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By Cheryl Kempler

Proud of his Jewish heritage, Capt. Neil Primrose fought heroically in what was
then called Palestine during World War I.

In September 1917—a century ago—the Balfour Declaration endorsing a Jewish state in Palestine was two months away. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was awarding a $100 prize to a college student composing the best essay on Zionism. In Milan, an organization of non-Jewish attorneys and judges initiated “Pro-Israele,” an organization dedicated to the protection of Jewish rights.

Readers of the densely packed B’nai B’rith News got all this and more. Reaching subscribers before the Balfour Declaration was signed, the September 1917 issue boasted contributions from prominent academics and clergy, even Sweden’s Chief Rabbi Marcus Ehrenpreis, who praised the British plan for Palestine, seemingly a foregone conclusion.  Elsewhere, Brandeis’ prize was announced. “Letter from London,” the monthly column authored by Dr. Max Epstein, a member of the city’s First Lodge, announced that the British had formulated plans to create an all-Jewish regiment for Palestine, intended to encourage the enlistment of Russian Jewish immigrants living in England.

Epstein wrote about Neil James Archibald Primrose, the 35-year-old son of the Earl of Rosebery and a scion, on his mother’s side, of the Rothschild family, bankers to the rulers of Europe.  A captain in the elite Royal Bucks Hussars, he was the first to request a transfer to the Palestine unit. “His sentiments have always been strongly Jewish,” Epstein wrote, and during his years in Parliament, to which he was elected in 1910, he “deemed it important to avow his Jewish origin and to express his pride in that fact.”

According to the British-Jewish magazine, The Maccabean, Primrose served as model for the hero of “The Zionists,” a popular novel of the time.

Epstein later reported that Primrose had been killed in November, as he led his squadron at Gezer, an area between Jerusalem and what is now Tel Aviv. Two days later, Prime Minister David Lloyd George honored his memory in the House of Commons, saying, “The House knew his bright and radiant spirit well…one of the most lovable of men. He could have…occupied positions of personal safety, [but] he deliberately chose the path of danger.”

Plaques to his memory can be seen today at Westminster Abbey and other locations throughout England.

Editor’s Note


In this issue of B’nai B’rith Magazine, our cover keys to the remarkable story of Alex Singer, a secular American Jew whose identity took a different turn when he moved to Israel, became increasingly religious and joined the Israel Defense Forces. Tragically, he was killed in 1987 in Lebanon as he sought to aid a wounded comrade. His parents, however, saw his death as an opportunity to inspire and educate. “Alex Singer: The Story” is their remarkable tribute to him that is increasingly used in classrooms to forge the kind of connection he felt to the Jewish homeland and to the humanistic values he found in his embrace of Judaism.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War that resulted in Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. We write about how what was once a war zone has become a tourist attraction. Twenty-seventeen is also the centennial year for the Balfour Declaration, which asserted Britain’s intention to support the creation of a Jewish state in what was then Palestine. We tell how B’nai B’rith members played a role in efforts leading to its issuance.  

Finally, a note about the future: Starting with the winter issue, B’nai B’rith Magazine fully enters the world of digital publishing. Except for one printed edition, starting in fall 2018, the magazine will be online only. We are excited about the opportunities this will bring to enable us to provide more quality content and in different formats to enhance your reading—and viewing—experience as you engage with
B’nai B’rith Magazine.

—Eugene L. Meyer

By Gary P. Saltzman
President, B’nai B’rith International
It’s likely that the 13 German Jewish immigrants who gathered in Sinsheimer’s Café on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to launch B’nai B’rith in October 1843 were not thinking of their legacy.

They were more likely thinking of community—a community of Jews, helping one another. But soon their vision to serve others expanded. Since that meeting nearly 175 years ago, the legacy they established has flourished. Their footprint extended far and wide, and transformed community organizing—for the Jewish world and well beyond. The B’nai B’rith model of community members helping one another and their neighbors at large is one emulated nationwide.

I have been part of this legacy for about 25 percent of its existence. For more than 40 years, I have been involved with B’nai B’rith at the local, regional, national and international level. It’s an astonishing organization in its depth and breadth of service.

If our founders somehow walked through our doors today, they would note that our roots, our role, our core values remain. But they would also see that we have grown, evolved and tailored our programs to suit the times. Innovation has been the key to our longevity.

Today, we ground our work in our strong and proud support of the State of Israel. We have had a presence in the region since before Israel achieved statehood.

We advocate on behalf of global Jewry and we work tirelessly at the United Nations in New York and worldwide to advance the cause of global human rights. Our voice is heard at the Organization of American States, at the European Union and, of course, on Capitol Hill.

We promote Jewish continuity today, often through our Young Leadership program. We have lectures and get-togethers that get to the heart of what it means to be Jewish. We recognize that Holocaust education is a must around the world. We launched a program to recognize Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust—an often untold story of bravery. To ensure that the world will never forget, B’nai B’rith remembers those who perished at name-reading ceremonies on Yom Hashoah and organizes observances on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

We provide crucial second-responder support, helping communities rebuild after disasters. Since our disaster relief efforts got underway in the mid-1860s, we have provided tens of millions of dollars around the world to do such mitzvahs as help communities rebuild homes, plant crops or provide psychological counseling to locals impacted by devastation.  

We are the largest national Jewish sponsor of low-income housing for seniors. Where could you live if you had only $8,000, or even less, a year? That’s a frightening reality for far too many seniors in this country. B’nai B’rith has been building homes for low-income seniors for nearly 50 years. We work with the federal government and lawmakers to ensure the indispensible Section 202 housing for those of extremely limited means is funded. That ties directly to our advocacy for Medicare and Social Security and a myriad of other issues affecting seniors.  

Since its creation, B’nai B’rith’s journey has intersected with historical events  in noteworthy and sometimes surprising ways. Ulysses S. Grant graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1843, the year we were founded. Interestingly, our paths would cross later when General Grant, in 1862, issued General Orders 11, expelling “Jews as a class” from a war zone that included areas of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky within a 24-hour period. B’nai B’rith immediately wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, urging him to annul the order. And so it was.

B’nai B’rith played a role in another pivotal moment in Jewish history—the founding of Israel. President Harry S. Truman, in 1948, had indicated he didn’t want the United States to get involved in the establishment of a Jewish homeland. B’nai B’rith member Eddie Jacobson, a former army colleague and businesses partner of the president, opened the door for B’nai B’rith to make its case for a Jewish State directly to the president. Truman met with B’nai B’rith leaders and heard the argument from his friend and others in the Jewish community. At the signing ceremony recognizing the State of Israel, Truman gave the pen he used to B’nai B’rith President Frank Goldman, who, in turn, presented it as a gift to Israel’s ambassador.

These are just two of countless moments through 171/2 decades during which B’nai B’rith played a significant role in world events.

Today, we meet with leaders around the world, pressing them on human rights and the systemic mistreatment of Israel at the United Nations. We have strong interfaith relations, promoting inter-religion conversations to foster understanding. Our Diverse Minds contest for more than a decade has charged teens to write books aimed at younger kids that promote tolerance and diversity. To date, we have awarded more than $300,000 in college scholarships and grants to these amazing teen authors and illustrators and published 37 original children’s books. We have also donated nearly 40,000 books to public schools and libraries and community centers nationwide.  

Though it’s instructive to review our history and marvel at our reach, we don’t gaze in inertia at our accomplishments. We see how we can build upon our successes.

