Bnai Brith celebrates 150 years in S.F.

In its heyday in the 1940s, B’nai B’rith had 2,100 active members in half a dozen lodges in San Francisco alone. Over the years, members protested pogroms, collected canned goods and rallied for Soviet Jewry.

But one merger led to another, which led to another. Now, B’nai B’rith has only one lodge in San Francisco, with a total of 270 members, including those from throughout Marin County.

Irving Abramowitz, a longtime member, cracks that at almost 70, “I’m the youngster.”

Celebrating its history, the Jewish fraternal organization is about to mark its 150th anniversary in the Bay Area with a luncheon on Sunday, April 3, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

B’nai B’rith was founded in 1843 by a group of German Jewish immigrants in New York City, with $60 to help widows and orphans. The group arrived in San Francisco 12 years later.

“In the early days, we sponsored three service organizations: the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel and BBYO (B’nai B’rith Youth Organization),” said Milton Jacobs, a past member of the organization’s international board of governors and a former international vice president who will be honored at the luncheon. “Part of our time was spent helping those agencies, and then we did community service. We would do clothing drives and collect canned goods, visit hospitals and veterans homes. We would try to help out wherever we could.”

The organization formerly sponsored a seder in the Tenderloin for needy Jews, and for a few years, delivered coffee and doughnuts to BART employees who had to work on Christmas.

In 1997 though, the three remaining San Francisco lodges merged into one. And in 1999, the local B’nai B’rith office closed, making the organization entirely volunteer-run.

The organization has made some attempts to draw in new members. One step was to invite women to join, and those who did so were usually the wives of current members. They also reached out to the Russian emigre community. That has brought an injection of new blood to the organization.

The emigres in particular attend the annual B’nai B’rith-sponsored Yom HaShoah event, at the Lincoln Park memorial, where mourners light candles and read the names of victims aloud.

“The emigres didn’t have a chance to really mourn their loss in Russia, so it’s been good for them,” said Emil Knopf, another past president of the organization.

One of Knopf’s favorite activities was holding the occasional casino night, which served as a fund-raiser.

“We had a lot of community leaders participate,” Knopf said. “The late [state] Sen. [Milton] Marks used to auction off the items.”

But Knopf admitted the group was having trouble attracting new members, though he said the experience was no different from that of B’nai B’rith chapters around the country.

Cal Zippen, the current president, said that the celebratory lunch would begin with a fake radio broadcast from 1855 with a weather report by Mike Pechner of KCBS.

The report will include the sporting events of the time, the weather and a few predictions about the future, like “maybe we’ll even let women get the vote or something revolutionary like that,” said Zippen.

Members of local Hillels and BBYOs are also invited.

B’nai B’rith members are currently collecting artifacts for a time capsule that they will bury 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 29, at Menorah Park, 3365 Sacramento St., S.F. The time capsule will hold credit cards, gas receipts and other household items like a telephone answering machine. The hope is that it will be unearthed 150 years from now.

“150 Years of B’nai B’rith in San Francisco” will begin 8:30 a.m. Sunday, April 3, with a continental breakfast. A program will follow, with lunch at 12:15 p.m. at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. $30. Information: (415) 752-9304.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."