Bad news for a recovering, refocused B'nai B'rith
04/01/2011 - 14:11
James Besser

You have to feel a little sorry for B'nai B'rith International. Just as the group seemed to be carving out a new place for itself in the Jewish communal world, its president, indicted on federal tax fraud charges, has resigned and a shadow has been cast over the venerable group.

The charges against Dennis Glick, a Pennsylvania CPA, have nothing to do with BBI, but a nonprofit doesn't have its president indicted on serious charges without it hurting the communal cause.  Which is too bad, since BBI seemed to be turning itself around.

For years, it was a routine task for journalists to write stories about the agonizingly slow decline of the once-mighty Jewish fraternal group.

The joke was that the average age of B'nai B'rith members was dead; young Jews thought its lodge system was for old fogeys, but when leaders tried to change the group they found that older members liked things the way they were, thank you very much. BBI, with steadily declining membership, seemed caught in a paralyzing limbo between the old and the new.

But in recent years, it seems to me, the group has found its niche in the tangle of Jewish communal life.

BBI has really zeroed in on the issues that matter to its membership, starting with health care and senior housing, and in doing so it has once again made itself relevant – especially at a time when many other Jewish groups are deemphasizing domestic concerns as they chase pro-Israel money and members.

Yes, it's an aging membership, but guess what: the Jewish population is an aging one and just might find BBI's focus on issues facing the elderly a welcome one. There's nothing that says every single Jewish organization needs to be chasing twenty-and-thirty somethings.

Then there's the leadership issue.

In most other Jewish groups, lay leadership is all about money. You make giant donations, you get a top leadership position. Give enough and you can even be president.

One result: the leaders of the major Jewish groups are pretty much carbon copies of each other. Mostly male, all rich and successful, corporate types to a fault. Top leaders almost all come from very narrow circles of big givers, which is one reason why it's getting harder and harder to tell these groups apart.

B'nai B'rith leaders are different. Mostly they are activists who work their way up through local, regional and then national BBI groups. They are a far more diverse lot; in recent years wealthy lawyers, insurance agents and CPAs have served as president. Maybe they are just a little closer to the concerns of ordinary Jews living in regular communities than the corporate types who run most other Jewish organizations.

It's a messier process and less predictable, but there's also something admirable about the fact ordinary Jews from ordinary communities can get to play on the big Jewish stage as BBI lay leaders. And maybe that's one reason BBI has been able to focus on non-glamorous but still critical issues like senior housing and health care.

Democracy isn't always pretty, but it has some pretty important advantages.

Glick's indictment can't help but hurt the group. But I'm guessing the refocus on the close-to-home issues too often neglected by other Jewish groups and the strong professional team put together by BBI executive vice president Dan Mariaschin will carry the group over the current crisis.

And guess what: the Baby Boom Jews who once turned up their noses at B'nai B'rith may just take a second look as they realize almost nobody else in the Jewish world is looking out for their particular interests.

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Though you made some valid points about BBI's importance to an aging Jewish Community, you either missed, or chose to miss, a significant shortfall: While it is true that lay leadership is open to all, the "professional group" put together by EVP Dan Mariaschin is for the most part an overpaid "Old-Boy's Club," starting with Mariaschin himself, who pulls in over $400,000-a-year, while firing and laying off essential personnel with salaries that barely reflect market value, and seeking donations from sincere people, soem of whom live on Social Security!

And, if BBI cares so much about seniors: How come it eliminated its pension plan? This piece was just a misguided love letter.