B’nai B’rith was established in Cuba in 1943. In the 1990s, upon learning about the hardships being endured, we launched B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief, sending volunteers to deliver humanitarian aid and Judaica to the Jewish communities there. Today, as we witness significant change coming to this nation, B’nai B’rith continues to send missions to visit this tenacious community and help it revitalize and preserve its Jewish heritage.

B’nai B’rith has always been a collaborative organization. Our grass-roots volunteer efforts have included sandwich distribution for the homeless, helping maintain a Jewish cemetery, providing Kosher-for-Passover foods for those who could not afford them and cleaning out houses after a hurricane, to name just a few programs. Our members and supporters dirty their boots and roll up their sleeves to help their communities. Our generous donors’ belief in our mission and our goals has been vital to our long work record.

There is so much more to do. We plan to fit even more into the next 175 years.

As we kick off our 175th year, I will be looking back in wonder at our body of accomplishments and looking ahead to ensure we are constantly adapting and advancing with the times, to make a positive difference to people. 

By Daniel S. Mariaschin
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, B’nai B’rith International
Each year, B’nai B’rith organizes leadership missions focusing on our public policy agenda. Over the past few years, we’ve been to Geneva and Paris for meetings of the United Nations Human Rights Council and UNESCO, to Cuba, where we have conducted our Cuban Jewish Relief Project for over two decades, and to India, an international economic player and an increasingly important partner with Israel on a range of issues.

Early this summer, International President Gary Saltzman and I led a delegation to the adjoining former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, at the border of Europe and Asia. These mountainous countries, wedged between the Caspian and Black seas, are strategically important, lying at the crossroads of energy production and pipelines going west. Majority-Christian Georgia and majority-Muslim Azerbaijan have Jewish communities dating back millennia. And both nations, on an isthmus defined also by the Caucasus Mountains, enjoy excellent relations with the State of Israel.

The people-to-people value of our missions is undeniable. Even in the internet age, there is no substitute for engaging high-level officials on their home ground and meeting Jewish community leaders in their synagogues, schools and community buildings.

Government officials in both countries know of our interest, as an international organization accredited at the United Nations since 1947, in combating anti-Israel bias at the U.N. and fostering better relations between their republics and the United States and Israel. Notably, both countries have longstanding diplomatic, cultural and commercial ties with the Jewish state.

Our meetings included the prime ministers of both countries, the chairman of the Georgian parliament, the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox church, Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister, the chairman of Azerbaijan’s State Committee on Work with Religious Organizations, and the American and Israeli ambassadors.

On the agenda were a range of issues, including Iran’s incessant threats to stability in both the Middle East and the Caucasus region. Azerbaijan is one of the world’s leading oil and gas producers, and one important pipeline—the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC)—carries its oil west across Georgia to Turkey and beyond. Israel is one of its best customers for oil. And both countries seek to strengthen their ties with the U.S. and the European Union—in addition to Israel.

The Jewish communities in both countries gave us a warm welcome. In the early 1970s there were as many as 80,000 Jews in Georgia, but most left for either Israel or the U.S. as part of the great Soviet Jewish emigration starting in the late 1980s. Still, there remains a vibrant community of some 5,000, and we were hosted in the beautiful main synagogue, built in 1904, in the capital city of Tbilisi.

Georgia’s 2005 philatelic
tribute to Rabbi Avraham
Halevy Khvoles.

I took special personal pride in the visit; my mother’s eldest uncle, Avraham Halevy Khvoles (1857-1931), was the most prominent Georgian rabbi of his era. His photo, along with those of other distinguished rabbis, is displayed near the entrance to the synagogue. In 2005, Georgia issued a postage stamp in his honor.

Azerbaijan is home to more than 25,000 Jews. Most live in Baku, the capital. A dinner in honor of our delegation was held at the Or-Avner Jewish School, operated by Chabad. Leaders of the various branches of the community joined in a dinner marked by good food, conversation, and an unending round of toasts, a welcoming feature of local Caucasus hospitality.

Azerbaijan is also home to a community of mountain Jews, believed to be of Persian origin. In Quba, the Jewish quarter sits within sight of the eastern ridge of the Caucasus Mountains. We stopped at the Jewish cemetery at the edge of town and visited the town’s main synagogue. There were once 14 synagogues in Quba; today there are four. As with so many others from the former Soviet Union, an outflow has taken the mountain Jews not only to Baku, to which many have moved, but beyond—especially to Moscow and to Israel.

CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin (left) and Gary P. Saltzman, president (center) with Mubariz Gurbani, chairman of the Azerbaijan Committee on Religious Affairs.

Gary P. Saltzman (center) and Daniel S. Mariaschin (right)
with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili (left).

Both countries have traditionally been benevolent places for Jews to live, which cannot necessarily be said for some of the neighbors in the region. Even though the numbers are down, one sensed among Jewish community members a feeling of belonging that is today often absent in some EU countries.

Advocating for an Israel not only at peace in its region but enjoying close relations in the community of nations requires cultivation and constant reinforcement. In Georgia and Azerbaijan, we found an open door to discussing how already good relations can be taken to the next level. That B’nai B’rith can play a role in this process speaks well of our internationality, as well as our ongoing interest in proactively visiting those countries deemed vital to making it happen.

By Michele Chabin
When Andrea Wiese, a teacher at the Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, Mich., teaches her seventh graders about Israel, she likes to read aloud passages from a book she discovered when she was a student there.  

That 1996 book, “Alex: Building a Life: The Story of an American Who Fell Defending Israel,” is a diary-like compilation of letters, journals and drawings by Alex Singer, an American-Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon in 1987.

Alex’s letters, some serious, others irreverent but always filled with love for his family, follow his evolution from the relatively pampered life of a university student to the physical and emotional challenges of serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

“Today I felt lonely. I’ve told you that happens sometimes. I feel lonely when I am at a junction—not of wadis but of futures,” Alex wrote to his family in June 1986 while attending officer school. “I want to sit back and look at the junction from the side, and not to analyze it—just to look, to see the perspective which disappears in the dust of turmoil, to let the dust settle and feel at peace.”

Thirty years after Alex was killed in a battle with Lebanese terrorists—on Sept. 15, 1987, his 25th birthday—his words “still resonate,” Wiese said. “I think my students are shocked at how articulate he was. Shocked that he had such strong feelings about Israel that he decided to move there.”

Not that his decision was easy, Wiese emphasized.

According to his letters and journal entries “Alex is torn between his love for his U.S.-based family and his love for Israel and the Jewish people. He’s becoming religiously observant. His words draw you in,” Wiese said.

Alex Singer’s parents, Max and Suzanne Singer, in their Jerusalem home, with a photo of their late son behind them.
Photo credit: Michele Chabin

Reactions like these are heartening to Alex’s parents, Suzanne and Max, who, during their son’s shiva in Jerusalem, decided to gather the hundreds of letters he wrote to family and friends from a period that spans his undergraduate studies at Cornell University, from which he graduated in 1984, to his military service in Israel from 1985 to 1987. Eight years later they published the book and, in 1998, an accompanying guide for teachers written by longtime educator Steve Israel.  

Together they form the foundation of the Alex Singer Project, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization whose goal is “to inspire and activate the next generations of Jewish thinkers and activists around the world,” his parents explain on the organization’s website.

