The Jewish Herald-Voice interviewed Seth J. Riklin following his election as B’nai B’rith International’s president on Dec. 19, 2021.
“From my father and two uncles, I learned the importance of community service,” Riklin told the JHV. “If you are going to be successful in this world, you have to help others be successful.”
Beginning with food drives in high school, Riklin developed the knowledge and skills needed to take on various community service leadership roles.
“When I got out of law school, Jerry Ribnick invited me to have lunch and talk about Goldberg Towers. Ribnick, z”l, served as president of B’nai Brith Goldberg Towers from 1978-1996. My aunt Sarah was one of Goldberg Tower’s first residents when she moved here from San Antonio,” said Riklin.
Goldberg Towers is a 302-unit federally subsidized, low-income, nondenominational affordable senior housing building in Southwest Houston. Riklin served as secretary, treasurer and president of Goldberg Towers. He also served as the immediate past chairman of the B’nai Brith executive board of directors and is a longtime member of the B’nai B’rith board of governors, former chair of the B’nai B’rith Senior Housing Committee and he twice served as B’nai Brith’s treasurer.
In December during its triennial meeting in Washington, B’nai B’rith International’s board of governors elected Riklin as the organization’s new president. Riklin immediately began a three-year term leading the world’s oldest Jewish humanitarian, human rights and advocacy organization.
Senior housing has been one of B’nai Brith’s priorities for decades. The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 created HUD as a cabinet-level agency and initiated a leased housing program to make privately owned housing available to low-income families. In 1968, B’nai Brith launched its senior housing program, in partnership with HUD, to make rental apartments available for senior citizens with limited incomes.
According to Riklin, the thinking in Washington at that time was to provide funding to nonprofit organizations that developed and operated housing for seniors with very low incomes through the Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program.
“B’nai Brith was very decentralized in the 1960s. Numerous lodges got together to buy the land needed on which to construct the housing for low-income seniors,” said Riklin.
Congress has not provided new resources for new Section 202 construction since Fiscal Year 2012. Funds provided by Congress for the Section 202 account now are used primarily to renew underlying rental assistance contracts and existing contracts for on-site service coordinators.
In 1991, the Section 202 program was converted to a capital advance grant with a Project Rental Assistance Contract for operational expenses (Section 202 PRAC).
There currently are more than 400,000 Section 202 units serving very low-income seniors. Most senior housing buildings now use tax-credit financing. With the aging of baby boomers, affordable housing is now more in demand than ever, noted Riklin.
Outside of his volunteer work at B’nai Brith, Riklin practiced business law for nearly 30 years. He is the founder, current president and CEO of Hill Country Wind Power, LP and Clean Power Texas, which develops utility-size wind and solar energy projects.
Riklin said that fighting antisemitism is still at the core of B’nai Brith’s organizational mission. The “None Shall Be Afraid” campaign, a program to promote tolerance and respect, is the organization’s signature response to antisemitism.
“When we see antisemitism being practiced, we stand up and speak out against the language and tropes. We’re neither Republicans nor Democrats. We support politicians who do the right thing when it comes to the issue of antisemitism.”
As an international organization, B’nai Brith’s interests go beyond American politics. For example, the organization claimed a diplomatic victory when a total of 38 countries openly boycotted the 20th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in September, citing concerns of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias.
“B’nai Brith has been a leader in calling Durban for what it is: an antisemitic and anti-Zionist effort,” said Riklin.
The new organizational president said his first priority is going to be to put together a plan to create a leadership institute with the goal of reaching out to young people to receive leadership-skills training.
“We have thousands of lodges worldwide. However, these lodges are not as important in the U.S. as they once were. We want to create new pathways towards leadership. We need to find more pathways at the grass-roots level for people to support the future of B’nai Brith International.”