In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Hard Work of Benevolence, Brotherly Love, and Harmony on the OhioInside the Early Records of Louisville's B'nai B'rith Lodges, 1860–1890
  • Abigail Glogower (bio)

In May 1860, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819–1900) of Cincinnati reported on a recent visit to Louisville for his English-language Jewish weekly newspaper, the Israelite. Surveying the city's booming commercial district—home to its growing population of German Jewish immigrants—he estimated that "the trade of Louisville must have increased fully fifty per cent during the last two years. Many retailers are now wholesale dealers, and Market street is full with retail stores.… The number of our co-religionists increased as the business did, and according to our calculation Louisville counts no less than two thousand souls of Hebrew descent." Wise compared the handsome private residences lining Broadway, Chestnut Street, and Walnut Street to "New York Fifth avenue palaces" and praised the Sabbath services at Temple Adath Israel as "sublime and impressive, and well attended." Making frequent reference to "our Louisville friends," he concluded, "We left Louisville this time as always before satisfied that this congregation is destined to contribute largely to the elevation and progress of Judaism in this country. It is much like Cincinnati in sociability and reform tendencies, connected with us here by many ties."1

Click for larger view
View full resolution

Portrait of Isaac M. Wise, n. d., SC#59. Cincinnati Museum Center.

From Wise's description of the temple and use of the word congregation, one might infer he had traveled to Louisville on important synagogue business. Since arriving in Ohio from New York six years prior, the Bohemian-born rabbi had been steadily building American Reform [End Page 57] Judaism through a variety of roles: as leader of Congregation Bene Yeshurun, founder and editor of the Israelite, and author of tomes on Jewish history and the new Minhag America prayer book. However, his business in Louisville related to an entirely different, and much less studied, aspect of Wise's work in American Jewish institution building: his leadership within a fast-growing national Jewish fraternal organization, the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith.2 In one of the "many ties" alluded to in his report, he had come to Louisville as Brother Wise for the inauguration of Mendelssohn Lodge, No. 40, the city's second B'nai B'rith lodge, on May 13, 1860.3

Founded in New York in 1843 by Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants from different states that would later become Germany, B'nai B'rith created an elaborate and highly successful space for voluntary ethnic association and community among recently arrived Jewish immigrants. The group modeled itself on the Masonic and fraternal organizations to which many of its members already belonged, but it offered a distinctly Jewish context for and means of cohesion. Just as B'nai B'rith was not a mere social club, its motto—"Benevolence, Brotherly Love, and Harmony"—was no empty ideal. Rather, these values were integral to the survival and success of its members and, by extension, entire generations of American Jews. B'nai B'rith united these men in what historian Deborah Dash Moore has called a "secular synagogue": an extrareligious community rooted in shared identity and mutual aid, rather than spiritual practice, and driven by the German ethos of Bildung, individual and communal education and uplift.4 As the order's original constitution from November 12, 1843, states,

B'nai B'rith has taken upon itself the mission of uniting persons of the Jewish faith in the work of promoting their highest interests and those of humanity; of developing and elevating the mental and moral character of the people of our faith; of inculcating the purest principles of philanthropy, honor, and patriotism; of supporting science and art; alleviating the wants of the poor and needy; visiting and attending the sick; coming to the rescue of victims of persecution; providing for, protecting, and assisting the widow and orphan in the broadest principles of humanity.5

B'nai B'rith's effects on the American Jewish community are arguably understudied. Some important literature exists on the national organization, its most charismatic...