One month after Alan Bright turned 21, he was initiated into the same Masonic lodge to which his father and uncles belonged.
It was taken for granted that he would follow in a long-standing tradition among male members of his British Jewish family and join the ancient fraternal organization.
A few decades later, Bright, now a rabbi, is proud to have been appointed the first Jewish grand chaplain of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Quebec (GLQ), established in 1869 but with roots going back to the British conquest of 1759.
“The Masons are not a secret society; but a society that has secrets. The difference is you can’t get into a secret society, but the Masons welcome everyone provided they adhere to its requirements,” said Rabbi Bright, who has been active with the GLQ since he moved to Montreal 18 years ago.
The No.1 criterion for becoming a Mason is a belief in a Supreme Being or, as members call it, a “Great Architect of the Universe.”
No one, however, is asked how they perceive that being, said Rabbi Bright who stressed the worldwide organization is open to any man whatever his religious or political convictions, cultural background, or socio-economic status.
Although many political and business leaders and royalty have been Masons, he insists the organization is not elitist, certainly not here.
There is absolutely no contradiction in being a Mason and a practising Jew, and, in fact, there are significant similarities between the two, states Rabbi Bright, who has Orthodox smicha. Leading a moral life is central to Freemasonry as it is to Judaism. “Freemasonry is about making good men better,” he said.
Sir Israel Brodie, the chief rabbi of Great Britain from 1948-1965, he points out, was a grand master of the United Kingdom Lodge. “It was a great source of pride to Anglo-Jewry in what was a less tolerant era,” said Rabbi Bright.
Among the prominent Jewish Canadians who were Masons are businessman Samuel Bronfman and Nathan Phillips, mayor of Toronto.
Of course, Jews and Freemasonry were the target of conspiracy theorists over the centuries, and reviled by both Nazis and communists. Rabbi Bright notes that the only countries today where Freemasonry is illegal are Muslim ones.
The Masons do perform clandestine rituals, have signs recognizable only among members, and occasionally don garish regalia.
The magnificent Masonic Memorial Temple on Sherbrooke Street at St-Marc cannot be entered by outsiders. Inaugurated in 1929, it’s now a National Historic Site. In recent years, though, open houses have been held to demystify who the Masons are.
Charitable work is a high priority. The Shriners Hospital for children, opened in 1925, is the organization’s greatest legacy to Montreal. (While the Shriners are a separate group, all Shriners must be Masons.)
Freemasonry is usually described as evolving from the orders of medieval stonemasons who built the great cathedrals and palaces, but Rabbi Bright argues its rudiments can be found in early rabbinic times. The Talmud refers to the builders of Solomon’s Temple as banain, suggesting they laboured equally to raise the spiritual level of the world.
Israel has among the most active Masonic orders today, with about 70 lodges, said Rabbi Bright, who is also the representative of the Grand Lodge of Israel to the GLQ.
He is organizing a GLQ pilgrimage to Israel in 2021, which he hopes some 100 Quebec Masons, Jewish and non-Jewish, will take part in to strengthen the international fraternity.
Rabbi Bright was appointed grand chaplain on the recommendation of outgoing grand master André Boivin who wrote: “I see good things developing under your area of responsibility and I have no doubt that the craft [Masonry] will be better for it. I have said on many occasions that the appointment of a rabbi as grand chaplain will not only serve to remind everyone that we are a fraternity that believes in equality and inclusiveness, but one that also acts on those beliefs.”
As grand chaplain, Rabbi Bright’s duties include accompanying the new Grand Master Marc C. David on his visits to lodges in the province, leading invocations, representing the GLQ at public functions, and offering spiritual guidance as requested.
Today, the GLQ has about 3,500 members in 80 local lodges. Rabbi Bright estimates 300-400 are Jewish.
He had been a deputy chaplain from 2006. In that role he was preceded by eminent Montreal rabbis of yesteryear Solomon Frank and Charles Bender.
The GLQ has had one Jewish grand master, Maurice Kershaw, from 1997-1999. Like Rabbi Bright, he joined in Britain and this marks his 60th year as a Mason.
“Even though we are not a religious organization, to be grand chaplain is pretty high in our language,” said Kershaw.
Rabbi Bright encourages any Jewish man to look into joining. “It’s a beautiful network; I can travel almost anywhere in the world and find a brother.”