conducted at the official level. Again, this outreach has been momentous and laudable; the global Jewish community, no less than the Catholic community, can do more to make the genuine progress in relations known to its members; and even any “deficiencies” in the church’s conciliation have been situated primarily in the realm of theoretical belief rather than that of practical engagement. However, while the Vatican has been largely consistent, and uniquely artful, in crafting careful messaging to and about Jews, the nuances of its positions are often lost on Jewish observers keen to take the overtures only at face value.
“Constructive ambiguity” that might be overlooked by master diplomats characterized even some of the celebrated relevant pronouncements of Pope John Paul II, who had an undeniable personal kinship with Jews. For example, his written prayer at the Western Wall in 2000, which spoke of being “deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer… the people of the Covenant,” did not quite spell out the perpetrators and victims to whom he was referring. (Likewise, even Pope Francis’s statement in 2013 that “a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic” can be interpreted in different ways. Did he mean to absolve all Christians, including senior churchmen across time, of anti-Semitism, or simply that anti-Semitic hatred is incompatible with a faith whose call is to love and whose focal point was a Jew?)
More substantively, was John Paul’s 1987 reference to Jews as “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham” not merely a moving expression of esteem but an attempt to equate and link the “old” and “new” covenants, or, even more problematically, in keeping with the biblical propensity for younger brothers to have spiritual superiority over their elder ones, a subtle nod to the theology of Christian supersession of Judaism? (Pope Benedict XVI—who himself in 2008 reauthorized a Good Friday liturgy that includes a revised prayer for Jews’ hearts to be “illuminate[d]” so that they “acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men”—wrote in a later book that he chooses to call Jews “fathers in the faith” rather than “elder brothers” in order to allay such concerns.)
In a gesture at the dawn of Catholic-Jewish rapprochement that could similarly be understood in different ways, Pope John XXIII received an American Jewish delegation in 1960 with the stirring words, “I am Joseph, your brother!” The pope—a champion of the reconciliation with Jews who had personally worked to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust, and whose given middle name was the Italian for Joseph—was invoking the story in Genesis in which the youngest of the patriarch Jacob’s first eleven sons is reunited with his long-estranged siblings, but in which Joseph also effectively reveals to them the fulfillment of the prophecy of his privileged station after they had rejected and persecuted him on account of it.
More than a half-century since John XXIII signaled a promising but complex trajectory in Catholic-Jewish ties, the two communities (or one, if you’re a Catholic seeing Judaism as “intrinsic” to the church—a view reflected in the inclusion of its office for relations with Jews within the Vatican’s intra-Christian, not interreligious, affairs wing) continue along this path. By now, interspersed with disputes such as those over papal ties to Kurt Waldheim or Yasser Arafat, sainthood for Edith Stein or the war-era pope Pius XII, a convent at Auschwitz or the taxation status of Catholic assets in the Holy Land, the church has repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism (and, less prominently, anti-Zionism) as a sin. The Holy See and Israel have established diplomatic relations (if rarely convergence on Middle East politics). And successive popes have regularly met with such Jewish organizations as B’nai B’rith, paid tribute at sites where the crimes of the Holocaust occurred (Francis is expected to do so in Poland this July), visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
And, in late 2015, following several prior publications on Catholic-Jewish engagement since the adoption of Nostra aetate, the Vatican’s commission on the relationship released a new document, “‘The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29): A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations.” The text validates some of the hallmarks of the process of relationship-building between the Catholic and Jewish communities, while also attempting to keep in check what Catholic traditionalists can perceive as theological oversteps emanating from the “reforms” of the Second Vatican Council. The result is that the document confirms, most importantly, that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” and also disputes the suggestion that “Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.” At the same time, the document states that “Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews,” albeit “in a humble and sensitive manner,” and that because “God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation.” It strongly rejects any “theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ,” saying that this “would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith.”
It is clear, then, that the theological strains that complicate this exceptional interfaith relationship have not vanished. Neither is the relationship free of political tripwire: the Holy See’s recent agreement prematurely recognizing a “State of Palestine” (and one, it is implied, with oversight in Jerusalem), Arab Christian clerics’ mimicking of one-sided Palestinian narratives concerning Israel and Pope Francis’s surprise 2014 photo-op at an imposing section of Israel’s security barrier near Bethlehem are only a few examples. (Francis could perhaps be counted among those world leaders, with longtime Jewish friends, who have maintained friendships with Jews as well as Israel, but who may be less sentimental than some predecessors about that relationship and most personally invested in other “liberal” concerns that now also resonate more with younger constituents.) This said, in how “normal” and well-established the Catholic-Jewish engagement has become, featuring as it does commonalities and differences alike, this relationship may be optimally positioned to model for other communities the possibility of overcoming even the most longstanding of divides, and even those hardened by a religious orientation. At a time when the challenge of “holy war” overshadows international affairs—nearly 15 years following the 9/11 attacks—any cause for hope in the potential for such peacemaking could not be more welcome.
Moreover, as the Jewish community looks this summer to yet another round of proposals in mainline Protestant churches for harming Israel practically—and Israel alone—through economic pressure campaigns, the larger Catholic Church certainly manifests a friendlier interfaith partner.
To be sure, the Catholic orbit, too, is not immune to a skewed, astoundingly simplistic post-1967 view of who in the Arab-Israeli conflict represents “David” and who “Goliath.” As disturbingly, some anti-Israel activists in the Christian world are quick to invoke Jesus’ challenge to “the Pharisees” in their treatment of complex contemporary geopolitics. But Roman Catholicism, characterized by more centralized and cautious decision-making than certain ecumenical counterparts, has solidified ties with the Jewish community on a rather firm footing—undergirded by warm personal relationships and by ongoing channels of communication.
In this sense, the ostensibly modest 1965 document Nostra aetate demonstrates that a start may be only a start, but it can have a profound and lastingly positive impact on what is to follow.
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