Old boys club?

B'nai B'rith International head Moishe Smith explains how bringing in the next generation is vital to organizational Jewish continuity.

moishe smith 298 (photo credit: courtesy)
moishe smith 298
(photo credit: courtesy)
Ottawa restaurateur Moishe Smith has been president of B'nai B'rith International for about six months. The first non-American head of the more than 150-year-old organization, he speaks of B'nai B'rith's "glorious past" and "problematic" but "optimistic" future. In Israel this past month for the Zionist Congress, Smith - who has a four-decade-long record of Jewish involvement - sat down with The Jerusalem Post to talk about the Jewish world's troubled present and, if Jewish organizations get their act together, hopeful future. Founded in New York in 1843 by twelve Jewish men who were not accepted into a local men's club due to their faith, B'nai B'rith now comprises some 200,000 families who participate in the organizations' various lodges, units and programs around the world. The organization became fully coed 20 years ago. It maintains a broad program of community service - including support for hospitals, old-age homes, grants and scholarships to university students - and internationally advocates for Israel. What, I asked him, is the single greatest problem facing Jewish organizational life today? "We have a genuine problem with attracting the next generation," Smith replied. "The problem is that the attachment to Holocaust remembrance, the attachment to Israel, the awareness of the struggle at the beginning to build Israel up as a nation [are waning]. People today see Israel as a strong modern nation, whether in the news or on a visit. They don't have the connection people like me have to Israel's pioneering roots." Then how does one bring the stereotypical 26-year-old American Jewish beginning professional into the fold of Jewish organizational life? "That's the mystery," he says. "I think if you bring a 26-year-old and seat him with 66-year-olds, you won't motivate him. But if you bring a group of 26-year-olds together, show them the value of their input, give them the opportunity for input, you could engage them. That's the missing piece." While this talk of bringing young professionals into the ranks by giving them a voice has been going on for a long time, Smith believes "lots of organizations weren't able to do this because the senior members didn't want to give up their piece of the rock. Now we have to play catch-up, but I think we can do it." Organizations must let younger members "have their views heard, some of them implemented. The next generation always had new ideas, even if not always better ones, and they brought a new insight into organizations. We have not done ourselves a service by not engaging them sooner." If Jewish organizations fail to do this, "the future is a problem for us, because we won't have the quality of leadership engaged in the issues. They won't feel ownership of the institutions or organizations, so they won't be engaged." Many world Jewish organizations think the battle for the young is already lost. Smith agrees about the severity of the problem - "if we didn't recognize that as a possibility, we wouldn't all be concerned about trying to deal with it" - but he notes that it's a problem larger than Jewish organizational life. "We're not alone in dealing with it," he says. "When I was in Rome in December [for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI], all the people around the pope spoke about engaging the next generation. They're also struggling with future leadership, engagement with the church, engagement with the new relationship between the Jewish and Catholic communities. They're concerned. We're concerned. And I don't doubt that if I spoke to the Sons of Italy, a huge organization in the US, Kiwanis, Rotary, they'd all tell me the same story - that they can't replenish their ranks. People don't belong anymore because they have so many other things they can do. It's a genuine problem that permeates [organizational life]." SO WHAT CAN B'nai B'rith offer young Jews? Smith sees the future of Jewish involvement and leadership in the international political battles against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric. In this, he says, B'nai B'rith has something to offer, but it's still a question of marketing and properly integrating the young membership. "B'nai B'rith has been doing activist work for more than 160 years. Delivering social services in the early days was a form of activism. Looking after the community was a form of activism. In modern times, B'nai B'rith was there at the founding of the United Nations," where it enjoys NGO observer status, "so we're not Johnny-come-latelies in defending human rights and freedoms." B'nai B'rith's activism extends beyond the UN office in New York. While an all-volunteer office in Geneva keeps track of UN activities and the organization advocates on the sidelines of the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union and other venues, Smith points most avidly to South America. It is in the international context "that we do the work that affects world Jewry the most." For example, "I was just at the OAS meeting [in June in Panama], and I was rather perplexed. The theme of the conference was energy," and delegates from South American countries didn't want to talk about "our genuine problem with one of their members, Venezuela, trying to close down freedom of the press. They absolutely don't want to talk about it." At the conference, Smith relates, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Mackay, along with the foreign ministers of El Salvador, Uruguay and others, made statements about human rights, freedom of the press and the like, without raising the Venezuelan situation. "Then [US] Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice got up and talked about Venezuela, and pointed to [President Hugo] Chavez as the culprit." Mackay didn't talk about Chavez? "No, he did not." What does that mean? "I don't know, but I'm certainly going to find out when I get back home. I will try to have an exchange with him and ask him what his reluctance was. So Rice called for a fact-finding mission to find out what's going on in Venezuela. Then the ambassador from Venezuela gets up and says, 'Why don't we have an investigation to find out what's going on in Guantanamo?' Rice responds, 'Because we have a free press, everybody knows what's going on in Guantanamo.' I found it to be a poignant comparison." B'nai B'rith has a strong presence in South America, with chapters in all major Jewish communities. Now, Chavez has drawn the concern of B'nai B'rith's leaders. According to Smith, "we have three problems in Latin America. [First,] Chavez will little by little erode the rights of his people. We all know that when you start closing down the press, you start eliminating human rights. Our communities around Latin America are in angst. [Second,] you have Chavez's oil money that's allowing him to influence the smaller countries of Latin America. [Third,] you have the relationship between Venezuela and Iran. Now there are direct flights between Caracas and Teheran." If Venezuela's Jews are threatened, will they leave? "You know how Jews are," Smith says with a smile. "They feel part of their society. They live in the country, participate in the social infrastructure. The Latin Americans are recovering little by little from the financial crisis of a few years ago. They're doing well again, and the communities are coming back." So where is B'nai B'rith going? "Our future strength is continuing to work in those environments. It's real stuff, protecting human rights and freedoms, advocating for Israel. The focus will be on the Jewish community because that's our raison d'etre, but if you're protecting the rights and freedoms of your own community, the rights and freedoms of all are protected."