B'NAI B'RITH , international Jewish organization committed to the security and continuity of the Jewish people and the State of Israel; defending human rights; combating antisemitism, bigotry, and ignorance; and providing services to the community on the broadest principles of humanity. Its mission is to unite persons of the Jewish faith and to enhance Jewish identity through strengthening Jewish family life and the education and training of youth; broad-based services for the benefit of senior citizens; and advocacy and action on behalf of Jews throughout the world.
Although the organization's historic roots are in a system of fraternal lodges and units (chapters), in the late 20th century, as fraternal organizations were in decline throughout the U.S., the organization began evolving into a dual system of the traditional payment of dues, with an expectation of active participation, and the pattern more common to other contemporary organizations – affiliation by contribution. In 2004, the organization reported a membership of more than 215,000, with members in 51 countries and a U.S. budget of $20,000,000. Approximately 85 percent of the membership is in the United States. Although membership was historically limited to men, in 1988 a resolution admitting women to membership passed overwhelmingly and the organization – although still predominately male – includes men and women (see below).
B'nai B'rith was founded in Aaron Sinsheimer's café on New York's Lower East Side on October 13, 1843, by a group of 12 recent German Jewish immigrants led by Henry Jones. The new organization represented an attempt to organize Jews on the basis of their ethnicity, not their religion, and to confront what Isaac Rosenbourg, one of the founders, called "the deplorable condition of Jews in this, our newly adopted country."
True to their German heritage, the founders originally named the organization Bundes Bruder (Sons of the Covenant) to reflect their goal of a fraternal order that could provide comfort to the entire spectrum of Jewish Americans. Although early meetings were conducted in German, after a short time English emerged as the language of choice and the name was changed to B'nai B'rith. In the late 20th century, the translation was changed to the more contemporary and inclusive Children of the Covenant.
The organization's activities during the 19th and 20th centuries were dominated by mutual aid, social service, and philanthropy. In keeping with their concerns for protecting their families, the first concrete action of the organization was the establishment of an insurance policy awarding the widow of a deceased members $30 toward funeral expenses and a stipend of one dollar a week for the rest of her life. To aid her children, each child would also receive a stipend and, for a male child, the assurance he would be taught a trade.
Many of the earliest achievements are believed to represent firsts within the Jewish community: In 1851, Covenant Hall was erected in New York as the first Jewish community center in the U.S.; one year later, B'nai B'rith established the Maimonides Library, also in New York, the first Jewish public library in the U.S.; immediately following the Civil War – when Jews on both sides were left homeless – B'nai B'rith founded the 200-bed Cleveland Jewish Orphan Home, said to have been the most modern orphanage of its time. Over the next several years, the organization would establish numerous hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the aged.
The organization lays claim to the distinction of being the oldest service organization founded in the United States. In 1868, when a devastating flood crippled Baltimore, B'nai B'rith responded with a disaster relief campaign. This act preceded the founding of the American Red Cross by 13 years and was to be the first of many domestic relief programs. That same year, the organization sponsored its first overseas philanthropic project, raising $4,522 to aid the victims of a cholera epidemic in what was then Palestine.
In 1875, a lodge was established in Toronto, followed soon after by another in Montreal and, in 1882, by a lodge in Berlin. This is believed to be the first instance of a Jewish organization founded on American soil being carried back to the lands from which its founders had migrated. Membership outside the U.S. grew rapidly. Soon, lodges were formed in Cairo (1887) and in Jerusalem (1888 – nine years before Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel); the latter became the first public organization to hold all of its meetings in Hebrew.
After 1881, when mass immigration from Eastern Europe poured into the United States, B'nai B'rith sponsored Americanization classes, trade schools, and relief programs. This began a period of rapid membership growth, a change in the system of representation, questioning of the secret rituals common to fraternal organizations, and the beginning of a nearly century-long debate on full membership for women. In 1897, when the organization's U.S. membership numbered slightly more than 18,000, B'nai B'rith formed a ladies' auxiliary chapter in San Francisco. This was to become B'nai B'rith Women and, when B'nai B'rith gave full membership rights to women in 1988, to break away as an independent organization, Jewish Women International (see below).
In response to the *Kishinev pogrom in 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay met with B'nai B'rith's executive committee in Washington. B'nai B'rith President Simon Wolf presented the draft of a petition to be sent to the Russian government protesting the lack of opposition to the massacre. Roosevelt readily agreed to transmit it and B'nai B'rith lodges began gathering signatures around the country.
