When new B’nai B’rith International officers are elected, the Board of Governors may elect the outgoing president to serve as an honorary president. For the remainder of their lives, these leaders share their treasure trove of experience and expertise with the current leadership. As B’nai B’rith commemorates its 175th anniversary and celebrates its legacy of accomplishments, we asked the eight living honorary presidents to reflect on the most significant events during their presidential terms, to be published in chronological order.
In this issue, we feature:
B’nai B’rith President (1982-1986)
I take pride in B’nai B’rith achievements on behalf of Soviet Jewry during the early-mid 1980s, including its organization and implementation of the history-making 1984 International Day of Concern and Solidarity for Soviet Jewry, when 110 worldwide communities participated. We were in the forefront of activities during the November 1985 Geneva summit, when hundreds of congregations conducted special services and observed a minute of silence. Later, England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told me how impressed they were with our initiative.
Three of 24 state visits in which I participated stand out: meeting German Chancellor Helmut Kohl after U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s controversial 1985 visit to the Nazi officers’ cemetery in Bitburg, Germany; a conference with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak focusing, not on Israel but on the military aid his country was receiving from the United States; and a South African trip in connection with American sanctions imposed during apartheid.
Perhaps the most emotional experience of my presidency occurred during a November 1984 Thanksgiving celebration in Ethiopia, when B’nai B’rith was involved with the first airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Assisted by the Jewish Agency, France’s President Jacques Mitterrand, U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush and Reagan, this monumental undertaking continued as we worked with then Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the Chief Rabbis to settle the refugees in their new country.
Seymour D. Reich
B’nai B’rith President (1986-1990)
It was an honor for me to lead our organization as B’nai B’rith rallied the world community to acknowledge the plight of Russian Jews, suffering as prisoners in their own country, and enduring harsh punishments for practicing their faith.
In 1986, I boarded a small chartered plane as part of a consortium of Jewish leaders bound for the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. There we made our voices heard during a press conference covered internationally. Human rights issues were incorporated into the summit discussions. We traveled back to the States on the same day, Oct. 10. This was one of my proudest memories.
I had another marathon trip in November 1988. I was to participate in the dedication of a footbridge constructed by B’nai B’rith in Jerusalem. But U.S. President Ronald Reagan had requested my attendance at a special White House meeting focusing on Jewish concerns. I returned to the air at 1 a.m., and flew for 17 hours to keep the appointment. While I was away from Israel, my wife Helyn became my able representative at the festivities, where, along with B’nai B’rith leaders and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, she left her handprints in the bridge’s wet cement for posterity.
Kent E. Schiner
B’nai B’rith President (1990-1994)
B’nai B’rith’s reputation as a powerful voice of the Jewish people was called into action in 1990, shortly after I was elected, when Lebanon fired Scud missiles at Israel. While we were there, we had our first experience with gas masks and warning sirens. We were in three missile attacks, so we know the feeling of anxiousness and concern for the safety of its people.
During this trip, which was unprecedented in scope, Dan Mariaschin, then Director of Public and International Affairs, and I met with European heads of state, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, Polish President Lech Walesa, and, in Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
There were some special, gratifying moments. Walesa delivered an impromptu denunciation of anti-Semitism, vowing to eliminate it in Poland. At our suggestion, Chancellor Vranitzky sent Israel emergency aid, and Havel agreed to be honored at a Washington, D.C. dinner. I spoke at the opening of the Prague lodge, the first in Czechoslovakia in more than 50 years. Then, as now, B’nai B’rith continues to advocate for Israel globally with government officials and others.
In 1993, more than 1,000 guests attending our 150th anniversary Havdalah service at the Jefferson Memorial heard a superb cantor and choir, stirring words from "Exodus" author Leon Uris and — the evening’s high point — President Bill Clinton’s speech praising our humanitarian mission. Greats, including former Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Abba Eban and French leader and humanitarian Simone Veil, celebrated that milestone year with us.
I was honored to be a part of our organization’s history.