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B’nai Brith, then and now

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From the outside, you can see how things have changed at B’nai Brith Canada.

The Toronto building that houses the organization’s national headquarters at 15 Hove St., near Bathurst and Sheppard, features signage that proclaims it as the Sud Building. Inside the building itself, B’nai Brith is a mere tenant, leasing space from its landlord, Hove Sheppard Holdings, the company that purchased the 43,560-square-foot building from B’nai Brith Congregation Synagogue, an arm of B’nai Brith Canada, in the summer of 2015.

B'nai Brith's CEO Michael Mostyn
B’nai Brith’s CEO Michael Mostyn

B’nai Brith’s newish CEO Michael Mostyn has been on the job for two years after replacing Frank Dimant, who ended his 36-year association with the organization in September 2014. He was all smiles in mid-November after meeting with the members of six Toronto lodges to discuss the future of the venerable organization. Under Dimant, lodge members felt marginalized and ignored as decision-making became centralized at head office.

Mostyn, a lawyer by profession, proclaims that B’nai Brith is heading in a new direction, that it is rejuvenating and reinvigorating itself while pursuing a path that features transparency and openness.

In recent months, B’nai Brith has stepped up its advocacy role, becoming much more active on social media and other online venues in commenting on political issues such as anti-Semitism and attacks on Israel. It’s also made some prominent new hires, including Alberta native Ryan Bellerose, an outspokenly pro-Israel Métis man, to the new position of advocacy co-ordinator for Western Canada.

The organization, which traces its history back to 1875, will now focus on two core mandates: promoting charitable works and community involvement, and advocating for human rights through its League for Human Rights.

“We’re very proud that [B’nai Brith Canada] is a fiscally sound organization today, meeting the needs of the Jewish community, meeting the human rights needs of the human rights community,” he said.

Mostyn, however, declined to reveal the sale price of the national headquarters. The land registry transfer title document from the sale indicates the price paid for the Aug. 31, 2015, deal was $0.00. However, on the same day, two mortgages on the property were discharged, one dating from Feb. 2, 2015, for $1 million owing to Melvyn Eisen, and another of $2.995 million dating from June 10, 2013, owing to Communications Technologies Credit Union.

The new owner then took out a mortgage of $5.5 million with National Bank.

The history of the property shows lots of activity. In 1989, it was owned by B’nai Brith Youth of Toronto. It was sold in October 1996 to Sherfam Inc., a holding company with interests in pharmaceuticals, for $1.2 million.

In July 1998, Sherfam sold it to B’nai Brith Congregation Synagogue for $1.2 million, and a $1.2 million mortgage was registered on the property the same day.

Over the years, B’nai Brith paid off various charges on the property that were owed to Sherfam, the Apotex Foundation, the Sherman Foundation, Toronto lawyer Melvyn Eisen, a numbered company, Communications Technologies Credit Union Limited and B2B Trust.

Around the same time that its national headquarters went up for sale in 2015, B’nai Brith faced bankruptcy proceedings for One Kenton, a 45-bed residence in north Toronto for Alzheimer patients owned by B’nai Brith Hillel – an affiliated organization – and operated by One Kenton Alzheimer Centre for Excellence.

The facility had been bleeding money since opening in December 2013, and by the summer of 2015, B’nai Brith Hillel had debts totalling $10.9 million, while One Kenton Alzheimer Centre for Excellence owed creditors more than $90,000.

One Kenton was eventually acquired by One Kenton Memory Care Limited Partnership, a new entity that continued to operate the facility as an Alzheimer’s residence. It’s headed by Avi Gottlieb, the president of Avcon Construction, the company that built One Kenton and held a second mortgage on the property.

At the same time, a lawsuit by Isaac Weinroth, the facility’s former executive-director, claiming $140,000 remains unresolved. Mostyn declined to comment on it, saying the issue was before the courts.

Meanwhile, in 2010 in Vancouver, B’nai Brith attempted to gain control of two seniors residences sitting on millions of dollars worth of land. Haro Park Centre and B’nai B’rith Manor had been constructed under the aegis of a Vancouver lodge, unaffiliated with B’nai Brith Canada, with government money. The takeover attempt ultimately failed.