In the first two decades of the 20th century B'nai B'rith launched three of today's major Jewish organizations: the *Anti-Defamation League (adl), Hillel, and the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (bbyo), Later they would take on a life of their own and varying degrees of autonomy.
In 1913, when it was apparent that antisemitism was not to be limited to the European continent, B'nai B'rith established the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (adl). The immediate impetus was the false arrest, unfair trial (reflecting the most profound of antisemitic sentiments on the part of the jury), conviction and lynching of Leo *Frank, president of the Gate City, Georgia, B'nai B'rith lodge.
The adl has become one of the preeminent forces for strengthening interreligious understanding and cooperation, improving relationships between the races, and protecting the rights and status of Jews.
In a pattern that was to be followed by other members of the B'nai B'rith "family," adl has evolved into an autonomous organization which, though formally a part of B'nai B'rith and strongly embraced by the organization, is virtually independent and is self-sustaining today.
The 1920s saw a growing concern with preserving Jewish values as immigration slowed and a native Jewish population of East European ancestry came to maturity. In 1923, Rabbi Benjamin Frankel, of Illinois, established an organization on the campus of the University of Illinois to provide both Reform and Orthodox Sabbath services, classes in Judaism, and social events for Jewish college students. Two years later, he approached B'nai B'rith about adopting this new campus organization. B'nai B'rith sponsorship of the Hillel Foundations enabled it to grow into a network that today has more than 500 campus student organizations in the United States and other countries.
From the early 1970s onward, funding for Hillel was increasingly coming from Federations and with funding a request for greater control and accountability. Although B'nai B'rith continued to support Hillel, in the mid-1990s it became a new independent organization, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Youth.
At virtually the same time as Hillel was being established, Sam Beber of Omaha, Nebraska, presented B'nai B'rith with a plan in 1924 for a fraternity for young Jewish men in high school. The new organization was to be called Aleph Zadik Aleph in imitation of the Greek-letter fraternities from which Jewish youth were excluded. In 1925, aza became the junior auxiliary of B'nai B'rith.
In 1940, B'nai B'rith Women adopted its own junior auxiliary for young women, B'nai B'rith Girls, and, in 1944 the two organizations became the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (bbyo).
bbyo provides informal Jewish educational and social programs in the United States and Israel designed to provide opportunities for youth from all branches of Judaism to develop their own Jewish identity, leadership skills, and personal development.
At the beginning of the 21st century, bbyo growth required expanded outside funding. Following the pattern of Hillel, bbyo secured independent, philanthropic funding and with it came the requisite shift of control to the funders. B'nai B'rith remains the largest single institutional contributor to the new organization, bbyo, Inc.
B'nai B'rith has also been involved in Jewish camping for more than half a century. In 1953, B'nai B'rith acquired a 300-acre camp in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. Originally named Camp B'nai B'rith, the facility would later be named B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp in honor of the early bbyo leader Anita Perlman and her husband, Louis. In 1976, a second camp was added near Madison, Wisconsin. Named after the founder of aza, the camp became known as B'nai B'rith Beber Camp. Both camps function in dual capacities as Jewish children's camps and as leadership training facilities, primarily for bbyo.
In 1938, in response to rampant employment discrimination against Jews, B'nai B'rith established the Vocational Service Bureau to guide young people into careers. This evolved into the B'nai B'rith Career and Counseling Service, an agency that provided vocational testing and counseling, and published career guides. In the mid-1980s, the program was dissolved or merged into other community agencies.
To cope with a shift of American Jewry to the suburbs and a corresponding sense of assimilated comfort, in 1948 B'nai B'rith established a department of Adult Jewish Education (aje). It would later become the B'nai B'rith Center for Jewish Identity. aje launched a series of Judaic study weekends (called Institutes of Judaism) held in retreat settings and supplemented by informal neighborhood study programs. It also began an aggressive program of Jewish book publishing; a quarterly literary magazine, Jewish Heritage; and a lecture bureau booking noted Jewish scholars and performers for synagogues and other institutions. All but the lecture bureau were largely phased out in the 1990s, and the organization today focuses on program guides for local Jewish education programs and annual sponsorship of "Unto Every Person There is a Name" community recitations of the names of Holocaust victims, usually on Yom ha-sho'ah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
B'nai B'rith publishes B'nai B'rith Magazine, a full-color quarterly – the oldest continuously published Jewish periodical in the United States (since 1886) – and regional newspapers reporting on organizational activities, B'nai B'rith Today. In the late 1990s and the early 21st century, the organization ventured into new technologies with the launch of a website, www.bnaibrith.org; an online 24-hour Jewish music service, www.bnaibrithradio.org; the first Jewish magazine to be broadcast on satellite radio, B'nai B'rith World Service; and the Virtual Jewish Museum, www.jmuseum.org, a resource for educators, students, and others seeking international Jewish art resources.
