Jews and Freemasons — a not-so-secret brotherhood

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Not long ago, Marvin Greenwald, 75, said a tearful goodbye to his best friend Vic Trommer.

It was a good funeral.

Mourners shared favorite memories. The rabbi led them in Kaddish. And Trommer was laid to rest in the proper Jewish manner.

But this was not Greenwald's last goodbye to his friend. A few weeks later, he attended another memorial for Trommer, held at the San Francisco Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 19th Avenue and Sloat.

There, Greenwald and dozens of others, Jews and non-Jews, gathered to memorialize Trommer, this time in the manner of another ancient tradition.

A sprig of evergreen — representing the eternal soul of the departed, used in all such memorials — was held aloft before the mourners. Then, Trommer's widow accepted the Legion of Merit medal, presented on behalf of the Sovereign Grand Inspector General the Illustrious H. Douglas Lemons, 33rd degree.

Illustrious? Thirty-third degree?

Greenwald and Trommer were more than friends and fellow Jews. They also were fellow Freemasons, members of that little understood secret society, exalted by some, viciously excoriated by others.

As it turns out, Greenwald and Trommer are not unique. Many Jews over the years have joined Freemasonry, an ecumenical organization open to men of all faiths. Scottish Rite is one of several international Masonic orders.

Greenwald, a Millbrae resident, knows many Masons who are Jewish. And Christian. And Muslim. The ranks of Freemasonry have included statesmen from Ben Franklin to Jesse Helms, musicians from composer Jean Sibelius to cowboy Gene Autry. Presidents Fillmore, Jackson, Taylor, Hoover and both Roosevelts were Masons.

Famous Jewish Masons include Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, David Sarnoff, Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Cantor and Harry Houdini.

For some, the word "Mason" brings to mind images of Shriners, grown men sporting tasseled fezzes and driving around Las Vegas in little cars. There's

that famously known handshake by which Masons identify each other (only Masons know how it's done) and the ritual aprons they don during certain ceremonies.

For others, Freemasonry elicits images of mysterious rites, of a vast worldwide satanic conspiracy. Hitler so mistrusted Masons he threw untold thousands of them into the camps and, later, the ovens.

But to Greenwald, Freemasonry presents a "rich history of goodness." He cites the 22 Shriners children's hospitals around the country, including one formerly in San Francisco and now located in Sacramento. All are funded 100 percent by Masons. "There are no billing departments," notes Greenwald.

He cites the $424 million Masonic charities have spent in burn, orthopedic and spinal chord injury research.

Moreover, he says, membership has helped make him "a better man all around. The friendships are wonderful. These are men of integrity who believe in compassion, honesty and love."

Greenwald is so revered by his fellows, he was recently named Valley of Santa Rosa Mason of the Year, Scottish Rite, an honor he takes seriously. "I was recognized," he says, "for the work I do for our children's language clinics that treat dyslexia and other reading disorders."

Greenwald, who is Scottish Rite membership chairman for California, sees the Jewish commandment of tikkun olam and the Masonic obligation of charity as forming a more perfect union of righteousness. He says it propelled him, like many other Masons, to do good works throughout the Bay Area and the nation.

Actually, Jews and Freemasonry share a long history together, including in the Bay Area, which is home to 10 lodges and three Mason-owned headquarters in San Francisco alone (there are 60 lodges in California).

According to Fred Rosenbaum, co-founder of Lehrhaus Judaica and a scholar on the subject, many middle-class San Francisco Jews of the late 19th century were Masons.

Because the Bay Area was one of the country's least anti-Semitic regions, Jews were successful early on in business, politics and the social scene. Masonic lodges were open to Jewish members, with leading local rabbis and synagogue leaders among those taking the pledge.

Joining the Masons facilitated connections with non-Jewish businessmen, says Rosenbaum. More importantly, he adds, "There was a theological congruence: Masons, though mostly Christians, opposed ignorant superstition, while stressing monotheism and the Hebrew Bible in its rituals.

"The philosophy resonated with Jews."

Fraternal organizations, such as the Masons, Elks and Odd Fellows were so popular in the early 20th century, one in 10 men belonged to some such group. Even Ralph Kramden was a Raccoon, and Fred Flintstone a Water Buffalo.

Masons typical meet once or twice a month, with a meeting lasting up to three hours, according to Aaron Kornblum, an archivist at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum, as well as a Jew and a Mason. The agenda usually features an educational component, a distribution of charities and a reading of the previous meeting's minutes.

"There can be ritual," he says. "Though some lodges will not allow people to attend unless they've gone through the first three degrees of Freemasonry."

The Shriners, perhaps the most public face of Freemasonry, got their start in the 1870s. Officially called the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the order draws on Arab and Muslim symbols, such as the fez, crescent and sword, though it is, like all of Masonry, nondenominational.

Shriner centers (formerly called temples) have names like Mecca, Damascus, and al-Malaika. Local Shrine centers have names like Aahmes, Kerak and Asiya (Greenwald's home base).

All harmless fun, says Greenwald. However, Masons, like Jews, did not always meet with sanguine acceptance.

Freemasonry dates back to the Middle Ages, originally formed as a guild of stonemasons. Over the centuries, as the society grew, so did a current of savage anti-Freemasonry, which has proven as intractable as anti-Semitism.

