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.