By Cheryl Kempler
The massive influx of new immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side presented B’nai B’rith with new challenges and opportunities. In 1900, Grand Lodge President Leo M. Levi, a young lawyer based in New York, commissioned a report about conditions in the new urban ghetto. Working with civic leaders in the area, Levi devised a plan to inaugurate a branch of B’nai B’rith there.
Contrasting with its 58th Street and Lexington Avenue offices, B’nai B’rith’s downtown headquarters was intended to be a resource for a population living in what was at the time said to be the world’s most crowded neighborhood.
B’nai B’rith’s initial $2,000 expense for the lease and renovation of its 106 Forsyth Street site was augmented by donations from prominent Jewish philanthropists, including Jacob Schiff and Felix Warburg. Opening in 1902, the facility became a hub of activity. Four lodges and a women’s auxiliary occupied the meeting rooms, while its Maimonides Library was open to the public. An employment bureau was also in operation. One of the first cultural events to take place was a talk by Isidore Singer, B’nai B’rith leader and managing editor of the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia— the first of its kind, published between 1901 and 1906.
In 1903, a newly opened gallery displayed works by local amateurs and professionals. B’nai B’rith also requested submissions by eminent Jewish artists, including Moses Ezekiel, from whom B’nai B’rith had commissioned the allegorical statue “Religious Liberty,” honoring the nation’s centenary in 1876 and now in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia. From his studio in Rome, Ezekiel sent “Israel,” a relief dominated by the figure of a crucified man. Common to the era, the motif of the persecuted Christ was recognized as a symbol for the collective suffering of the Jewish people—Israel, but Ezekiel made the meaning clearer by incorporating the title itself into the work. The artist may have believed that the immigrants’ understanding of the sculpture, informed by their own experience, would be a visceral one.
Nonetheless, there is no available evidence that “Israel” was ever displayed; its imagery made it controversial. The sculpture has survived and is today on view as part of the permanent collection of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati.