Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Unbounded: The Extraordinary Story of B’nai B’rith


The image posted is of an 1896 B’nai B’rith Membership Certificate, graciously provided by the archivist of the organization.

The story of B’nai B’rith International is the American Jewish saga. Many of the core institutions that helped to build and sustain Jewish life were established and nurtured by this historic organization. This year, B’nai B’rith celebrates its 180th anniversary, making it the oldest national Jewish organization in the United States.

In this Moment:

Even as this historic institution celebrates its past, B’nai B’rith continues its essential work in the present. Following the events of October 7th, one can find B’nai B’rith actively involved with its support for Israel being manifested on a number of fronts over these past several months, through its educational work, its fund-raising efforts, and its UN advocacy role.[1]


Ronald Reagan, speaking before its International Convention on September 6, 1984, concluded:[2]

For more than 140 years, B’nai B’rith has sponsored religious, cultural, and civic programs, conducted studies of vital issues, combated bigotry, and worked tirelessly to advance the cause of tolerance and humanity. And because of your efforts, today our country has a bigger heart, a deeper sense of the generosity of spirit that must always define America. And on behalf of all Americans, I thank you.

 B’nai B’rith was founded in 1843 by 12 German Jewish immigrants residing on New York’s Lower East Side.[3]  Originally known as Bundes-Brüder (“Brothers of the Covenant”) to reflect their goal of establishing a Jewish fraternal order, the birth of this organization coincides with the creation in this nation of such social structures:

“Americans created almost 500 national beneficiary orders and thousands of local lodges. … African Americans, immigrants, and the working class thus created their own complex of social and fraternal orders.”[4]

 Historic Impact:

By its very presence B’nai B’rith would help to construct American Jewish civil society. Its creation, some fifty years prior to the formation of the federation movement, would ensure the formation of an array of core social and human services, the creation of America’s first Jewish advocacy organization, and the development of America’s premier Jewish college program.

Few American Jews are aware that Hillel formed in 1923, BBYO created in 1944,[5] ADL established in 1913,[6] and B’nai B’rith Women[7] (now Jewish Women International) formed in 1909 were all originally a part of this extraordinary international service organization.  Its pioneering work in Jewish camping began in 1953 with the purchase of Camp B’nai B’rith (renamed B’nai B’rith Perlman) in Pennsylvania and later Camp Beber in Wisconsin. More recently, both of these properties have been sold.

Beyond these legacy contributions, this historic organization continues today to be responsible for B’nai B’rith senior adult housing for older adults of limited means, which represents “the largest national Jewish sponsor of subsidized housing in the United States, representing 37 buildings in 28 communities, that house around 5,000 residents.“[8] The first senior housing facility would be opened in 1971 in Wilkes Barre.

One way to measure an organization’s impact is to understand the story of its leadership, as many of B’nai B’rith’s leaders have gone on to hold other core roles within the American and global Jewish scene.  It is important to understand the reach of B’nai B’rith International. Today, B’nai B’rith is operating in more than two dozen countries beyond North America and Israel, serving Jewish communities in Latin America, Europe and Australia/New Zealand, with some 60,000 members, donors and supporters.

The time-line of B’nai B’rith defines the American Jewish historical journey.[9] B’nai B’rith remains to this day a leader in advancing Jewish interests on the international diplomatic front, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief across the globe;[10] fighting anti-Semitism, BDS, and Holocaust Denial; advocating for Israel; and supporting seniors.[11]  In the field of medicine and health care, in 1899 B’nai B’rith would open the National Jewish Hospital for Treatment of Consumptives (Tuberculosis)[12] and be involved in the founding of the Leo N. Levi Hospital in Hot Springs Arkansas (Leo P. Levi was a past national President of B’nai B’rith).[13]

In connection with its worldwide humanitarian aid programs, since 1995 B’nai B’rith has raised over $3.5 million.[14] Beginning in the 19th Century, B’nai B’rith has been responsive to such tragedies as the Chicago Fire (1871),  the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995), the 9/11 attacks (2001), Southeast Asian tsunami (2004), Gulf Coast hurricane (2005), and Japan earthquake and tsunami (2011).

But the focus on relief and assistance was also directed towards the welfare of European Jewry during and following the First World War and again in the 1930’s on behalf of German Jewry. Such initiatives as providing support for the welfare of 600 Jewish children in 1920 who were displaced during WWI and again in 1938, sending assistance to the London Jewish community for the resettlement of children fleeing Germany. During the late 1930’s B’nai B’rith officials assisted German Jews in acquiring affidavits to enter England and the United States.

