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July 03, 1992 - Image 23

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1992-07-03

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

sure for B'nai B'rith's image of irrelevance among a new
generation of successful, more assimilated Jews with no
need or desire to have their own private club.
Not that B'nai B'rith has ceased to do good work.
It operates housing facilities for the elderly in communi-
ties around the nation, and provides services for Jews who
are in prison. The group's International Council also pro-
vides a strong Jewish voice in Latin America, the European
Community and Eastern Europe.
In addition, the group's youth services — thtough the
B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (BBYO) and HiLlel Foun-
dations — are models of outreach to young Jews.
Still, to a growing proportion of American Jews, B'nai
B'rith looks distinctly like an organizational dinosaur that
has outlived its natural lifespan, a perception clearly un-
derscored by the group's shrinking membership.
From a peak of more than 200,000 members at the end
of World War II, B'nai B'rith's national membership today
has dropped to about 110,000.

H

ow desperate is B'nai B'rith's situation?Ac-
cording to Mr. Schiner, the group's accrued
deficit in the last fiscal yearwas $3.8 million.But
some B'nai B'rith insiders suggest that the to-
tal deficit — consisting mostly of money borrowed against
long-term assets — may double by the end of the current fis-
cal year because of the recession and the growing income
short-fall.
In terms of membership, B'nai B'rith is hemorrhaging.
Some estimates place the group's annual membership loss
at up to 9 percent. Members aren't quitting. They're dying.
The average age of members is said to be in the mid-
60s and they tend to be on the less prosperous end of the fi-
nancial spectrum.
B'nai B'rith is an organization of small givers. While Jew-
ish federations and the United Jewish Appeal target large
contributors, B'nai B'rith — at its core still a fraternal or-
ganization for working-class Jews — taps a less prosperous
group that has been particularly hard hit by the current re-
cession.
Mr. Schiner's own B'nai B'rith experience sheds some light
on the problems now faced by the organization.
"I'm now in my 34th year," he said. "When I joined, there
was a new lodge being formed. My brother-in-law was part
of it, and he invited me to come in. From the beginning, I
enjoyed the camaraderie. They were young guys, just start-
ing out, establishing their careers."
Anti-Semitism was a visible and potent force in the
professional lives of his friends, he continued, and the lo-
cal B'nai B'rith lodge provided a kind of communal safe
harbor.
Now, with Jews having gained wide acceptance in Amer-
ican life, the lodge system looks more and more like a
relic.
"Today those same individuals are leading lawyers and
CPAs and businessmen," Mr. Schiner said. "They outgrew

the need for the lodge. But a majority still belong, paying
their dues. There was a period of time when it was neces-
sary and enjoyable — and then we outgrew it."
Another element of B'nai B'rith's decline is years of slop-
py management.
"Yes, there have been major problems in the past," ac-
knowledged Sidney Clearfield, B'nai B'rith's new executive
vice president.
Mr. Clearfield, who spent many years running B'nai
B'rith's youth programs, was promoted last year in an ef-
fort to bring a more management-oriented approach to the
troubled organization.
"The deficit is a case in point," he said. "It grew as much
because of overspending budgets as by failures to meet
fund-raising projections. We were not living within our
budgets."
For years, B'nai B'rith had an aversion to even admit-
ting it was in financial trouble. There was almost a sense
that because B'nai B'rith was engaged in so many good
deeds, it didn't matter that the organi-
zation was sloppily run.
So far, B'nai B'rith insiders say Mr.
Clearfield has had some success in bring-
ing spending under control by forcing de-
partments to justify all expenditures in
the annual budget, which was re-
cently slashed from $14.5 million to
$12.7 million.
A number of departments have already
been streamlined through layoffs, a
painful experience for an organization
where many employees have spent their
entire careers.
A round of cutbacks last year
slashed some 35 jobs, mostly from the
group's Washington headquarters.
Just two weeks ago, seven lower level
positions were eliminated, but none
of those were in the Washington of-
fice.
At the same time, financial manage-
ment positions at B'nai B'rith have been
filled with what Mr. Schiner calls "bright
young CPAs" — recent university gradu-
ates who command lower, entry-level
salaries while providing enthusiasm and
professionalism.
B'nai B'rith is also looking for a pro-
fessional fund raiser, the first step in
finding government, corporate and foun-
dation support for individual programs.

t

*NQ

B

ut even if slipshod business
practices can be brought un-
der control, it remains far
more difficult to solve the
structural problems that have kept

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tirnai

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