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Freemasonry and B’nai B’rith
Anti-masons, antisemites, anti-zionists, and a range of conspiracy theorists and self-described "masonic critics", tend to describe B'nai B'rith as a secret masonic lodge. Although, in fact, there is no administrative or philosophical link between Freemasonry and B'nai B'rith, there is an historical connection.
America's oldest native-born service organization, B'nai B'rith was established on 13 October 1843:
"There were twelve founders all in their twenties or early thirties. All had been born in Germany, and had come to New York in the late 1820's or 1830's. All lived on the lower East Side, where most of them, at the time, were petty shopkeepers. The majority had not known one another in Germany, and only a few were acquainted before 1843. "Those few included Henry Jones, Isaac Rosenbourg, William Renau, and Reuben Rodacher. They met, apparently, because they were members of the Free Masons or Odd Follows, as well as several secret benevolent societies." [pp. 12-13.]
"There is a legend, which is occasionally mentioned to this day, that B'nai B'rith was founded because in 1843 Jews were barred from membership in the Masonic orders and the Odd Fellows. Obviously, that was not the case, since several of the Order's founders were themselves members of these organizations. We have fragments of memoirs written by Jones, Rosenbourg, and Renau, as well as by others who joined B'nai B'rith soon after it was founded, which leave no doubt about this.
"Incidently, these memoirs were written years later, after the Order had achieved considerable success and prestige. They all agree on the point about the Masons and Odd Fellows, but disagree as to who should be considered the one who actually proposed a new kind of Jewish organization. Each nominated himself." [p. 24.]
"Henry Jones was later officially designated the chief founder of B'nai B'rith. Born in Hamburg as Heinrich Jonas on December 22, 1811, he reached New York in 1829. He died 16 February 1866.
Henry Jones and William Renau submitted a draft constitution and ritual for initiation on 21 October 1843. The original name was Independent Order of B'nai B'rith. The president was called the Grand Nasi Abh; the vice president, Grand Aleph; the secretary, Grand Sopher, etc. "The ritual was similarly florid. It consisted of six degrees...." [p. 21.]
"Messrs. Jones and Renau had been industrious, because they also came up with a whole arsenal of regalias and outward signs for each of the degrees and for each of the CGL [Constitutional Grand Lodge] and local lodge officers, as well as signs, grips, and passwords for the general membership." [p. 21.] "The Masonic Home, at the corner of Oliver and Henry Streets, was rented for two dollars a night, and on November 12, at 8 p.m., the first meeting of the first B'nai B'rith lodge was called to order by Henry Jones as temporary chairman. It was named New York Lodge No. 1, and it is still flourishing." [p. 22.]
At the CGL national conference in 1857 some delegates felt that the elaborate ritualism had served its purpose and regalia was restricted to officers, most ceremonial was discarded and the initiation was reduced to a simple pledge of honour, with the degrees reduced from six to three. [p. 46.] This was strongly resisted by some lodges and in 1866 a "motion was passed requiring holders of the ritual degrees to wear different-colored aprons, with even more distinctive ones for past presidents. Every apron had to have 'I.O.B.B.' printed on it." [p. 64.]
The 1868 New York convention changed the national and local lodge officers' titles from the Hebrew or Greek to English and in 1879 the three degrees were consolidated into "one simple and dignified expression". With this simplification, concerns were growing in the 1860s and 1870s that the society had become little more than an insurance outfit. This did not prevent the secret nature of the order from being attacked at the 1885 convention and subsequently public initiation of officers was allowed.
The first overseas lodge was established in Berlin on 21 March 1882 and on 10 June 1888 Jerusalem Lodge was founded
While other fraternal orders continued to thrive, between 1893 and 1895 North American B'nai B'rith lost 5,000 members, from a high of 24,500 down to 19,658. The order entered the twentieth century severely reduced in numbers. The membership had dropped to little more than 16,000 by 1900. The introduction of women's units in 1905 saw membership begin to rise.
While another motion to abolish secrecy had been defeated in 1910, secrecy was finally abolished in 1920.
By 1912 membership had reached 25,000, partially due to relaxed membership requirements introduced in 1910, although the use of the blackball was not completely abolished until 1948. The name shortened to B'nai B'rith in 1930, by 1950 membership had reached 190,000.

B'nai B'rith; the story of a covenant, Edward E. Grusd. New York : Appleton-Century, 1966. xix, 315 p. 21 cm.


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