From its earliest days, a hallmark of the organization's local efforts was service to the communities in which members reside. In 1852, that meant raising money for the first Jewish hospital in Philadelphia. In the 21st century, these community service efforts range from delivering Jewish holiday packages of meals and clothing to the elderly and infirm to distributing food and medicine to the Jewish community of Cuba.
In 1973, the organization turned what had formerly been an exhibit hall at its Washington, d.c., headquarters into the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum. The museum includes an extensive collection of Jewish ceremonial objects and art and features the 1790 correspondence between President George Washington and Moses Seixas, sexton of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. In 2002, the collection moved with the organization to new headquarters in Washington.
With the aging of the American Jewish population, service to seniors became a major focus with the first of what was to become a network of 40 senior residences in more than 25 communities across the United States and more internationally – making B'nai B'rith the largest national Jewish sponsor of housing for seniors. The U.S. facilities – built in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (hud) – provide quality housing to more than 6,000 men and women of limited income, age 62 and over, of all races and religions. Residents pay a federally mandated rent based upon income.
In 2001 B'nai B'rith opened its first venture in what is anticipated to be a broader range of housing options for seniors. Covenant at South Hills (near Pittsburgh) is a life-care community offering a range of services at market rate enabling residents to live independently for as long as possible and receive additional health care and supportive services on site should the need arise.
The beginning of the 21st century also saw the senior service program expand and become a Center for Senior Services, providing advocacy, publications, and other services to address financial, legal, health, religious, social, and family concerns for those over 50.
B'nai B'rith involvement in international affairs dates to the 1870s when antisemitism, accompanied by a rash of pogroms, reached new heights in Romania. Through the influence of B'nai B'rith, the American government was induced to establish a U.S. consulate, and a former B'nai B'rith president, Benjamin Peixotto, was appointed the first consul. B'nai B'rith funded much of the mission. Although he could not totally solve it, Peixotto's work was credited with mitigating the problem.
By the 1920s, B'nai B'rith membership in Europe had grown to 17,500 – nearly half of the U.S. membership – and by the next decade, the formation of a lodge in Shanghai represented the organization's entry into the Far East. This international expansion was to come to a close with the rise of Nazism. At the beginning of the Nazi era, there were six B'nai B'rith districts in Europe. Eventually, the Nazis seized nearly all B'nai B'rith property in Europe.
B'nai B'rith Europe was re-founded in 1948; members and representatives from lodges that had survived the Holocaust attended the inaugural meeting. In 2000, the new European B'nai B'rith district merged with the United Kingdom district to become a consolidated B'nai B'rith Europe with active involvement in all institutions of the European Union. In 2005 B'nai B'rith Europe comprised lodges in more than 20 countries, including formerly Communist Eastern Europe.
In response to what later become known as the Holocaust, in 1943 B'nai B'rith President Henry Monsky convened a conference in Pittsburgh of all major Jewish organizations to "find a common platform for the presentation of our case before the civilized nations of the world." During the four years which followed, the conference established the machinery that saved untold numbers of lives, assisted in the postwar reconstruction of European Jewish life, and helped spur public opinion to support the 1947 partition decision granting Jews a share of what was then Palestine.
Just prior to the creation of the State of Israel, President Truman – angry at pressure being placed upon him from Jewish organizations – closed the White House doors to Jewish leaders. B'nai B'rith President Frank Goldman convinced fellow B'nai B'rith member Eddie Jacobson, long-time friend and business partner of the president, to appeal to him for a favor. Jacobson convinced Truman to meet secretly with Chaim *Weizmann in a meeting said to have resulted in turning White House support back in favor of partition, and ultimately to recognition of the statehood of Israel.
B'nai B'rith was present at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco and has taken an active role in the world body ever since. In 1947, the organization was granted non-governmental organizational status and, for many years, was the only Jewish organization with full-time representation at the un. It is credited with a leading role in the un reversal of its 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.
B'nai B'rith's ngo role is not limited to the un and its agencies. With members in more than 20 Latin American countries, the organization was the first Jewish group to be accorded ngo status at the Organization of American States (oas) and has been at the forefront advocating on behalf of the cause of democracy and human rights throughout the region. B'nai B'rith's role in Latin America dates back to the turn of the 20th century and grew considerably with the influx of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.
