Independent Order of Bínai Bírith

Bínai Bírith in Hebrew means sons or brotherhood of the covenant. The organization was formed by German Jews to foster education and to improve the Jewish image in America. Twelve Hebrew men met on October 13, 1843, in the city of New York, to form the Independent Order of Bínai Bírith, as it was known then. Some of the twelve founders were members of Freemasonry and of the Odd Fellows. The early structure of the Bínai Bírith borrowed a number of features from Masonry and Odd Fellows. It adopted a secret ritual (six degrees), its members had secret recognition signs, and it used the blackball method of rejecting undesirable applicants for membership. During the first few years some of the lodges in the order conducted their business in the German language.

The BBI from its very first meeting was a fraternal and benevolent society. Each lodge was obligated to collect dues from all its male-only members so that a fund for widows and orphans could be operated. Dues were paid according to memberís ages during the early years of the organizationís life. Those between twenty-one and thirty paid $10 a year; between thirty and forty, $15; between forty and forty-five, $25. No one over forty-five years of age was accepted as a member because he was seen as a poor insurance risk.

Countless fraternal orders in the United States once served to integrate their immigrant members into the mainstream of American life. The Bínai Bírith was no exception. Two years after its inception, some members participated (in lodge regalia) in the funeral procession of President Andrew Jackson in June 1845. The concern to become American soon made itself felt in other ways. One lodge (Emmanuel Lodge of Baltimore) petitioned the Constitutional Grand Lodge in New York to permit the initiation of "non-Israelites." When Emmanuel Lodgeís request was denied, it voted in 1851 to surrender its charter.

Virtually from its beginning the Bínai Bírith has been concerned with overcoming anti-Semitism. In 1851 the order sent letters of protest to the American Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, and others regarding anti-Semitism practiced in Switzerland, which in a treaty at that time with the United States prevented Jews from living in given Swiss cantons.

The Bínai Bírith has undergone a fair amount of internal change over the years. In the 1860s it changed the titles of its officers from the Hebrew to standard English. By 1863 the orderís preamble to its constitution was amended with reference to the groupís mission. It no longer used the words, "the highest interests of Judaism," but referred only to "the highest interest of humanity." In 1913 it organized the Anti-Defamation League as a program to fight prejudice against Jews. By 1920 it officially recognized the role of women by authorizing ladies auxiliaries. In the 1920s secrecy was dropped as part of the groupís posture. After 1910 it slowly abandoned the blackball method of voting, although the practice was not completely abolished in all lodges until 1948. The order began with the German language, but soon changed to conducting its business in English.

The BBI has supported a wide variety of programs: community volunteer services, health drug-abuse education, helping the disabled, prisoner rehabilitation, disaster relief, world hunger relief, assisting new immigrants and refugees, helping older adults, and other programs. In order to become a member of the BBI today the individual must be male, at least twenty-one years of age, of good moral character, and of the Jewish faith. Women and young people must join their own separate organizations. The youth group is known as Bínai Bírith Youth Organization. In 1978 the Bínai Bírith had about 500,000 members (about the number that the society had in the late 1960s) in seventy-five regional grand lodges. This membership figure includes the Bínai Bírith Women, Anti-Defamation League, Hillel, and the Bínai Bírith Youth Organization. The number of local lodges stood at 3,500.

The Bínai Bírith is truly an international group in that it has lodges in a number of countries. It founded a lodge in 1882 in Germany, and by 1888 it had also established a lodge in Jerusalem. After 1948 it reopened lodges in eastern European areas.

Structurally, the Bínai Bírith is organized on three levels: international, regional, and local. The international operation has since 1935 been known as the "Supreme Lodge." Prior to that time, it was the "Constitutional Grand Lodge." The international headquarters have been in Washington, D.C., since 1938. Regional groups are called "District Grand Lodges," and local entities are referred to as "Lodges." International officers use the titles of president, vice-president, secretary, and the like. However, on the district or regional level the old lodge nomenclature prevails: Grand Nasi Abh, Grand Aleph, and so on.

Initiation ritual B'nai B'rith UK, 1926