A Legacy, Not a Monument

“From the time Alex died we knew we were not interested in making monuments,” Suzanne and Max say in the book’s preface. “The purpose of the Alex Singer Project is to continue Alex’s work and his determination to improve the world and to demonstrate through his example how Judaism can enrich and beautify a fully modern life. This book allows Alex to speak to those who never knew him.”

Raised in Westchester County, N.Y. and a suburb of Washington, D.C., with a four-year family sojourn in Jerusalem during his early teen years, Alex graduated from college before making aliyah in December 1984. He volunteered for the paratroopers and began his mandatory 18-month service in February 1985. His decision to become an officer in October 1986 extended his service by a year, and, in May 1987, he was assigned to command an infantry platoon.

On Sept. 15, Alex and 11 other soldiers were dropped by helicopter into Lebanon, right in the midst of a group of 30 terrorists in hiding. When the company commander was shot, Alex, who was the second officer on the mission, took a medic and went to help his commander. When Alex reached him, he, too, was shot and killed.

Kibbutz Kissufim Tractors, 1977.

Two days later Alex was buried in the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. Suzanne and Max, who lived in the U.S. at the time, flew to Israel for the funeral and shiva.

Seated in the living room of their apartment in southern Jerusalem, where they moved a few years after Alex’s death, Suzanne and Max said they want people to focus not on Alex’s death, but on his life.

“The way he died may spur people to learn more about Alex, but the basic reason he continues to have an impact on people is not because of the way he died, but because of how he lived,” Suzanne said.   

The walls of the Singers’ airy home, which boasts high ceilings and large windows, is full of Alex’s artwork, some black-and-white pen drawings, others watercolors.

His mother noted that he never studied art but that once the family moved to Israel, Alex began drawing a great deal—on hikes, on visits to the Sinai, at home while looking out the window. The Singers didn’t realize how many letters Alex had written until dozens of family members and friends shared them after his death.

In one letter, dated June 2, 1983, during his junior year abroad at the London School of Economics, Alex admits to his family, “I’m unmotivated to study, to write, to work. The things I’m looking forward to [are] traveling to Scotland, the flight home …”

Sketching in the City of David, Jerusalem,
May 1987.

The Secular Son Searches for Answers

Less than three years later this “unmotivated” young man had donned an IDF army uniform. He was proud to be a soldier but disturbed by some of the IDF’s actions.

“Dear Saul,” he wrote to his older brother in March 1986, “ … I found out that our interrogation methods are more brutal than I would admit to journalists … I have a lot of things troubling me which I’d like to talk out with you.”

To his mother, on the occasion of her 50th birthday in June 1985, Alex wrote: “What do I think when I think of you? I think three things. I think gratitude … I think admiration for how you raised us, taught us … Third, I think joy. Joy is maybe what I feel most when I think of you, because you take the world so well and that makes me happy. I love to see you working, talking, writing … everything.”  

Suzanne said Alex “would light up a room” when he walked in the door. “He loved the outdoors. He was a risk-taker. He liked to ski fast and climb rocks. He was charismatic. People were attracted to him.”

Still, “Alex was always a bit of a loner,” she said, especially in unfamiliar settings.  

Max said Alex was unusually introspective and analytical for someone so young, but what he remembers most is his son’s “exploring spirit” and “bubbly personality.” He was so positive and full of joy and ready to meet whatever was happening. Everybody felt good being around him.”

Many of Alex’s letters reveal his growing desire to become a more committed and practicing Jew.

“He began to wear a kippah,” Suzanne recalled. “In those days, you didn’t have many officers who wore kippot, and he wanted to be a model of someone who was enriched by Jewish observance and at the same time open to everybody.”

With younger brothers Daniel (left) and Benjy at the completion of Sergeant’s School, April 1986.

Educators from Jewish day schools, Hillel houses, Jewish summer camps, Birthright and many other Israel experience programs have utilized Alex’s book, the accompanying educators guide and the short, compelling video about his life to engage young Jews.

The project’s website notes that Alex asked himself many of the questions today’s young Jews are asking themselves: What actions can create a meaningful life? What is the nature of my relationship to Israel and what are my responsibilities to it as a Jew? How do I feel about the concepts of homeland and Diaspora? Is aliyah an option? Joining the IDF?
The guide “is designed for use in a group framework, one that straddles the line between formal and informal education, such as a workshop,” the guide’s instructions say. “More important than an exact educational structure,” the guide requires the participating institution “to confront youth with relevant issues to assist them in building thoughtful, value-centered lives.”  

The guide’s four sections focus on the themes that most engaged Alex: Israel; the meaning of life; the concept of home and the challenges faced by leaving it; and Israel and aliyah.

Each of the four themes includes a prologue and three or four activities. For an activity called “Nightwatching,” groups are encouraged to go out into nature in the middle of the night and, through a series of exercises, to experience the night and to try to concentrate on their feelings and senses.

A sketch by Alex of Nada, his favorite bakery in Jerusalem.

During this activity, the group’s leader may read a passage in which Alex explains how his army training helped him appreciate the dead of night.

Leon Morris, a veteran Jerusalem-based educator, said he has been teaching young adults about Alex’s life for some 20 years.

When Morris brought a group of gap-year students to the Singers’ home, “it was very powerful,” he said.
“Here is this very moving story of an American immigrant, a lone soldier. Alex grappled with duty, obligation, how to live as a responsible person, as a Jew, even when it wasn’t easy. Everyone in the group was touched.”

Rabbi David Levin-Kruss, another longtime Israeli educator, first heard of Alex just after he was killed in action.
“It was two weeks before I myself went into the army, and I still remember feeling sadness that someone so talented had died, he said. “I wished that I could do something for Alex’s family, even though I didn’t know them.”

Alex’s Story, Guiding the Way

Years later, when Levin-Kruss was the director of the overseas program at the educational organization Melitz, he stumbled upon “Alex: Building a Life.”

“I found the book very interesting, and I discovered the educators guide,” he said. “We had a lot of visiting groups, especially young adults, and I would often use Alex’s materials. I’d tell them a little about Alex. We’d read letters he had written and then delve into discussion questions.”

When Levin-Kruss joined the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, where young adults and some older students come for a year of intensive Jewish studies, he brought Alex’s book and study guide with him.

The Pardes students “had a lot of different questions about Israel, even the legality of the State of Israel, the role of the army. These are subjects Alex often addressed. His views weren’t black and white. He was able to see the subtlety and different point of views.” 

Eventually Levin-Kruss met Suzanne and Max, and they became friends. The educator and some Pardes students joined the annual hike the Singers organized in Alex’s memory.

“Every year we would go to a place Alex had written about and someone read his writings out loud. It was a very beautiful day, a good way of remembering him. It was low key, a soft introduction or window into someone who had thoughtful things to say.”

The carpenter thinks of wood and nails and pegs and saws.
The soldier thinks of killing and guns and bombs.
But the carpenter need not ask whether each cut is “just.”
Only the soldier must judge his every step.
The carpenter goes home attuned to his woods.
The soldier goes home with justice on his mind.
Of course war is full of immorality.
But at least soldiers are forced to think of what is right.
— Alex Singer, 1986

Levin-Kruss brought his children along on these outings. His son, now 16, was so moved, that, when he was 10, he did a school project about Alex.

“He told his Hebrew-speaking classmates about Alex before the book was published in Hebrew,” the educator said. “It opened up a world to them.”

Although the book is clearly Jewish-themed, Levin-Kruss said, “I think a non-Jewish person can pick it up and say, ‘Wait a minute, I also want to make something of my life.’ His message is universal, and Alex died in 1987, but, for me, it’s as if he’s still writing today.”