Says S. Brent Morris, the Masons' director of member development for the Supreme Council, southern jurisdiction: "Freemasonry proposed an extremely radical notion: We can be friends, agree that God exists and stop discussing God there. That was heresy."

Today, scores of virulently anti-Masonic Web sites clog the Internet, spreading tales of Masonic conspiracies to take over the world through a nefarious network of financiers, plotters, cosmopolitans and no-goodniks.

Sound familiar?

Jews and Masons were often linked as criminal co-conspirators. "It goes back to early part of 19th century," says Kornblum. "Freemasonry was a mostly urban middle-class phenomenon for people who prospered in the new social order. Rural people in towns and farms were deeply suspicious of Jews and Masons, who were urban dwellers. Plus the Catholic Church was historically anti-Masonic as well as anti-Semitic."

Masons have been accused of everything from plotting the killings of John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul I to founding the Ku Klux Klan.

Even setting aside the more grandiose conspiracy theories, critics have condemned in Freemasonry what they see as an obsession with occultism, secrecy and the punishing of members who stray from the brotherhood (some say even to the point of murder).

Greenwald dismisses such contentions as rubbish, noting his own experience with Freemasonry has been uniformly positive and untainted by prejudice.

The exemplary life he's led certainly makes such sinister tendencies seem unlikely.

A New York native, Greenwald came to California at age 18. Three years later he returned briefly to marry his teenage heartthrob Marilyn, now his wife of 52 years. "We're still in love," he says. "When I look at her she still looks like the girl I took to Sunset Park in Brooklyn on her 14th birthday."

Having graduated from the Hebrew Institute of Brooklyn, Greenwald considered the rabbinate, but once settled in the Bay Area, he began working in his father's restaurant business. He eventually became president/CEO of Peppertree Coffee Shops and later oversaw a San Francisco restaurant chain, Sirloin and Brew.

He also served on the board of Peninsula Temple Beth El and was president of the Peninsula Conference of Jewish Organizations and of the Beth El Brotherhood.

Because he was busy with career and family, Greenwald didn't become a Mason until he was in his 50s, though he had become acquainted with the organization many years earlier.

"When I was 23, I met a Jewish man I admired greatly," he recalls. "He was the most generous human being I ever met, but he never identified himself as a Mason. I asked him about the lapel pin he wore, and when he said he was a Freemason, I investigated: I went to the lodge, met the people. I had strived to grow as human being and was so impressed by the Masons, I finally joined."

That aspect of personal growth comes up often in Greenwald's conversation. "I define it [Freemasonry] as a continuing pursuit of knowledge," he says. "I've experienced that in Masonry, and a pursuit of greater ethics. Nobody's happier than I am. It's just that Masonry made me a better man and added meaning to my life."

Not that he has relegated Judaism to second-banana status. Greenwald readily acknowledges the pivotal role Judaism played in his life. "My life was an endless maze of routine," he says, "dealing with hundreds of employees, and being father confessor to them. Being associated with Jewish organizations was certainly a leveling influence."

Today, Greenwald serves as director of public relations for the San Francisco Scottish Rite. He is proud of his status as a 33rd degree Mason (as high as one can ascend on the Masonic hierarchy), and takes every opportunity to trumpet the merits of Freemasonry.

He has his work cut out for him. Membership in Freemasonry has declined precipitously over the past 40 years, from 4.2 million in 1960 to just 1.8 million today. The average age of members keeps rising into senior citizen territory.

Masonic organizations in some states, not including California, are now actively recruiting members and even speeding up the process of ascending the ranks with hurry-up one-day seminars (things Masons have been loath to do in the past, preferring to have prospects approach them and rise more methodically).

Unlike Greenwald, not all Jews are thrilled to see a link between the two groups. Berkeley Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, whose grandfather was a Mason, has mixed feelings.

"As a kid, I went to the Shriners circus," says the rabbi. "I had positive associations. But should Jews go out of their inner circle? There's no question that Jews have a mission to spread the light of Torah. We shouldn't be aloof or parochial. But Freemasonry seems a bit too secret, and right off the bat that's a red flag. It's not the KKK, but it's not the Boy Scouts either."

That's not exactly how Greenwald sees it.

"Free independent thinkers are a threat to any dictator," he says. "It's mind-boggling to me how people can take something so good and besmirch it. But as Jews, we understand that; it's happened to us throughout the centuries."

The same could be said for Masons. The story goes that Hitler, who viewed Masonry as a threat to his regime and murdered thousands of them, died in his Berlin bunker with a painting of Frederick the Great mounted on the wall.

Frederick the Great was a Mason.

Masons — one of many fraternal organizations

While the Masons may be one of the best-known and most controversial fraternal organizations, it is by no means the only one.

Over the last century, many other groups have formed, their ranks at times swelling into the millions, though the numbers have dropped considerably over the last half-century.

Here are a number of other nonsectarian organizations that many Jews belong to:

* The Benevolent and Protective Order

of Elks

* The Loyal Order of Moose

* The Fraternal Order of Eagles

* The Independent Order of Odd Fellows

* Lions Clubs International

* Rotary Club

* Optimist International

* Rotary International

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.