In 1999, when one of the last living Nazi commandants, Dinko Sakic, was arrested in Argentina, B'nai B'rith was a leader in efforts to extradite him to Croatia to stand trial for commanding the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia.
In addition to its advocacy efforts, B'nai B'rith maintains an extensive program of community service throughout Latin America. In 2002, this took the form of responding to the economic disaster that struck much of Latin America by distributing – in cooperation with the Brother's Brother Foundation – over $31 million of critically needed medicine, books, and supplies to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela.
In addition to founding Jerusalem Lodge in 1888, life in Israel has been a prime focus for the organization. Among B'nai B'rith's most noted contributions were the city's first free public library, Midrash Abarbanel, which became the nucleus of the Jewish National and University Library; the first Hebrew kindergarten in Jerusalem; and the purchase of land for a home for new immigrants, the village of Moza near Jerusalem. When, in 1935, B'nai B'rith donated $100,000 to the Jewish National Fund to buy 1,000 acres, the act signaled to the world that America's oldest and largest Jewish organization was concretely supporting a continuing Jewish presence in what was then Palestine. In 1956, B'nai B'rith became the first major American Jewish organization to hold a convention in Israel.
B'nai B'rith is one of the few major Jewish organizations headquartered in Washington, d.c., not New York. That became a fateful horror on March 9, 1977, when, in what was, at the time one of the worst terror attacks in America, seven members of the Hanafi Muslim sect took over the B'nai B'rith Headquarters, the Islamic Center, and Washington, d.c.'s city hall. For 39 hours, 123 hostages were held on the top floor of the B'nai B'rith building. The building was ransacked, its ground floor museum stripped, personnel shot and beaten – some severely, some who never recovered from the psychological shock.
The Hanafi terrorists had targeted the three Washington buildings in revenge for the slaying of their leader's family members by Philadelphia Black Muslims. B'nai B'rith was targeted because the judge in Philadelphia was Jewish. The takeover was ended after the intervention of the ambassadors from three Muslim countries – Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran – convinced the terrorists to surrender to police.
The symbolism of B'nai B'rith as synonymous with anything Jewish was an ironic tribute to the organization's reputation – a synonym found in jokes of comedians, on tv game shows, and in the world of politics. In 1981 on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Senator Ernest Hollings derisively referred to then-Senator Howard Metzenbaum (who is Jewish) as "the senator from B'nai B'rith." For many years, when the biennial B'nai B'rith Convention was held during presidential election years, it became a presidential forum as Republican and Democratic candidates vied for Jewish support.
Although B'nai B'rith remained the most widely recognized name in the Jewish community, from the late 1970s B'nai B'rith saw its membership in lodges and units declining as young people in suburbia felt less of a need to meet with other Jews in a non-religious setting.
B'nai B'rith responded on two fronts. Drawing upon its widely recognized name and respect within the community, the organization turned to direct mail fundraising. At much the same time, confronting the reality that Jewish fraternal groups in the U.S. were unlikely to grow, yet unable to ignore the role lodges and units still played in many communities, the leadership transformed the program to meet contemporary needs. The most far-reaching changes came in 1996, under the leadership of President Tommy Baer, when traditional U.S. districts were eliminated in favor of smaller, locally oriented regions focusing on community-based programs.
Because the sociological changes taking place in the U.S. were not evident in Europe, Israel, and Latin America, the existing structure of fraternal lodges was left intact and, particularly in Latin America, the most influential members of the Jewish community are members of B'nai B'rith.
The restructuring was completed in 2004 with a new approach to governance adopted under the direction of President Joel S. Kaplan and past president Seymour D. Reich. Under this plan, a number of leadership structures were drastically revised to enable the organization to operate more efficiently. The outmoded international convention, which focused on organizational business, was eliminated in favor of new, program-oriented meetings featuring briefings, cultural events, etc. and designed to appeal to a broader spectrum of the membership.
[Harvey Berk (2nd ed.)]