Diplomatic Initiatives:

From the outset, B’nai B’rith would be active on the political and diplomatic front defending the interests of the Jewish community, advocating on behalf of Israel and pursuing international human rights.  As early as 1862, B’nai B’rith lodge members from Missouri would successfully petition President Lincoln to rescind General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Order No. 11, banning Jews from the Tennessee River Valley. In the 1870’s B’nai B’rith would advocate with President Grant for American intervention on welfare of Romanian Jews, and again in 1912, its leaders would press President Taft to rescind a US Treaty with Russia over the problematic treatment of American Jews while traveling in that country.

B’nai B’rith has had a long and continuous connection with the founding of and support for the State of Israel. In 1948, B’nai B’rith President Frank Goldman convinced Eddie Jacobson, Harry Truman’s close friend and former business associate, to press the president to meet with Chaim Weizmann. That historic meeting took place on March 18th and led to the official American recognition of the new State of Israel on May 14, 1948.

In 1958, as a result of the active involvement of B’nai B’rith, the Congress passed legislation prohibiting American businesses from participating in the Arab League boycott of Israel.

On the diplomatic front, B’nai B’rith has been and remains a vital force on behalf of Jewish interests before international bodies, including its historic work at the United Nations. In 1947, Bnai Brith was granted non-governmental organizational (NGO) status and, for many years, was the only Jewish organization with full-time representation at the United Nations. It’s NGO role has not been limited to the United Nations and its agencies. B’nai B’rith also has worked extensively with officials in the State Department, in Congress, and in foreign governments to support the efforts of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to combat antisemitism. With members in some 15 Latin American countries, the organization was the first Jewish group to be accorded civil society status at the Organization of American States (OAS), where it has advocated for democracy and human rights throughout the region.

Two examples of its extensive diplomatic work are referenced here. After the UN General Assembly adopted the infamous resolution (3379) equating Zionism with racism in 1975, B’nai B’rith undertook a 16-year campaign to nullify this action (December 17, 1991).

 Following B’nai B’rith’s 40-year advocacy resulted in the U.S. ratification of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1988.  At that time, President Ronald Reagan invited B’nai B’rith President Seymour Reich and William Korey, Director for Policy Research, among other leaders to the signing of the Convention which took place in Chicago.

In Context:

In 1994, President Bill Clinton addressed the International Convention:[15]

…I understand that, along with delegates from 40 of our 50 States, there are among you representatives from 36 nations. I want each of you to know this country’s gratitude for the extraordinary work B’nai B’rith has performed since its founding in 1843. Your tireless dedication to community service, health, education, and housing for the elderly, and your staunch opposition to bigotry of any kind long ago earned our respect and our thanks.

Indeed, over the course of its illustrious record of service, more United States Presidents have spoken to or sent messages of support to B’nai B’rith than any other American Jewish institution. In addition to those already mentioned,  a number of other presidential figures addressed this organization, among them, President Cleveland (1893), President William Howard Taft (1910), Harry Truman (1946), John Kennedy (1963), Jimmy Carter (1976), Lyndon Johnson (1968), Richard Nixon (1969), and George W. Bush (2002).

It should be noted that extraordinary collection of historic records, dating back to the mid-19th century that define the B’nai B’rith story are today being held by the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives on the Cincinnati campus of HUC. In addition, in 2015, the National Jewish Museum of B’nai B’rith paintings, sculptures, and liturgical objects were transferred to the Skirball Museum on the HUC campus in Cincinnati.

For the Record:

B’nai B’rith represents an American Jewish institutional gem. Its significant and extensive contributions to the Jewish civic infrastructure helped to frame the marketplace for social and human services, diplomatic advocacy, political engagement and philanthropic action. Few organizations have demonstrated the scope of activities that reflect the B’nai B’rith story. At every turn of the American Jewish experience and in connection with the history of the Jewish people over these past two centuries, B’nai B’rith would not only be present but could be identified as a critical actor. No other American Jewish organization has had such a profound imprint on the institutional development of this community.  The quality and depth of its leadership bench ought not to be minimized, as this institution has produced over its eighteen decades an extraordinary cadre of local and national leaders.

This legacy organization continues to generate new ways by which its contributions impact and sustain the American and global Jewish network.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at HUC’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.  His writings can be found on his website,

[1]  education; fund-raising;  and; UN advocacy.


[3] Hasia R. Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), page 105









[12] Today, National Jewish Health (

[13] Today, the Levi Hospital is independently operated,



About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
Related Topics
Related Posts