Steve Israel, who wrote the educators’ guide, said he was drawn to the project because Alex’s life “invites imagination and reflection and opens up a wealth of possibilities” for both teachers and students.  

Wiese, 31, said she first read “Alex: Building a Life” when she was a teenager.

“You fall in love with Alex. You sense the love he feels for his parents, his brothers, his grandparents. There’s something so sincere and pure. He feels the same things others his age feel, but he expresses it in a way most others can’t, in a way that’s not intimidating,” Wiese said.

In her sunny living room, surrounded by family photographs and Alex’s vibrant artwork, Suzanne reflected on her family’s journey.

Alex Singer’s grave at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

“Both Max and I are second-generation Americans. Our boys grew up in a Jewishly conscious home. We had seders but no Shabbat. We didn’t go to synagogue in a regular way. We didn’t know what a day school was. But then we suddenly realized that our oldest son, 12-year-old Saul, would soon be bar mitzvah’d. We wanted our sons to know more than we knew Jewishly, so we decided to come to Israel for the year and ended up staying for four.”

Suzanne said that when visitors, including Jewish community leaders like rabbis and educators, come to her home to hear about Alex, she tells them “‘You’re on the front lines. You’ll go back to your diaspora communities, which are running away from Judaism and Israel. Perhaps they might like to learn about someone who didn’t start off knowing a lot about Judaism, who didn’t speak Hebrew or come from a Zionist family.’ That was Alex.”

To learn more about the Alex Singer Project, please visit:

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
At the peak of the Golan, one can see directly into Syria. All photos by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman.

In a development that went unnoticed but may have changed history, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently declared that the UK would no longer rubber stamp anti-Israel resolutions.

What triggered this sudden major policy change was not the huge percentage of resolutions bashing Israel or the conflicts around the world being ignored. It was one resolution the British realized went too far—calling for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria.

“Nowhere is the disproportionate focus on Israel starker and more absurd than in the case of today’s resolution on the occupation of Syria’s Golan,” Ambassador Julian Braithwaite said in March. “We cannot accept the perverse message sent out by a Syria Golan resolution that singles out Israel as Assad continues to slaughter the Syrian people.”

The resolution came 50 years after the 1967 Six-Day War, during which Israel won control of the Golan Heights, West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem. The focus in the international community, including in the recent Six-Day War commemorations, continues to be on the last two.

But the most threatening battle 50 years ago was not in Jerusalem. It was in the Golan, where Syria attacked Israel with all its might, threatening to invade the Galilee. In a costly and overwhelming uphill battle, Israel, with just a handful of tanks, stopped the Syrians and held onto the strategic Golan.

Then, six years later, in a surprise Yom Kippur attack, the Syrians, armed with 700 tanks against Israel’s 175, once again overran the Golan before being repelled by Israeli troops.

After that war, Syria signed a disengagement agreement, ending two decades of provocations and planting the seeds for what has become one of Israel’s most strategic, fertile and prime tourist areas.

Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, extending its civilian law and administration to its residents. Since then, the Golan has undergone a transformation from an area associated with its Valley of Tears—the long stretch between Mount Bental and Mount Hermon where much of the battle took place—to one known for its quality wines and quiet getaways.

On the road to the Golan Heights.

From War Zone to Tourist Attraction

“Nothing was here,” said Yitzhak Ribak, owner of the Chateau Golan winery who was among hundreds of pioneer farmers that settled the land. He arrived in 1973. “Today, the Golan is known for the quality of its wine, our very good apples, and we grow the most beautiful wild irises.”

“People come here to get away from life [in crowded cities], to fulfill their dream of sending their child to school on his bike and not having to worry,” said Golan Regional Council spokesperson Dalia Amos. “We’re the land of possibilities, open spaces and tourism.”

The Golan, 37 miles in length, has 32 Jewish communities. There are roughly 60,000 residents—35,000 Jews and 25,000 Druze. Amos said the Golan Regional Council projects another 1,500 families coming in the next decade.

Ron Reichen, head of the Bnei Yehuda local council, said his community is building 48 new single-family homes in a new neighborhood, and 85 percent of them were already purchased. He believes the Golan’s population will double within 20 years.

Ron Reichen, head of the Bnei Yehuda local council,
in the Golan.

However, the Golan was not always popular. In fact, after the initial core group of pioneers came between 1967 and 1990, the area came to a virtual standstill. Only 43 families moved there from 1990 to 2000, when Israel negotiated with Syria over returning the land.

“Children here were born, and, at age 10, they still lived in uncertainly about whether this would be their home,” said Amos. “People thought twice about plans to build a house, open a business. The leadership also didn’t develop the Golan because it would cost so much money, and their minds were occupied with one thing—the struggle to keep the land. It was quite sad.”

Communities had aged, the majority of elementary schools had closed, and there were few children on the streets, which were devoid of the sounds of laughter and joy. If tourists came—and there were few—it was to plant a tree through the Jewish National Fund or to kiss the land goodbye before Israel relinquished it.

Then, in 2001, the struggle simply ended.

Ariel Sharon became prime minister and vowed to retain the Golan Heights. There were no more negotiations.

But the Golan was in a sorry state. Amos moved there for her job with the Golan Regional Council, and one of her first projects was to research what Israelis thought of it. The results were disconcerting, though not surprising for her. They equated the Golan with the Yom Kippur War, negotiations, army reserves or school field trips.

“No one said I want to travel there, let alone live there,” said Amos.

The regional council decided to embark on a rebranding effort.

“We understood that people are stressed in the center of the country. There are traffic jams, and people work so hard they have no time for their kids. But in their hearts, they have a dream of living differently,” said Amos. “So we tried to touch them there—in their hearts.”

The council decided to hold meetings in cities, inviting people to learn about the Golan. That first day, they set up a tent and invited a top Israeli journalist to come and see what was happening. They instructed colleagues and friends to call in and express interest while the journalist was there. That evening there was a big article. The next day, the phones rang and rang.

“That was the day it all started,” said Amos.

Over the next four years, 600 families moved in. They built gardens, playgrounds and schools. Israeli tourists started coming to see this “land of possibilities” and fell in love.

“When people come en masse, they develop the economy,” said Amos.

The Golan has about 3 million annual visitors, of whom at least 40 percent are English speakers. Amos said 44 percent of Israelis say the Golan is where they most love to travel.

Tourism features range from romantic getaways to wineries, spas, backpacking, bike trails and sky diving. There are several geological volcanic sites, including Mount Bental and Avital Volcanic Park, where visitors see simulated volcanic eruptions.

The Golan is home to one third of Israel’s 100 synagogues unearthed from the Second Temple period. Nimrod’s Castle, situated at the foot of Mount Hermon, is Israel’s largest castle remaining from the Middle Ages.

Ribak explained that the basalt soil, elevation, not-too-cold winters and not-too-hot summers make the Golan ideal for growing grapes. The Golan Winery, which brought Bordeaux to Israel, wins awards nearly every year. His Chateau winery pioneered Syrah blends in Israel. Ribak produces about 100,000 bottles annually in 10 varieties, which he sells to restaurants and privately.

“It’s been 50 years since we started settling the Golan,” said Ribak. “It’s not the Wild West anymore.”

Duby Hadar, Golan community leader and
tour guide.

