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

Cor­nelia Wilhelm
  • Review
By – January 26, 2012

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.
Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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