B'nai B'rith Women
B'nai B'rith Women began with an auxiliary woman's chapter in 1897; the first permanent chapter was founded in San Francisco in 1909. As more women's auxiliaries to B'nai B'rith formed, the women pressed for official recognition but were refused. Only two non-voting female representatives were allowed at Grand Lodge meetings. During World War i, the auxiliaries' activities expanded into cultural activities, philanthropy, and community service. B'nai B'rith women served in hospitals, settlement houses, offices, and factories, and drove ambulances. The women also started their own fund for the relief of Jews in Europe. By the beginning of wwii, bbw's membership had jumped to over 40,000 members, and it produced its first monthly publication, B'nai B'rith Women. In 1940, a Women's Supreme Council was formed to coordinate districts and chapters from national headquarters and Judge Lenore Underwood Mills of San Francisco was elected the first national president. The Council helped organize early girls' chapters of B'nai B'rith into B'nai B'rith Girls (bbg), appointing Anita Perlman as chair. During wwii, bbw chapters were again involved in volunteer and philanthropic work, as well as assisting military servicewomen, and providing aid to refugees and orphans. After the war, bbw's efforts turned to projects in the developing State of Israel, educational programs dedicated to combating prejudice, and supporting Hillel foundations on university campuses.
In 1953, women delegates were allowed to vote for the first time at the B'nai B'rith Supreme Lodge convention, and in 1957 the women, who numbered 132,000 in North America, and had 41 chapters abroad, formally changed their name to B'nai B'rith Women. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s influenced bbw to advocate for women's healthcare, abortion rights, and the image of women in the media. bbw endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971 and participated as an ngo in the first un World Conference for Women in 1975.
In the late 1980s, bbw engaged in a power struggle with B'nai B'rith International (bbi) over its status as an autonomous organization. In 1988, bbi finally admitted women as full members, but bbw passed a resolution to remain distinct. bbw declared full independence in 1995 and changed its name to Jewish Women International while retaining a relationship with B'nai B'rith and its "family members": bbyo, Hillel, and the Anti-Defamation League. In the early 21st century jwi, with a membership of approximately 75,000, defines its mission as championing self-sufficiency for women and girls through education, advocacy, and action with a special focus on preventing violence, children's well-being, and reduction of prejudice. jwi publishes Jewish Woman magazine in print and online.
[Mel Berwin (2nd ed.)]
B'nai B'rith Canada
B'nai B'rith Canada prides itself on being the largest Jewish voluntary organization and the largest individual Jewish membership organization in Canada. As such it bills itself as the "independent voice of the Jewish community, representing its interests nationwide to government, ngo's, and the wider Canadian public."
The history of B'nai B'rith Canada reflects both the changing patterns of growth, development, and sophistication of the Canadian Jewish population, on the one hand, and the global issues facing Jews throughout the world, on the other. The first B'nai B'rith Lodge in Canada was chartered in Toronto in 1875. Originally an offshoot of American B'nai B'rith founded in New York in 1843, the Toronto Lodge folded in 1894. As the largely immigrant Jewish population in Canada exploded from about 16,000 in 1901 to more than 156,000 in 1930, B'nai B'rith in Canada was revitalized as it helped immigrant Jews in Canada retain communal relationships outside of the synagogue while easing their integration into Canadian society. First rechartered as a branch of a U.S. district in 1919, in 1964 it became an autonomous Canadian district, District 22.
Now the largest secular Jewish membership organization in Canada, B'nai B'rith at first focused its efforts on expanding its network of lodges beyond Montreal and Toronto to smaller centers across Canada. In 2005 there were 45 established lodges in seven provinces. (B'nai B'rith in British Columbia still remains aligned to the West Coast U.S. district.) B'nai B'rith Canada continues to provide its members a robust social environment together with programs of mutual aid, social service, and philanthropy. In 1923 B'nai B'rith organized the first Canadian branch of Hillel, the Jewish university student organization, and shortly after, opened its first summer camp for Jewish children. These initiatives were followed over the years with a wide variety of community service initiatives, including the establishment of seniors' residences, the distribution of holiday baskets, organized visitations to the ill, and general fundraising for Jewish and community causes.
While B'nai B'rith Canada never lost a voluntary community focus that combines direct member services, community social service, support for youth, fundraising, and sports, after gaining its independent district status under B'nai B'rith International, B'nai B'rith Canada began to assert itself as a representative organization of the Jewish community. Whether, as in the past, partnering with the Canadian Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations on various community relations and Israel-related initiatives, or, as more recently, striking out on its own, B'nai B'rith has been an active presence in defense of Jewish and human rights. Beginning with its human rights arm, the League for Human Rights (originally affiliated with the American B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League), and more recently through a second body, the Institute for International Affairs, B'nai B'rith Canada maintains a wide-ranging program of Jewish advocacy, including public education campaigns, political lobbying, liaising with government, and monitoring of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel propaganda and organizations in Canada and internationally.