Here to Stay

But it’s also not Tel Aviv. While it has improved, the Golan’s economy has not been as prosperous as the council hoped, and the government’s investment has been less than residents believe it should be.

“Everyone knows there’s a need to invest in the periphery,” said Reichen. “But when politicians decide where to allocate money, it’s to those who elected them, and they’re in the center” of the country.

Reichen was elected nine years ago, and he said he learned quickly that the periphery’s people would have to “do things for ourselves.” That includes the municipality sponsoring subsidized childcare programs that don’t exist in other parts of the country, extended after-school care and flexible enrollment, so parents could work without it costing them too much. Unique cultural and holiday programming is also offered.

“We need to make sure life is full here,” said Reichen.

He said no one is getting rich in the Golan: “Those who want a career around something they learned in school or to become rich—the periphery’s not for that.” Work is limited mostly to low-tech and agricultural jobs. Many people work in civil service roles, own mom-and-pop shops or travel to cities like Tiberias (28 miles away), Rosh Pinna (26 miles) or Karmiel (38 miles), where there are more opportunities.

There is also the issue of security. The Golan commands the entire Galilee Valley. You can stand in the hills of the Golan and literally see half of Israel spreading out before you, making it of strategic importance to Israeli security.

Further, much of the Golan is only minutes from the Syrian border. While Syria adhered to a cease-fire on the Golan until the eruption of its civil war six years ago, it provided a haven for terrorist groups that attacked Israel from Lebanon and other countries.

Residents say the Golan has been largely quiet, and they continue to view their enemy border as more of an annoyance than a threat.

“I never felt afraid,” said Duby Hadar, a tour guide who founded the cooperative agricultural community Alonei HaBashan, which directly borders Syria.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, the moshav has felt the challenge of its rogue neighbors more acutely. Hadar said residents could see the war from their doorsteps without any binoculars. Every once in a while, it escalates, including a recent round of Syrian shells that sparked an IDF response in late June.

“It’s like if there are two people fighting and one pushes the other into me, I could get injured, but they weren’t trying to hit me,” explained Hadar on how he sees the war’s impact.

Of course, he knows that it may not always be that way and that terrorist organizations in Syria may eventually turn their focus on Israel. He said he worries that Iran may play a more prominent role in Syria, which “would be a big problem.” But he trusts the Israeli army.

“The army prepares, and we live,” said Hadar.

Others in the Golan, however, are affected more, despite being farther from the border.

The Golan’s Druze are originally from Syria and have family there. Over the past 50 years, they have maintained positive relations with their Jewish neighbors but mostly chose to not become Israeli citizens. Instead, they would study at Damascus University and marry Syrians. They even sold their apples to the Syrians.

All of this took place at the Quneitra border.

“The Druze sent their brides from here to Syria,” Amos said. “They would come wearing earrings, in their wedding dresses, and their husband would wait at the border exit,” said Amos. “The apple farmers, they would come to the border and load the apples onto a truck, and the Syrians would come with cash in suitcases and they would trade.” This phenomenon was featured in a successful 2004 Israeli film called “The Syrian Bride.”

Syria and Israel both knew about and allowed it, despite being enemy nations. But two years ago, when terror organizations learned about the border crossing’s importance to Assad, they sought to take it over. A series of battles ultimately led to the injury of an Israeli border policeman, and Israel decided to shut down the crossing. Today there is a new electric fence, and no one can go through either way.

“Something good was happening here, and now it’s finished,” said Amos.

But Dolan Abu Salh, the head of the Majdan Shams Druze village, said something else good has resulted. The Druze have increased their commitment to Israel, and many more are opting for citizenship, joining the current 10 percent.

“We have good relations with the municipalities, and we cooperate a lot on education and employment,” said Salh.

The Druze of the Golan, he said, do not serve in the army because of their close connections with their Syrian families. He said there was always a fear that security secrets would be shared, inadvertently or otherwise. Further, it weighed on them that one day the Golan might be returned, and if they had shown allegiance to Israel, they might later be tortured.

“It wasn’t an easy paradox,” said Salh. “But I think today if you speak to any Druze in the Golan, it’s clear to everyone that life under the Israeli government is 1,000 times better than life would be under Syrian dictatorship. Everyone has always known that. But there are those starting to say it.”

With more Druze students in Israeli universities and increased commerce without being able to sell into Syria, the walls between the Druze of the Golan and Israel are beginning to crack. Salh said they know there is no Syria to go back to and that his community members now need to see themselves as part of Israel, regardless of budgets and developments.

“We’re here to stay,” he said. Jewish Golan residents agree.

“In 1994, I sat across from a German journalist who told me, ‘I know how the peace talks are going, and within a week or two, you won’t be there,’” recalled Hadar. “I told her I’d be there next year and invited her to come and visit. Twenty years have passed, and she never came back to visit me.”

He continued, “You need to have faith. When I pray on Yom Kippur, I pray that all of Israel should have it as good as me.”

Quneitra border with Syria.

By Mervyn Rothstein
Exterior of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel and below, the congregation’s torahs. All photos were taken by Ruth Rothstein.

Serene and majestic, the bright yellow Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue sits at Hanchi Snoa 29 in the main shopping area of downtown Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, a 171-square-mile island in the southern Caribbean Sea. Dating to 1732, the synagogue is the oldest continuously functioning Jewish house of worship in the Western Hemisphere.

Visited by 16,000 people yearly, the synagogue, with its sand floors, was established largely by Sephardic descendants of Amsterdam Jews who had fled the Inquisition, first in Spain and then in Portugal. It is one of the most popular attractions on this formerly Dutch island of 150,000 residents 40 miles north of Venezuela.

Yet, there lies an existential problem. The tourists vastly outnumber the 200 or so members of the synagogue’s rapidly diminishing congregation, which traces back even farther, to 1651. And the dwindling membership is cause for concern about the Reconstructionist synagogue’s future, said René David Levy Maduro, who has been a member of B’nai B’rith since 1964 and a member of its International Board of Governors for decades, welcoming numerous fellow members and leaders who come from around the world to visit this historic Jewish site. Concurrently, Levy Maduro has served as a board member of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue for 40 years, with terms as president and chairman of the board of the congregation, and is now a member of its advisory Council of Elders.

“We are slowly but surely losing our people to age, primarily,” said Levy Maduro. “But it’s a problem we have on a small island where our children, once they reach college age, often go abroad to Europe or the United States. Unfortunately, they then discover that there’s a big world out there, and they decide either to have a profession that is not very useful on the island, because we have so many already. How many doctors or engineers or lawyers can you have on a small island? Or they meet their partners out there, and how many of their partners want to come to a small island?”

As recently as 15 years ago, there were 300 congregation members, according to Ron Gomes Casseres, also a former president and chairman of the synagogue’s board, and a spokesman for the synagogue. About 40 percent of the congregation is over 60, Gomes Casseres said. “The young people are also leaving for better economic opportunities abroad,” he said. “Over the past 10–15 years the economy has been very weak here, though recently there has been a bit of an upturn.”

Gomes Casseres, a commercial banker who traces his Portuguese-Curaçaoan heritage back to the 17th century, is married to an American, and their three children are all married and living in the United States. “I graduated from M.I.T., and we came here. So the United States is our children’s second homeland, and they all ended up marrying somebody in the U.S. It’s their current home, and they probably have a better future in terms of career than Curaçao, which hasn’t grown.”

