The Independent Orders of B’nai B’rith and True Sisters: Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity 1843-1914

Wayne State University Press  2011


B’nai B’rith was the first national Jewish organization in the US. Established at a time when men were joining fraternal organizations in large numbers, in response to immigration, migration, and the lack of natural social cohesion in urban areas, it was one of many such groups that promoted brotherhood and mutual aid. Although she sees it primarily as a secularizing force, Wilhelm points to B’nai Brith as a major force in the development of a secular Jewish identity. In fact, however, the data she presents provide a different picture, of a paradoxical organization that was somewhat devoid but not completely rid of Jewish practice and emphasized universalistic principles but incorporated particularism by developing institutions that attended to the health, social service, and educational needs of the Jewish community.

At the same time, its members and leaders were actively engaged in the development of a host of philanthropic and communal organizations that laid the groundwork for contemporary institutional life including federated charities and civil rights organizations that continue to exist, often autonomously, like Hillel, BBYO, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Jewish Hospital. The book tells this story drawing on extensive archival information and adds to it an ongoing account of its sister organization, the ‘True Sisters,’ a group that was overtaken by the turn of the twentieth century with the formation of the National Council of Jewish Women. Although Wilhelm sets out to challenge Deborah Dash Moore’s earlier account of B’nai Brith as a ‘secular synagogue,’ she provides more evidence that it was one site for the development of a secular identity rather than the prime force behind it.

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