Series Blog

B’nai B’rith and the Triangle Fire

In the aftermath of the Triangle Fire the New York lodges of America’s oldest Jewish philanthropy, B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant, now known as Children of the Covenant), swiftly raised over $1,200 (the equivalent of almost $18,000 today) for a victims’ fund organized by prominent philanthropist and B’nai B’rith lodge member Jacob Schiff.

By 1911, B’nai B’rith had been an internationally recognized charity for over 60 years. In an era marked by progressive social reform, it reached out with educational, legal and spiritual support to the immigrants of the Lower East Side and beyond.

Founded in 1843 by German Jewish teachers and tradesmen during America’s first wave of immigration this “band of brothers” pooled their modest resources to forge closer community ties as a means of  “...developing the mental and moral character of the people of our faith…alleviating the wants of the poor and needy” and “coming to the rescue of victims of persecution,” all based “on the broadest principles of humanity.” Paralleling the spread of Reform Judaism, the fraternal society they envisioned was inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, the democratic ideals of their new home and the ethical code mandated by their religious beliefs.  Deborah Dash Moore, history professor at the University of Michigan, has written: “Dealing directly with the needs of settled Jewish immigrants, B’nai B’rith offered under the guise of fraternalism a new basis for Jewish communal cooperation.”

Within a few decades, B’nai B’rith had established lodges on three continents. Building hospitals, libraries and homes for orphans and the aged, the Order soon boasted an American membership who had risen from its immigrant roots to become an elite class of prominent businessmen, attorneys, educators, rabbis and statesmen; their good works were praised by Presidents Grant, Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson. A witness to the opening of the Order’s New York area convention marveled: “Where else could a foreign-born group burst the bounds of a Ghetto, [and] cross the tracks to parade up Fifth Avenue in the bright afternoon sunshine?”  

Another, much larger wave of immigration began after 1880, when thousands of Russian and Romanian Jews were deprived of their civil rights, brutalized and driven out of their native lands. They escaped in increasing numbers to America where they built insular communities due to their adherence to Orthodox ritual and dress, rudimentary or non-existent education and the poverty of both their old and new lives, among a myriad of other factors.  Their presence spurred a crisis in New York City, whose Jewish population swelled from 60,000 to 1.5 million between 1880 and 1910 and where over half a million Eastern European refugees—25 percent of Manhattan—crammed into the Lower East Side’s dangerous and squalid tenements.  Crime and disease were rampant.  Few were skilled, and the vast majority became fodder for the sweatshops, supplying a source of cheap labor.  By 1900, over 75 percent of needle trade employees were Jewish.

The tragic fire would be forever linked to the plight of the immigrant. Even before the lists of victims [] appeared, New Yorkers knew that most of the casualties would be Jewish girls in their teens and 20s, and all would be described in the lurid reports as people who “who could barely speak English.”   For better and worse, the immigrant and his work were changing life for all Americans.

B’nai B’rith leaders had long encouraged members to help the new immigrants. But their presence was perceived as a threat to established American Jews who feared that anti-Semitism would take root in their own communities. With little notion of their own ethnicity, most lodge members defined charity as providing for the less fortunate. Philanthropy did not encompass the idea of change or, indeed, direct contact with the poor. 

“In a few years we shall see on this continent …Jewry enriching the world with its virtues and its genius.”B’nai B’rith president Leo N. Levi encouraged solidarity between lodge members and the Eastern European arrivals as he set up a “hands on” social work program aimed at their Americanization, education and improved living standards. Channeling Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he predicted that “in a few years we shall see on this continent …Jewry enriching the world with its virtues and its genius.” In 1902, B’nai B’rith’s New York Committee on Immigration and Social Work responded with a plan for “betterment of conditions on the Lower East Side” by re-establishing a presence where the organization had been founded.  Vocational training, English classes and employment services were offered at its Forsyth Street headquarters, while the Romanian members of the new “Justice” lodge convened upstairs.    

B’nai B’rith provided assistance in other ways, in New York and throughout the United States.  The Order’s Committee for Intellectual Advancement led services and organized clubs at settlement houses like the Clara de Hirsch Home for immigrant girls. When an eminent Austrian surgeon visited New York, free operations were arranged for poor Christian and Jewish children. B’nai B’rith, among other Jewish philanthropies, relocated immigrants seeking opportunities outside of New York.

“Immigrants of all nationalities and who are now the backbone of American citizenship came in practically the same conditions of financial poverty as the majority of the immigrants now come. Their constant ambition has been to be worthy of the privileges they are enjoying -- regarding this land of opportunity as the promised land of the prophets.”Leaders campaigned to keep the “golden door” open, rallying support against restrictive legislation from influential Jews and Christians.  With his numerous political connections, attorney and author Simon Wolf was the Order’s Washington liaison and supported immigrants’ rights in his books, articles, Congressional testimony and pro bono legal work. A few lodge brothers volunteered at Ellis Island, assisting individuals and helping to improve conditions.  B’nai B’rith interceded with President Woodrow Wilson to veto the Burnett Immigration Bill, whose stringent literacy test and increased “head tax” was intended to disqualify many who applied for citizenship.  During these years, President Adolf Kraus’ Chicago office was often filled with the families of immigrants petitioning the organization for help.

In 1914, the “New B’nai B’rith” instituted a national Social Service Department which helped lodges initiate employment bureaus and language classes.  B’nai B’rith became the first Jewish philanthropy to address crime, enlisting rabbis to conduct services for Jewish prisoners and introducing a members’ mentoring program for boys who had come before the newly established juvenile courts.

As more immigrants joined B’nai B’rith, they would look to the lodge and its fraternal bonds to forge new identities as good Americans and good Jews.  Their children would remain loyal Ben Brit (the singular of the plural name B’nai B’rith), infusing the Order with a new vitality that left its mark on American life.  With the coming of World War II, the men whose fathers struggled for acceptance in a new land would lead B’nai B’rith—and the United States—to greater accomplishments in many areas.  President Levi’s prophesy had been realized.


Guest blogger Daniel S. Mariaschin, the Executive Vice President of B'nai B'rith International, both directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities, and staff in the more than 50 countries where B’nai B’rith is organized.

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