These days, there are only about 325 Jews on the island, Gomes Casseres said. There’s another congregation, the Ashkenazi modern Orthodox Shaarei Tsedek, about 15 minutes away, which has just over 100 members, its president, Ivan Aaron Becher, said. Its population has similarly fallen over the years, for the same reasons as Mikvé Israel’s. “Twenty-five years ago, there were 228 families,” Becher said. Ashkenazim, European Jews, began arriving in Curaçao in the 1920s and 1930s, fleeing pogroms and the Nazis. Shaarei Tsedek’s first permanent synagogue began holding services in 1959; its new air-conditioned building opened in 2006.

Levy Maduro said of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, “We are doing our very, very best to keep our synagogue alive. It’s a big burden on the congregants to keep the congregation alive physically. This is a monument that takes an enormous amount of maintenance. We have a staff of eight or nine people that have to do the work. Unfortunately, it’s catching up with us. We are no longer what we used to be.”

The synagogue needs help, he said. “It’s very important that we get outsiders to realize the importance of this congregation,” he said. “We need some patrons. We need some people out there who are financially able to make yearly donations to the congregation. The maintenance of the building alone costs $35,000-$40,000 a year. How can we do that?”

According to the Curaçao history website, the first Jew to arrive there, in 1634, was Samuel Cohen, an interpreter for Johan van Walbeeck aboard the Dutch fleet that defeated the Spanish and took over the island. Then, 17 years later, in 1651, 10 to 12 Jewish families from Amsterdam’s Sephardic Portuguese community, led by a man named Joao d’Ylan, arrived as agricultural settlers. By 1654, they had established Congregation Mikvé Israel.

Gomes Casseres said the congregation dates itself from 1651. “1651—that’s 366 years ago,” he pointed out emphatically. “Why do we say 366 years? We know that in 1654 there was a letter directed to the board of Mikvé Israel. It’s part of the archives that belong to the synagogue. So it already existed as an organization. We know that the first group came in 1651. Since there were 10 or 12 families, they would have had enough for a minyan” for prayer services.  

The next group of Jews arrived in 1659, he said, “and they brought with them a Torah scroll that was sent with them by the Amsterdam Jewish community.” It is still used in the synagogue.

Farming on the island wasn’t successful, Gomes Casseres said, so the Jews focused on trade between Northern Europe and South America. Several successive synagogues went up on the island, followed in 1703 by the first on the current site. The present 1732 building is modeled after the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, which dates from 1675.

“In the mid-1700s there were about 1,500 Jews on the island,” Gomes Casseres said. “This was a very vibrant Sephardic Jewish Orthodox community. In 1731 they decided that the building that was here wasn’t enough for the growing population. So this building was commissioned and opened in 1732. I like to say when I talk to American visitors that this means that it’s 44 years older than the United States.” (The synagogue street’s name, Hanchi Snoa, is a combination of Hanchi, the Papamiento, or local Creole language, word for alley or lane, and Snoa, an abbreviation of Esnoga, an old Ladino word for synagogue.)

Except for a few changes, including a 1974 renovation, the building today is as it was 285 years ago, Gomes Casseres said. “It is set up the way Sephardic synagogues are set up,” he said. “The bimah is in the center with the seats on either side. Under the clock, in a raised section, are the seats for the board—in those years, until the mid-19th century, the board was more than simply governance of the congregation. It could actually mediate not only issues between Jews that affected the congregation but also as judges in civil cases. Not only were they sitting higher, but they’re right at the windows, and when the windows are opened it’s the coolest part of the synagogue.”

The azure stained-glass windows provide a beautiful blue glow. The dark wood of the bimah and the benches and the ark is mahogany, and most of it dates back to the beginning of the synagogue. The gleaming copper chandeliers all go back at least to the synagogue’s beginnings and the one closest to the ark is likely from the previous building. “A ship with all the material needed for the synagogue was loaded in Holland and sailed here,” Gomes Casseres said.

Perhaps the most famous feature of the synagogue is its floor of sand. (Several Caribbean synagogues, including one on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, have such floors.) There’s disagreement about what the sand signifies. Some believe it represents the desert the Jews traveled over when they fled with Moses from Egypt and headed to the Promised Land. Others say it is a reminder of the Inquisition, when Jews prohibited from practicing their religion would hold secret services in their basements, whose floors were dirt or sand to muffle sound.

In the 1850s, the synagogue remained Orthodox, but the Reform movement that had started in Germany and moved elsewhere in Europe and to the United States was beginning to reach out. “Young people who studied in Holland and other places liked those ideas and came back and started demanding changes in the ritual, but the powerful rabbi and board were very Orthodox and said no modernizations, no reforms,” Gomes Casseres said. “So in 1863, there came a schism. Those younger members left and formed Temple Emanuel.”

That temple put in an organ. “And people over there said it’s a fun thing when you have an organ,” he continued. “So members of this congregation decided they also wanted an organ. But the board vetoed it, and more members started to go over to Emanuel. So finally, in 1869, Mikvé Israel installed an organ” high up inside the entrance.

The organ also changed somewhat the building’s architecture. “In 1732, we had a balcony on only the right side of the synagogue” facing the ark, Gomes Casseres said. “It was where the women sat for the Orthodox services. But when they put in the organ in the center they thought they would put a new balcony there. But then it looked ugly—we really had only two-thirds of a balcony. So they put in the balcony on the left side. Those second and third balconies go back to the 1860s.” The organ is still the original and, he said, “It’s one of the four or five oldest pipe organs made in Holland that are still in existence.”

In the 1950s, Congregations Mikvé Israel and Emanuel “started to realize it wasn’t going to last very long for each of them, because both were losing members and getting smaller,” Gomes Casseres said. “I know this because my father, Charles Gomes Casseres, was for about 20 years president of Emanuel. That’s where I grew up. I was Reform, not Orthodox. They decided to get together. And in 1963—almost 100 years to the date of the schism—inspired by Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin [of Mikvé Israel], we reunited.” Although it remains a Sephardic synagogue, he noted, about 30 percent of its members are Ashkenazi.

It was Maslin who proposed that the recombined congregation become Reconstructionist, with its liberal theology. “But we’re not exactly Reconstructionist,” Gomes Casseres said. “The ritual of the services was very important to us. So although we are a member of the Reconstructionist organization, we use a Reform prayer book. We have always worn yarmulkes.” And a tallis is part of the service.

“We like to call ourselves a Criollo organization,” he said, meaning they are uniquely Curaçaoan. “One of the nicest parts is the Torah service, which goes back many centuries and is a combination of Portuguese and Hebrew. It still starts off with a blessing in Portuguese for the Royal House of Orange in the Netherlands, which basically allowed us to come here in 1651 and have religious freedom.”

The synagogue site also includes the small Jewish Historical Cultural Museum devoted to religious and cultural artifacts, among them a gleaming silver Chanukiah that has been lit each year for 300 years. The site is open to visitors Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; admission is $10. Sabbath services, Fridays from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to noon, are open to worshippers, with proper dress requested.

Gomes Casseres took a moment to reflect further on the congregation’s future. Most people believe that the floors represent Moses in the desert or secret Jews during the Inquisition. But for him—as well as for Levy Maduro—there’s a more important explanation, one that both have often espoused.

“There’s another one I like,” Gomes Casseres said. “Take it for what it’s worth. It’s from Bereshit—Genesis—where God says to Abraham that He will multiply his people like the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. To me, that’s a meaningful reason.”

