By Cheryl Kempler
The 1950s are remembered as a decade of optimism. Recognizing the importance of their deeds, those who had fought and survived World War II returned to create a better life for their children.
Many American Jews were prosperous and exhilarated by an independent Israel; they served their communities and the new Jewish homeland through membership in B’nai B’rith. What better response to the celebration of the 300th Anniversary of Jewish Life in America, held between 1951 and 1954, than to establish a headquarters in Washington, D.C.?
B’nai B’rith had operated out of rented offices in Washington since 1937. Initiated in 1953, the four-year campaign culminated in an impressive $1.5 million eight-floor structure a few blocks from the White House. Designed by architects Corning & Moore, it was intended as “a memorial to Henry Monsky,” B’nai B’rith’s wartime president. But 1640 Rhode Island Avenue also resonated with the tercentenary, to become the embodiment of Jewish achievements. The place served as the organization’s home from 1957 until it relocated to more modern premises in 2002. Offices were augmented by a library and an exhibit hall; both were resources highlighting the narrative of American Jewish life.
Ceremonies celebrating milestones like the groundbreaking included U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, and dramatic readings featuring Broadway and radio stars, all under the supervision of Himan Brown, a B’nai B’rith leader known for his work as a film and radio producer. With titles like “A Time for Remembrance” and “The New Day,” these short plays contextualized B’nai B’rith’s place in the Jewish American experience. With the initial funding supplied by the Monsky Foundation, everyone could purchase “bricks” for the building for $55 each, while the B’nai B’rith Bowling League raised money for furniture. The library was a B’nai B’rith Women project.
Heard over national radio and the Voice of America, the building’s dedication occurred during the B’nai B’rith national convention on Nov. 24, 1957, when thousands locked arms and joyously marched to the site. As renowned cantor Jacob Barkin sang “Bless This House,” Vice President Richard M. Nixon unlocked the building door with a golden key and entered, followed by Eleanor Roosevelt, and Daisy Monsky, Henry’s widow. Words from the Mishnah, emblazoned on the exterior, underscored the significance with which 1640 Rhode Island Avenue is still remembered. The world stands on three foundations: Study, Service, and Benevolence.