READ: B’NAI BRITH LAUNCHES $26-MILLION SENIORS RESIDENCE PROJECT

For longtime members of the fraternal organization, B’nai Brith’s financial affairs have long been troubling. Another cause for concern was the consolidation of control exercised by head office.

Morley Wolfe served as president of the organization from 1982 to 1983 and was one of the members who spearheaded the creation of the League for Human Rights. A long-standing member, he also was active at the grassroots level in creating interfaith and intercultural dialogue with other Canadian ethnic and faith communities.

He recalls when “B’nai Brith Canada was a service organization and the service being provided was inside the Jewish community and outside the Jewish community. It was recognized for those operations.

“National office,” he said, “was the co-ordinating centre for these operations.”

Things changed significantly at B’nai Brith’s annual general meeting in 2005, when changes to the organization’s constitution were put forward to give more power to head office.

“There was a vote on changing the constitution,” Wolfe, a retired judge, recalled. “There were two sergeants at arms to count the votes. One, standing in front of us, said words to the effect that the vote was lost… Notwithstanding that, the constitution was changed.”

Wolfe maintains the entire process was flawed, and the constitution was altered without the proper legal basis. Opponents of the change set up a committee of concerned members to inform lodge members of their concerns. The group included respected members of the organization, including the late Lou Ronson, who was the most senior B’nai Brith member.

Wolfe said there were attempts made to silence him and others, some of whom were ejected from the organization.

Ronson, who was universally respected, was among them. “When they threw him out, I thought that is not the way B’nai Brith acts toward members, and I resigned,” Wolfe said.

I think, essentially, a lot of people lost respect for the organization. I don’t think B’nai Brith was as deeply involved with the community as it had been. It became a sort of personality-based organization with a newspaper,” Wolfe added.

Jeremy Ronson remembers those days well. Lou’s son, he, too, was ushered out of the organization for “conduct unbecoming.”

As a member of B’nai Brith, his father was particularly involved in community service and in promoting human rights. “He got a lot of satisfaction working with Dr. Karen Mock, who headed the League for Human Rights. They had some successes in doing things like getting the Granite Club to admit Jews” and initiating Jewish-Christian dialogue. A former national president and long-serving member of Upper Canada Lodge, he was “ushered out. He was very upset by that.”

That took place after members opposed changes to the constitution and when they were refused access to the organization’s full financial statements at the annual general meeting, he said.

Ronson, like his dad and several others, was expelled in late 2007.

“My expulsion document came in the mail the very day they cashed my membership cheque. I never got [the money] back,” he said.

The members challenged the expulsion in internal B’nai Brith courts and later hired a lawyer who threatened to take the case to the civil courts. Eventually, both sides settled the case, with the proviso that the expelled members could rejoin the organization.

But as for Ronson, “I want nothing to do with that organization now.”

He’s still in touch with lodge members, who tell him “the older folks won’t let go” and cede control to younger people. What’s more, “the times have changed and it doesn’t really speak for our generation or the younger one.”

Lawrence Hart served as B’nai Brith president from 1999 to 2002, when he, too, was ushered out of the organization. “I had given what I thought was a factual speech at the end of my three-year term as president. It was seen as an attack on the organizational structure.

“I thought there was too much power being placed in the hands of the executive vice-president [Dimant],” he said.

Hart believes the board was willing to cede leadership, control and responsibility to the professional staff, taking the organization further from its original lodge-based model, he said.

Over time, B’nai Brith morphed into more of “an advocacy organization,” which resulted in “lots of friction” at the grassroots level. Through the Institute for International Affairs (IIA), B’nai Brith focused on pro-Israel advocacy, which was supported by “a certain proportion of lodge members,” Hart conceded.

READ: B’NAI BRITH AUDIT FINDS ANTI-SEMITISM MOVING ONLINE

However, running agencies such as the IIA and the League for Human Rights costs money, and B’nai Brith has a limited budget. In addition, “The [now-defunct biweekly Jewish] Tribune [newspaper] was sucking money out of the organization,” and for it to succeed, it had to be subsidized, Hart said.