By Cheryl Kempler
On Sunday, Dec. 2, 1917, London’s Royal Opera House was filled to capacity and overflowing into the street. The crowd of both Jews and Christians had come to express their gratitude for a 67-word paragraph that became known as the Balfour Declaration, for its author, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour. With it, Britain formally endorsed a Jewish national homeland in Palestine and pledged to “facilitate” its achievement.

After speeches by clergy, officials and even an Arab representative from Palestine, what had begun solemnly now ended with loud cheers and the audience singing “Hatikvah,” the Zionist anthem and later the national anthem of the realized dream of the Jewish State of Israel.

Though B’nai B’rith adopted a neutral policy toward Zionism at the time, B’nai B’rith members, some passionately committed to the cause for more than a decade, played an indirect role in the events leading up to the writing and acceptance of the Declaration, conveyed in a message from Balfour to Baron Rothschild, a leading member of Britain’s Jewish community. Prominent among them were B’nai B’rith lodges in London and Manchester, initiated in 1910 and 1912, respectively.

B’nai B’rith in England reflected the era’s spirit of democracy, as rapidly occurring social and political changes weakened the control of the titled and landed classes. Those who joined London’s First Lodge of England included prominent businessmen, clergy, academics and journalists (and even a famous 20th century violinist, Mischa Elman) who had various opinions on Zionism. Among those working to give concrete form to the dream of a Jewish homeland were Rabbi Moses Gaster, leader of London’s largest Sephardic congregation; Herbert Bentwich, an eminent barrister who had founded the British Zionist Federation in 1899; Selig Brodetsky, a mathematics professor and future president of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University; and Paul Goodman, secretary at both the First Lodge and at the English Zionist Federation.

Despite differing views of Zionism, London members launched new projects of much benefit to the Jewish community, particularly after the start of the world war in 1914, as Britain faced the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. Their lodge provided free legal services and tended to the needs of those interned throughout the country as enemy aliens. Members also safeguarded civic regulations allowing ritual slaughter and Sabbath observance, often in conflict with what the non-Jewish community considered acceptable. The lodge also published pamphlets designed to educate Christians about Jewish history and customs.

The Manchester B’nai B’rith was home to Zionists from Germany and Russia, as well as a contingent of locals devoted to the lodge’s president, their friend and mentor, Chaim Weizmann, a scientist on faculty at the university who would become the first president of Israel. Those  assisting in his efforts included Nahum Sokolow, a Russian-born journalist and diplomat, and Israel Sieff, a financial mainstay and publisher of the magazine Palestine, a partner in his family’s chain of retail stores, Marks and Spencer.

Weizmann intended to garner support for Zionism from the inside, through his affiliation with a respected philanthropic organization like B’nai B’rith. Working for the Ministry of Munitions in 1914, Weizmann conducted experiments that led to streamlining the manufacture of explosives. His achievements won him entrée to high government offices, where, employing his considerable diplomatic skills, he convinced officials of the benefits of creating a home for the Jews in Palestine, after the Allies defeated the Turks, who ruled over it. Agreeing with Weizmann was David Lloyd George, England’s prime minster after December 1916. A devout Christian who believed a Jewish Palestine was biblically ordained, he was also convinced that Jews controlled the world’s finances and had the power to induce Russia and America to support Britain in the war.

First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Arthur Balfour, appointed foreign minister in Lloyd George’s war cabinet, also favored the concept of a Jewish Palestine. In perceiving the Jews as a race, he was motivated by his conviction that “a great nation without a home is not right.”

As the war progressed, Zionism, formerly supported by a small Jewish minority, acquired an increasing number of converts, although many native-born Jews feared that the profession of loyalty to their religion or ethnicity would lead to questioning their patriotism. This faction continued to lobby against Zionism in the halls of Parliament, as Zionists won further ground.

As early as 1915, Jewish leaders, including Weizmann and others at B’nai B’rith, understood the necessity of developing a united position on postwar issues that were most pressing to their co-religionists in Europe. After intense discussions between First Lodge members of differing views, it was resolved that “the formulation of a united communal opinion on the Jewish problem … being eminently desirable, the First Lodge … associate itself with [the Manchester Committee, the men helping Weizmann] … to cooperate with the existing communal organizations [in meetings with] the British government.”

After a series of Zionist talks organized by the Manchester Committee were delivered to the London B’nai B’rith, its members organized the Jewish Emergency Committee, composed of Weizmann, Bentwich, Gaster, Sokolow and Goodman. Goodman’s report on its findings noted both the imperative for equal rights and freedom from persecution and “the demand for the creation of an autonomous Jewish Community which will serve as the centre of the Jewish race.” Submitted to Parliament in B’nai B’rith’s name, “Palestine and the Jews” elicited a number of positive responses, all published in the “Letter from London” column in the B’nai B’rith News.

In 1917, B’nai B’rith and its members significantly affected the complex chain of events culminating in the realization of Weizmann’s efforts. In February, war cabinet administrator Sir Mark Sykes arranged a meeting of British officials and Zionist leaders, including Weizmann, Bentwich and Sokolow, at the home of Rabbi Gaster. During the spring, Sokolow, in his capacity as a diplomat, engaged in discussions with both the Vatican and France, and his successful negotiations resulted in the approval of each government in allowing Britain to control Palestine exclusively. In diplomatic discussions with the Allies, resulting in the relinquishing of their right to control Palestine, he had also been tasked with producing a lengthy and detailed plan for Palestine’s governance, with contributions added by Weizmann, publisher Sieff and others.

As a Zionist victory seemed secure, opponents launched one final, controversial volley. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the community’s largest and most established philanthropy run by the country’s most affluent Jewish citizens, had collaborated with a small, privately funded educational society, the Anglo-Jewish Association, to organize what was known as “The Conjoint Foreign Committee.”  In the name of the Board, and officially speaking for the whole of Britain’s Jews, the “Conjoint” published what some in the community saw as an anti-Zionist manifesto, “Palestine and Zionism—Views of Anglo-Jewry” in the London Times on May 24.  Leaders on both sides quickly rejected as unfair its conclusions that all “Jews [are] … only unified by a religious system … had no separate national aspirations” and dispelled the prediction that “The establishment of a country for the Jews would condemn those who did not immigrate ‘as strangers in their native lands.’”

B’nai B’rith was represented at the Board. After an emergency meeting on May 25, it was the opinion of First Lodge members that the autocratic “manner rather than the matter of the manifesto … the way in which the Conjoint … acted …” was at issue. Days later, B’nai B’rith, joined by other organizations, registered its objections at the Board. For Paul Goodman, “the action of the Lodge in rallying against the Official Statement proved decisive,” resulting in the Board’s resolution of censure against the Conjoint, passed on June 17 by a vote of 56 to 51.   The resignations of several Conjoint members were followed by those of the Board’s officers, ending what Goodman described as “the ancient regime” and imposition of its conservative agenda. Ties between the Board and the Anglo-Jewish Association would be severed.

On July 18, Jewish community leader Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild submitted his version of the document that condensed the essential message of Sokolow’s earlier report. It was reviewed by Balfour, who adopted its wording: “His Majesty’s government accepts the principle that Palestine shall be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object and will be ready to consider any suggestions on the subject which the Zionist Organization may desire to lay before them.”

