Before there was Vista Del Mar Child Care, the Jewish Home for the Aging, or the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — there was B’nai B’rith International. And what the aforementioned institutions have in common with the world’s largest Jewish organization is that they wouldn’t have existed without it.
Now, with the millennium upon us, B’nai B’rith’s Los Angeles Lodge — renamed Al Jolson/Los Angeles Lodge in 1987 — will celebrate its centennial at the Radisson Hotel in Culver City on Nov. 14.
Los Angeles was a different world on Nov. 28, 1899 when optometrist Siegfried Marshutz established B’nai B’rith’s Los Angeles Lodge, the organization’s first West Coast chapter. That year, the Pacific Stock Exchange had just been established; a hillside real estate development boasted a “Hollywoodland” sign; and the Olive Street Synagogue opened to serve the city’s entire Jewish population of 2,500 (out of 102,000 Angelenos), mainly concentrated around downtown.
Forty-one charter members initiated the original Los Angeles Lodge ‘847. The Lodge was a branch of B’nai B’rith’s national organization, which was founded in New York’s Lower East Side on Oct. 13, 1843. Among its numerous contributions to social outreach, the national organization established the Anti-Defamation League in 1913 and the Hillel program in 1923. An active participant in post-Holocaust Jewish activism, B’nai B’rith International supported the formation and development of Israel, and is currently the only Jewish organization with a permanent seat at the United Nations.
The Los Angeles Lodge has always been one of the B’nai B’rith’s greatest assets. Over the past century, the Lodge has been an active contributor to the welfare of the Jewish community and Los Angeles at large. It created a national template with its orphans facility; it became instrumental in the founding of Vista Del Mar Child Care, the Jewish Home for the Aging, and the Los Angeles Jewish Community Council (a precursor to the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles); and it has raised millions for charities, disaster relief, youth and educational causes.
With B’nai B’rith bureaus spreading throughout the Southland by 1929, the Lodge created the B’nai B’rith Officers Conference of Southern California, to be redubbed the B’nai B’rith Council of Southern California. Today there are over 8,000 members in over 40 chapters throughout Southern California.
Two years ago, Steve Koff became B’nai B’rith’s regional director of Southern California when the national organization re-organized its West Coast division. Koff says that the Lodge’s 100th anniversary celebrates “a century of the Jewish community coming together for community purposes.”
Working in food industry where many minority groups had a vocal presence, Koff became increasingly aware that “they did not have a great deal of knowledge on the Jewish community.” In an effort to enable other groups to better understand the Jewish community, Koff joined B’nai B’rith. He has not been sorry.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Koff.
While his main directive since assuming his post has been reaching out to new members, particularly younger generations, Koff is proud of some recent additions to the organization, such as the local Latin-American group Reunion Union. Part of a Latin American Network of the B’nai B’rith (which includes branches in Las Vegas, Houston and Dallas), the Valley-based chapter, says Koff, will help assert “a Jewish awareness” in communities beyond the Jewish circles.
Siegel Vann, assistant director for B’nai B’rith’s Center of Public Policy and Latin specialist, says that the chapter allows Jews from Spanish-speaking cultures to “speak their language, articulate their identity, and concentrate on issues related to Latin American Jews.” The Reunion Union was formed five years ago in the aftermath of the bombings in Argentina.
When Mark Joseph became a member of the organization’s Encino lodge in 1979, he came to the B’nai B’rith with a specific intent.
“When I joined I had a couple of children and I was looking to meet other Jews with children,” says Joseph. Today, the attorney, 52, is regional president of Southern California B’nai B’rith, a post he’s held for over two years.
Obviously impressed with what B’nai B’rith had to offer, Joseph says that the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization program has instilled his kids with some invaluable attributes — Jewish pride and an affinity with community. The regional president adds that anyone who joins a B’nai B’rith group will come away with “the good feeling they get when they see they’re doing good things with our Bagel Brigade and food banks.”
“We live in the age of ‘what’s in it for me,'” continues Joseph. “B’nai B’rith is about giving something back to the community.”
With the evolving Latin American affiliate and a web site debuting this month, the Los Angeles Lodge and B’nai B’rith is continuing to do what it has always done — react and adapt to the needs of its community and the landscape of its environment.
As Koff puts it simply, “We hope to be around for another 150 years.”
B’nai B’rith Los Angeles can now be found on the Internet at: www.bnaibrithsocal.org. The B’nai B’rith Los Angeles Lodge will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a centennial banquet on Sun., Nov. 14 at the Radisson Hotel in Culver City. Guest speaker will be B’nai B’rith International President Richard D. Heideman.
To RSVP and find out more about the centennial banquet, call (818) 227-6588 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.