Through its League for Human Rights, B'nai B'rith Canada continues to focus on exposing and combating antisemitic activity in Canada. In the past this has included intervention in the courts and at human rights tribunals on a variety of matters relating to antisemitic hate groups and individuals. The League was significantly involved in supporting the hate propaganda prosecutions of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and Alberta teacher James Keegstra in the 1980s. Following the lead of its American sister organization, in 1983, the League also initiated an annual "audit" of antisemitic incidents taking place across the country. Recently, in order to both assist victims as well as improve the tracking of such behavior, the organization established a 24/7 "anti-hate hotline." The 2003 Audit reported 584 incidents, a 27.2% increase over the previous year.
A further aspect of the League for Human Rights' work has been to promote the study of the Holocaust in Canada. This work has been hallmarked since 1986 by the organization's Holocaust and Hope Educator's Program through which a select group of teachers from across Canada take part in a multifaceted program of lectures, visits to the sites of the Holocaust, and personal contact with survivors.
The Institute for International Affairs monitors and responds to issues relating to Jewish communities around the world. An important aspect of this work is to inform and educate the broader Canadian community on issues relating to Israel. Through fact-finding missions, public education, attendance at international conferences, and outreach to other groups, the Institute both advocates in support of Israel and works to inform Canadians on Israel-related matters. Included in this task is a program of political action, informing political leaders at all levels of government and the media of the significance of these issues from the perspective of the Canadian Jewish community.
[Alan Shefman (2nd ed.)]
E.E. Grusd, B'nai B'rith: The Story of a Covenant (1996); M. Bisgyer, Challenge and Encounter (1967); O. Soltes, B'nai B'rith: A Covenant of Commitment Over 150 Years (1993); A. Weill, B'nai B'rith and Israel: The Unbroken Covenant (1998); M. Baer, Dealing in Futures: The Story of a Jewish Youth Movement (1983). b'nai b'rith women: L.G. Kuzmack, "B'nai B'rith Women," in: P.E. Hyman and D. Dash Moore (eds.), Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (1997), 162–67; "Jewish Women International," at: www.jwi.org; "B'nai B'rith Youth Organization: The History of bbg," at: www.bbyo.org/bbg/history.html.
the world's oldest and largest international jewish service organization.
B'nai B'rith (Hebrew, "sons of the covenant") was founded by twelve Jewish immigrants of German descent in New York on 13 October 1843 to respond to the needs of Jewish communities worldwide. The organization has since created three major institutions that have played a key role in contemporary Jewish life worldwide: the Anti-Defamation League (1913); Hillel (1923), the largest Jewish campus organization worldwide; and the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (1924), concerned with the problems posed by the assimilation of Jewish youth in the diaspora and still operating an extensive network of summer camps.
B'nai B'rith lodges were established in the Middle East, starting with the Maimonides Lodge in Cairo (1887) and the Eliahu Hanabi Lodge in Alexandria (1891), followed by lodges in Istanbul, Edirne, and Beirut (1911). The organization's central concern was and is the promotion and implementation of programs that allow for the appreciation and maintenance of "Jewish unity, Jewish security, and Jewish continuity" worldwide.
The organization has five centers that develop and implement its programs: the Center for Community Action; the Center for Jewish Identity, devoted to "the transmission of Jewish values, ethics, and knowledge"; the Center for Human Rights and Public Policy (CHRPP), serving as the organization's research and advocacy arm; the Center for Senior Services, making B'nai B'rith the world's largest operator of affordable housing for seniors; and the World Center, established in 1980 to serve as the organization's official center in Jerusalem.
Within the United States, the organization acts as a powerful lobbying group, seeking the continuation of support for Israel. B'nai B'rith's CHRPP lists among its concerns "the security and welfare of Israel, rising Islamic militancy, resurgent antisemitism, Jewish renewal in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, [and] the security and welfare of Jewish communities worldwide." The organization has criticized human rights organizations that oppose the policies of the state of Israel, condemned the position of the European Union toward Israel, and consistently denounced what the organization calls "prejudiced reporting" about Israel by the foreign media.
B'nai B'rith is the only Jewish nongovernmental organization to be accepted as part of the Organization of American States, and it maintains a visible presence in South American countries. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it supported the attempts on the part of the United States to establish stronger ties with the republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbeki-stan.
B'nai Brith International. Available from <http://www.bnaibrith.org/>.
Ivers, Gregg. To Build a Wall: American Jews and the Separation of Church and State. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.