In October, Sir Alfred Milner and Leo Amery of the War Cabinet again reworded the draft, inserting language that assured the rights of the Jews in any place they inhabited and safeguarded protections of Arabs living in Palestine.  Although the British victory in Palestine was still weeks away, the Balfour Declaration in its final form was composed as a letter addressed to Walter Rothschild, the Second Baron Rothschild, and delivered to him on Nov. 2.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”  

He also asked that his message be “brought to the knowledge of the Zionist federation.”

As Jews reacted euphorically around the world, Sokolow commented, “It was at once clear that a great moment in the history of the Jewish people had arrived through this Declaration … Great new horizons of free national constructive work are revealed before our eyes. The fate of the Jewish land depends not only on the powerful protection of Governments, but first and foremost on the steadfastness and capacity for sacrifice of the Jewish people itself.”

On Dec. 23, Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of America’s most important Jewish leaders, celebrated the signing of the Declaration as “nothing more than ‘a scrap of paper’ but that scrap is written in English. It is signed by the British government, and therefore is sacred and inviolable.”

By B’nai B’rith International Staff
Jack Levitt is a teacher, role model and dedicated B’nai B’rith leader. A passionate supporter of Israel, he can recall the joy and excitement that enveloped his Chicago neighborhood when the State of Israel was founded.

Born on Chicago’s Southside in 1931, Levitt is the son of Russian immigrants. His mother, Bluma, arrived in 1910 and father, Ben, in 1909. Ben fought for the United States in World War I, serving as a messenger in the trenches while facing mustard gas, earning him a Purple Heart.

“I thank my father, who was really a hero to me. He was a great and ardent Zionist who realized you’ve got to give back,” Levitt said.

From 1948 to 1952, Levitt attended the University of Chicago. In 1952, while serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he was primarily stationed at Fort Riley, Kan. Trained there as a photo interpreter, he examined aerial photographs to ascertain information, such as the speed of tanks and the enemy’s location.

After working at his father’s currency exchange business for six months, Levitt enrolled in Roosevelt University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in education. There, Levitt met his wife, Roberta (or “Bobbi”), in a sociology class in 1955. The two were engaged in January 1956 and married in August. After they graduated, Bobbi worked as a secretary, and Jack taught math at junior high schools in Blue Island, Ill., and Chicago Ridge, Ill. He still gets letters from former students, telling him about the impact he had on their lives.

After years of teaching, a job that he loved, in 1974, in an effort to better support his family, he decided to switch careers and did “something I said I would never do,” by opening a currency exchange with Bobbi. Twenty years later, they sold the business to his nephew.

Bobbi and Jack had four children and 12 grandchildren. After 50 years of marriage, Bobbi passed away in 2006.

Now retired, Levitt keeps busy with volunteer work, including teaching a music appreciation course for children, and he belongs to a “Shalom Over 50s” group. He is also the Commander of the Neivelt Post of the Jewish War Veterans, a position he has held for the past four years. A devoted Sherlock Holmes fan, he attends local club meetings to explore Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales and also attends Sherlock Holmes conventions.

“I wake up every morning and ask, ‘How do I feel today?’ and if I feel good, I ask, ‘What can I do to better my community?’” Levitt said.

In that vein, he spends a great deal of his time advancing B’nai B’rith’s work. Levitt serves as the co-president of B’nai B’rith’s Chai Unit in Chicago and is a member of Midwest Region’s board of directors. At one point, Bobbi was the Chai Unit’s president, not only becoming its first female member, but its first female president. Today, all of his children have signed up as members as well.

“I got an awful lot out of B’nai B’rith,” Levitt said.

One of his most treasured experiences was during his term as B’nai B’rith Illinois Regional Council president. Levitt was honored to offer greetings at the 1994 B’nai B’rith International Convention in Chicago during B’nai B’rith International’s year-long 150th Anniversary Celebration. As he had at other such gatherings, he relished the interaction with the thousand delegates from all over the world. The meeting’s theme, “B’nai B’rith: A Past to Remember, A Future to Behold,” is a concept that Jack Levitt embodies every day that he serves the organization. In the true spirit of that theme, Jack decided to include B’nai B’rith as a beneficiary in his will, enrolling him as an honored member of the organization’s esteemed 1843 Society.

“I think [B’nai B’rith] is a wonderful organization, and I want to be sure it continues for the people after me,” Levitt said.

“By including B’nai B’rith in his will, Mr. Levitt has and will always be building and strengthening the Jewish community for generations to come,” said Ben Simkovich, assistant director of planned giving. “B’nai B’rith is proud to have Mr. Levitt as both a leader of the organization and a member of the 1843 Society.”

For more information about supporting B’nai B’rith through an endowment fund, bequest, charitable gift annuity or other planned gift, please contact the Planned Giving Department by mail at 1120 20th St., NW, Suite 300 North, Washington, DC 20036; by phone at 800-656-5561; or by e-mail at

By Felice Caspar
Pictured left to right: Charles O. Kaufman, Jennifer L. Feldman, Einat Weiss, Gary P. Saltzman, Evelina Petrone,
Deb Weiner, Eduard Redensky and Jay S. Feldman. Photo by Danielle Ross

Women have made much progress but still face a glass ceiling that hinders their advancement, members of B’nai B’rith’s Young Leadership Network were told at a “Brunch and Learn” event in June in Washington, D.C.

Deb Weiner, YLN-DC chair, developed the concept for the session, entitled, “Challenging Traditional Gender Roles in Law, Diplomacy and Charity.” It was held June 4 at B’nai B’rith’s international headquarters in the nation’s capital.

The group heard from two diplomats, Einat Weiss, counselor for political affairs for the Embassy of Israel, and Evelina Petrone, first secretary in the political section for the Embassy of Lithuania, and from attorney Jennifer L. Feldman, vice president of Membership for Alpha Epsilon Phi Sorority. The discussion was moderated by Eduard Redensky, Young Leadership Network chair of B’nai B’rith International.

The panelists shared their perspectives from different places: Israel, known worldwide for decades of strong female leadership in government and in the armed forces, and Lithuania, where, in 2009, Dalia Grybauskaité was the first woman elected president—and by the largest-ever margin for a Lithuanian presidential candidate.

The panelists were candid in addressing the extra challenges faced by women in government service and as professionals and organizational leaders. “There is still a glass ceiling and I’m still trying to knock at it. I have three daughters, and I tell them all the time that you can do anything,” said Petrone.  Weiss reflected on how women are perceived behind the scenes in Israel: “Men are always questioning—can she manage the battle if she has not been in a combat unit? It’s still harder for women to have the top-most positions in foreign policy.”

Feldman commented on challenges women face in the American workforce, specifically in the field of law. The discussion touched on the most recent presidential election in the United States. “Having a female candidate running in the U.S. was a huge breakthrough, and, hopefully, one day, the election of a woman to this office will be accomplished,” Feldman said.

B’nai B’rith International actively seeks to involve women in all of its activities. Programs such as this one aimed at young leaders provide a forum to address issues that are important to both men and women. The Young Leadership Network offers young professionals the opportunity to get involved in an agenda that affects Jews and the community here in the United States and abroad.

Along with participants from the Washington, D.C. area, the event was attended by Gary P. Saltzman, president of B’nai B’rith International, Charles O. Kaufman, chair of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy, and Jay S. Feldman, a B’nai B’rith young leader and member of the Executive Board of Directors.

Under the chairmanship of Ed Redensky and with Vice Chair Rachel Silvestain, the B’nai B’rith YLN is flourishing, now established in seven core communities in the United States (five of which have women as their chairs) and interacting with groups around the world.