At the same time, it was difficult attracting new dues-paying members to the lodges, or chapters, and from the 1970s to the 2000s, you’ll find “a big drop-off” in membership, he added. Large sums were raised by high-profile dinner events and big donors, but in the end, the building was mortgaged to raise more, Hart said.

Calls to Dimant by The CJN were not returned.

For his part, Mostyn appears eager to put the past behind and focus on the future. The issue with the expelled members has been resolved, he said.

A B'nai Brith women's banquet in Fort William, Ont. 1948. ONTARIO JEWISH ARCHIVES BLANKENSTEIN FAMILY HERITAGE CENTRE
A B’nai Brith women’s banquet in Fort William, Ont. 1948. ONTARIO JEWISH ARCHIVES BLANKENSTEIN FAMILY HERITAGE CENTRE

The issue of the lodges clearly concerns Mostyn, who highlighted the recent meeting with a group of them.

“We had a joint meeting… talking about what’s good, what’s bad about the lodge network, what can be improved. And a lot of conversation really went around how can we transmit lodge values of giving back to the community – the mitzvah, if you will.”

He wouldn’t specify how many members the lodges currently have.

“Both the lodge structure and the organizational structure of B’nai Brith have changed greatly over the years,” Mostyn stated. “Whereas in the past, supporters of B’nai Brith were exclusively lodge members, today B’nai Brith is proud to have about 30,000 supporters, including both traditional lodge members and other boosters who contribute greatly to the organization. 

“We are looking to develop more of a collaborative spirit around the lodges,” he continued, which would include sharing information about successful programs, while working with the national organization.

“We’ve really gone through a process in the last couple of years where we’ve been identifying what we are really great at, and those are the areas we’re seeking to reinvigorate ourselves, rebrand ourselves in the community.

“In Montreal,” he continued, “we heard that affordable housing is a really big need,” so B’nai Brith recently broke ground on a 129-bed facility of affordable housing residence.

“That’s something [B’nai Brith] has expertise at.”

Why does B’nai Brith feel the need to re-brand itself, he’s asked.

READ: SENIORS HOUSING A LEGACY OF B’NAI BRITH LEADER WEINSTEIN

“We are partially still a fraternal organization. [We] need to let the public know what lodges do,” he replied.

As for recruiting new members, sports remains an important entry point.

“Sports is a traditional aspect of [B’nai Brith],” Mostyn said. “It’s a way we’ve always been able to bring in new people, a new entry port for people who want to get engaged with us.”

Regarding B’nai Brith’s “second pillar, human rights,” Mostyn said, “the League [for Human Rights] is an established brand, a well-known brand inside and outside the Jewish community for fighting anti-Semitism. The Audit [of Anti-Semitic Incidents] has been published for more than 30 years.”

B’nai Brith, he said, is the only organization that operates a 24/7 hate hotline. “That’s a big part of B’nai Brith today, and going forward.”

Turning specifically to the question of centralized control, “You could say that about any Jewish organization out there,” Mostyn said.

“There is more professionalism, and it is frankly required in this environment for fiscally responsible services. These are community dollars that come in.

“B’nai Brith is a transparent, well-governed organization that is fiscally responsible with all the donations that come in, whether it’s an $18 donation or a more generous gift.”

Asked directly about any money owing to Dimant and whether the organization can afford to pay his pension, Mostyn read from a prepared statement: “Mr. Dimant’s position as CEO of and other involvements with BB for 36 years ended on Sept. 30, 2014. Any dispute has been resolved.”

As for why B’nai Brith decided to sell 15 Hove, Mostyn said, “Were we great landlords in this building? No we weren’t. And most charities aren’t. So we had to focus on what we’re good at.

“We’re great at affordable housing. We’re fantastic at standing up for human rights and fighting anti-Semitism, fighting bigotry, putting on programs to help the least fortunate in our community.

“So, it’s a matter of prioritizing, which we did, and [we’re] really going through a process of reinvention for the next generation.”

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