Bnai Brith honors 10 longtime members

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B'nai B'rith has changed a lot since Seigmond Weinstock became a member in 1944, but his reasons for joining the organization then seem just as meaningful to him today.

"As a Jew, I thought I should belong to a Jewish organization," said the 84-year-old retired shopkeeper, who moved to San Francisco after fleeing Vienna in 1938. "It was a duty."

Weinstock was one of 10 San Francisco men honored with certificates recently for belonging to B'nai B'rith for 50 years or more.

He remembers visiting U.S. troops during World War II as a busboy on a USO tour sponsored by B'nai B'rith. He and other members of the organization would visit with Jewish G.I.'s on Christian holidays and give the soldiers a good meal.

Samuel Hurwitz, 87, a retired physician, joined B'nai B'rith in 1938 because he admired what the organization's Anti-Defamation League was doing for Jews.

"They were looking into all the [anti-Semitic] incidents that occurred, and looking into the interests of the Jewish community," he said.

Joel Reich, 90, belonged to B'nai B'rith in Austria before coming to the United States and rejoining B'nai B'rith here. It was very important, he said, to belong to a Jewish organization.

So many Jews aren't active in the Jewish community, he observed. "I'm a Jewish Jew," Reich said. "Not all of them are."

The other men honored for their longtime membership were Ernest Abel, Robert Feldhammer, Edgar Freuder, Joseph Friend, Alfred Fromm, Bernard Harris and Edward Zeisler.

B'nai B'rith, whose name literally means Sons of the Covenant, began in 1843 in New York City as a fraternal order with private rituals, welfare benefits and philanthropies for the aged, widows and orphans, and victims of persecution and natural disasters.

In the last five decades, a lot has changed within the organization.

During that time, B'nai B'rith went from a neutral position on Zionism to a full endorsement of independent Jewish statehood.

The Anti-Defamation League, meanwhile, has grown from a mere subsidiary of B'nai B'rith into its largest agency.

In a more recent change, the organization decided to allow men and women to join the same chapters. Despite that move six years ago, however, many women's chapters remain in existence.

Over the last 50 years, B'nai B'rith has become more likely to take positions on political issues rather than just studying them, said Sidney Closter, executive director of the B'nai B'rith Foundation of the United States.

These days, for example, the organization is likely to condemn statements by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan instead of merely reporting what he says, Closter said.

"B'nai B'rith has a tremendous involvement in public affairs," he added. "It doesn't just sit back and say we're interested."

Despite having been members for 50 years, many of the San Francisco men honored this month have remained largely outside B'nai B'rith's activities.

Reich and Hurwitz said they have barely done more with the group than pay their membership dues.

Weinstock said that after some involvement early on, he had to concentrate on running his china and glass store on Mission Street.

Harris, an 80-year-old retired optometrist, said he knows B'nai B'rith does good work; he just doesn't keep up with the group's specific activities.

A good dues paying member since 1942, Harris' first joined, he said, because it was "the proper thing to do."