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The Independent Orders of B'nai B'rith and True Sisters

Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity, 1843-1914

Cornelia Wilhelm

Publication Year: 2011

Founded in New York City in 1843 by immigrants from German or German-speaking territories in Central Europe, the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith sought to integrate Jewish identity with the public and civil sphere in America. In The Independent Orders of B’nai B’rith and True Sisters: Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity, 1843–1914, author Cornelia Wilhelm examines B’nai B’rith, and the closely linked Independent Order of True Sisters, to find their larger German Jewish social and intellectual context and explore their ambitions of building a “civil Judaism” outside the synagogue in America. Wilhelm details the founding, growth, and evolution of both organizations as fraternal orders and examines how they served as a civil platform for Jews to reinvent, stage, and voice themselves as American citizens. Wilhelm discusses many of the challenges the B’nai B’rith faced, including the growth of competing organizations, the need for a democratic ethnic representation, the difficulties of keeping its core values and solidarity alive in a growing and increasingly incoherent mass organization, and the iconization of the Order as an exclusionary “German Jewish elite.” Wilhelm’s study offers new insights into B’nai B’rith’s important community work, including its contribution to organizing and financing a nationwide hospital and orphanage system, its life insurance, its relationships with new immigrants, and its efforts to reach out locally with branches on the Lower East Side. Based on extensive archival research, Wilhelm’s study demonstrates the central place of B’nai B’rith in the formation and propagation of a uniquely American Jewish identity. The Independent Orders of B’nai B’rith and True Sisters will interest all scholars of Jewish history, B’nai B’rith and True Sisters members, and readers interested in American history.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

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pp. vii-xi

This book is the result of many years of in- depth research that has been funded by full- time fellowships with the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and— in the exploratory phase— by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Until now the questions this study explores have remained largely un-addressed, even though, or perhaps because, the topic of the study focuses on ...

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pp. 1-11

Th e founding of the In de pen dent Order of B’nai B’rith— Hebrew for “Sons of the Covenant”— in New York City in 1843 sparked the development and dissemination of a new Jewish identity in America. Th is identity was a sign ...

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1. The Independent Orders of B’nai B’rith and True Sisters, 1843– 50

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pp. 13-56

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the emerging Reform movement began showing its first effects on the religious life of Jewish communities in America. Although as early as 1824 Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston— apparently without any direct contact with the German movement— introduced some moderate reforms regarding the length and ...

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2. B’nai B’rith as Platform for an American Jewish Identity, 1850–75

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pp. 57-114

Between 1850 and 1875, the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith developed new organizational structures and a sense of mission that would characterize its identity and its function as a driving force in the development of a modern and specifically American Jewish identity for decades to come. The development...

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3. The Lodges at the Center of Jewish Identity Formation

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pp. 115-163

While the discussion of the order’s role within American Judaism took place on the leadership level of B’nai B’rith, on the local level the lodges displayed great activism by founding urgently needed community institutions. Whereas in central Eu rope these institutions were organized by one large corporate Jewish community, this was not the case in America, since ...

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4. B’nai B’rith as Mass Organization, 1875–1900

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pp. 165-216

By the end of a protracted debate that went on from 1868 to 1873, all of the order’s districts had introduced a compulsory life insurance scheme. By doing so, the order hoped to make a modern contribution to the social security and economic stabilization of immigrants and their families. However, the districts were not successful in implementing a common insurance plan, ...

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5. Adapting to New Challenges, 1900–1914

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pp. 217-251

In the wake of prolonged anti-Semitism and poverty in Russia, Galicia, and Romania at the turn of the century, it soon became clear that Jewish immigration would continue for years to come. Th is situation caused new problems for American Jews. On the one hand, they were forced to integrate their culturally, politically, and religiously dissimilar co-religionists into their own ...

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pp. 253-262

When B’nai B’rith by the early twentieth century began to transform itself into a modern, Jewish, mass organization for the entire family, enjoying renewed popularity within a widespread network of secular clubs and organizations, there was scarcely anyone alive who still remembered the order’s beginnings. Few were aware that the profound internalization of a civil ...


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pp. 263-321


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pp. 323-343


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pp. 345-361

E-ISBN-13: 9780814337059
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814334034

Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 17
Publication Year: 2011