Springfield chapter of B’nai B’rith marks 150 years – The State Journal-Register

Posted By on February 19, 2017

Steven Spearie Correspondent

Les Eastep got a "gift membership" to the Springfield B'nai B'rith lodge in 1990.

He's stayed with it ever since.

"It's about being part of a large group and appreciating what they do on a national and international level," said Eastep. "B'nai B'rith touches Jewish lives around the world."

Closer to home, about 100 group members hold an annual chilli dinner fundraiser, provide a monthly meal Chaverim, literally, "friends" for senior citizens and support local causes, like the Jewish School of Religion, a combined effort between Temple B'rith Sholom and Temple Israel.

The Emes Lodge No. 67 (Emes is Yiddish for "true" or "truth") celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding with a dinner in December. That makes it one of the oldest B'nai B'rith lodges in central Illinois, the founding dating to a time shortly after Jews started arriving in Springfield.

Lodge histories point out that B'nai B'rith members here were involved in everything from responding to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to organizing war bond sales during World War II to assisting Russian immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s.

Numbers and activities have declined in more recent times, admitted Patrick Chesley, but, noting the anniversary, "there is certainly an obligation to keep the organization operating because it does a number of good things for the Springfield community and the Jewish community."

The 19th century was big on lodges, like the Masons, the Loyal Order of Moose and the Elks, said Rabbi Barry Marks of Temple Israel, but some excluded Jews, leading to B'nai B'rith's international founding in 1843 in New York City.

"This was a fraternal organization," added Marks, who became a member of the local lodge when he arrived in Springfield in 1973. Auxiliary groups for women, young men and young women eventually developed but faded, added Marks.

Both temples have sisterhood groups and there is a local chapter of Hadassah, an American Jewish volunteer women's organization that raises funds for community programs and health initiatives in Israel.

While many other B'nai B'rith lodges have allowed women, Chesley pointed out that locally there wasn't an organization for men at the time of its founding. Chesley said while he isn't personally opposed to allowing women in the lodge, most other Jewish organizations are facing the same membership decline and "aging out" as B'nai B'rith.

"Most of the Jewish children born in Springfield move out of the city," said Chesley, a former federal prosecutor. "My wife (Nancy) and I have three children and none of them live in Springfield. Some of the kids stayed, but it's a fairly small percentage.

"Many (young) Jewish professionals want more of a Jewish community than what we have here (about 1,000 Jews.) The generations that have followed us aren't joiners. They don't seem to have the same interests getting involved in groups and providing the next set of leaders. They have their own sets of interests.

"They don't necessarily want to do what their parents did or be as committed (to these types of groups.)"

Eastep, who lives in Rochester, was part of a congress that looked at the decline fraternal organizations in Illinois.

"The demand that culture puts on people's time," said Eastep. "The first thing I do in the morning is look at the calendar. What am I doing today?"

Fraternal organizations, added Eastep, "will never go away entirely." Some organizations that may be forced to merge may lose part of their identity, he added.

"To be honest and fair, B'nai B'rith is going through what every organization is going through (in terms of membership)," said Jeri Schwarz Atleson, vice-chairman of B'nai B'rith's Midwest Board, who spoke to the Springfield group at its anniversary dinner. "It's a big topic of conversation, how to recruit new members.

"Given the current environment, I hope we become as well known as we once were and people can go to in times of need."

It was B'nai B'rith, pointed out Atleson, that gave birth to the Anti-Defamation League which sought to "stop the defamation of Jewish people," according to its original 1913 charter.

Any issues of anti-Semitism locally, said Chesley, would be taken up by the Jewish Community Relations Council which is comprised of representatives from all the Springfield Jewish organizations: the Jewish Federation of Springfield; Temple B'rith Sholom and Temple Israel and their sisterhoods and the Springfield Chapter of Hadassah in addition to B'nai B'rith.

Chesley said that one of the activities the local lodge was known for was its Christmas Substitution program. Members would staff especially social service organizations, like the Mini O'Beirne Crisis Nursery and Sojourn Shelter, so workers could spend Christmas Day with their families.

Eastep said B'nai B'rith helped Russian immigrants who came to Springfield in the late 1980s and early 1990s find housing, jobs and education.

"It was done quietly," he said. "It was like taking care of family and B'nai B'rith is a big family."

Atleson, who lives in Lake County, near the Wisconsin border, said she was happy to spend time in Springfield helping the lodge celebrated such an important milestone.

"It is remarkable that any organization survives that long," said Atleson. "What I know about this local lodge is that their generosity, time, money, spirit, service to the community and commitment to the organization is tremendous.

"I hope they don't change the spirit of who they are."

Chesley said the purpose of the anniversary wasn't necessarily to get new members, but several people did ask for applications.

"I get a lot of self-satisfaction from being able to help other people and keep a tradition like B'nai B'rith going here in Springfield," he said. "I find it fulfilling and worthwhile."

For more information on the Emes Lodge No. 67 of the B'nai B'rith, contact Patrick Chesley at 210-1920.

--Steven Spearie contact: spearie@hotmail.com or follow on Facebook or Twitter (@StevenSpearie)

Excerpt from:
Springfield chapter of B'nai B'rith marks 150 years - The State Journal-Register

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