GARY Saltzman began his B’nai B’rith journey in the most humble and unremarkable of ways – on the bowling alley.
The Denver native who grew up on the East Side, prayed at Beth Joseph and graduated from George Washington, liked to bowl. He also thought that B’nai B’rith Lodge 171’s bowling league might be a good path by which to connect socially and professionally with other members of the Denver Jewish community.
The bowling part was a natural.
By 1975, when his membership in B’nai B’rith began, Saltzman had already been a high school and college competitive bowler. He was good enough to win a state high school championship.
The social connection part turned out to be an understatement.
“Within five years I not only had become the president of the bowling league but eventually ran for office of B’nai B’rith,” Saltzman says.
“I liked what they were doing because they were a full facet organization in terms of community as well as activity beyond the Denver area.”
By now, more than 35 years after he started, Saltzman’s list of B’nai B’rith leadership positions and honors is a long one, including lodge president and eventually national and international posts.
A few months ago, he was re-appointed chairman of the executive committee of B’nai B’rith International, officially the number two position in the organization and traditionally the stepping stone to the top position of president.
Suffice to say, Saltzman bowled a very impressive strike.
SOFT-spoken and articulate, Saltzman, 61, is a proud husband (Judy), father (Saul and Rebecca) and grandfather (Abigail).
His easygoing and thoughtful nature seems a perfect fit for his profession of accounting, and his long tenure at Wenner Silvestain and Co. (now The Wenner Group) speaks to his loyalty and steadfastness. Always “good with numbers,” he was educated at both CSU and CU, but considers the latter his true alma mater.
One cannot help but think that these qualities also helped him achieve success with B’nai B’rith, an organization that Saltzman describes as the “the world’s oldest and most widely known Jewish humanitarian, human rights and advocacy organization.”
Founded in 1843 by Jewish immigrants in New York, B’nai B’rith was long known as a “fraternal” organization, not unlike Masonic lodges or Kiwanis, but in more recent years it has increasingly described itself as a “service” organization, based on its charitable endeavors.
B’nai B’rith has long been seen as an incubator of influential Jewish activism and service projects, having created, and later spun off, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith Women (now Jewis h Women International) and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.
Membership is estimated at something above 200,000 members and supporters and its current budgets are in the $14 million range. Although active in more than 50 countries, the vast majority of its members are in the US.
Saltzman, as the organization’s number two leader, is already one of B’nai B’rith’s most visible faces – he speaks around the world and the country on a regular basis – and this visibility and responsibility will only increase if he is elected president.
His current term as executive committee chairman will last three years. Previous leaders in that position have been elected president by the organization’s board of governors almost automatically, although it is not an automatic ascendancy since the rules allow other high-placed members to bid for the presidential position.
“It’s a very democratic process,” Saltzman says with a smile.
Asked whether he would like to take over the captain’s chair in three years, Saltzman is characteristically modest.
“The first question I would ask is, who do I feel would be best in the position to lead the organization? Then, do I see myself as a capable person, as someone who can fit that circumstance? Do I see myself going in that direction if everything looks right?
“Yes, I would say that. But I would not say that it’s my goal to become president in three years because I’m not there in that context.”
He is not daunted, in any case, by the significant demands the organization places on his personal and professional time. He says he is blessed both with a supportive family and supportive business partners, which makes it far easier for him to honor his B’nai B’rith responsibilities.
ALTHOUGH Saltzman in some ways seems a shy person, he is anything but shy when it comes to defending B’nai B’rith.
He recently was called upon to do just than, in response to coverage in the American Jewish press of the organization’s recession-related difficulties with its pension plans. Saltzman did it with aplomb and wit, paraphrasing Mark Twain when he wrote that “the demise of this great organization is greatly exaggerated.”
In a larger sense, he also manages to strike a rare balance between being an effective defender and being defensive when asked how well the organization is doing overall.
Although he acknowledges that there were “a lot more” members when Saltzman joined B’nai B’rith in the 1970s than there are today, he approaches the issue from a glass-half-full perspective.
“The lodge system that was prevalent throughout the country probably saw its heyday in the Sixties,” Saltzman says.
“It was a different era, with different ways that people participated. The options and opportunities were so different. It was part of the social fabric, a true fraternal organization. That has changed over time.”
B’nai B’rith today is composed more of dues-paying members and affiliated “supporters” than the lodge brothers of yore. Today’s supporters and members are less interested in social brotherhood and more focused on activism and charity. Like volunteers in many other organizations, they tend to be more single issue focused, Saltzman says.
“People volunteer differently today. They give differently. They give more to single focus organizations.”
Today, Saltzman says — offering, perhaps, a hint of his agenda should he become president — B’nai B’rith is more focused on quality than on quantity.
“While our number of members in a real traditional sense has dropped, that’s been replaced by people who support the organization without necessarily joining as a traditional member.
“It has redefined itself, in the context that it’s not a fraternal organization anymore. But it has always been, since its inception in 1843, an organization that is interested in helping other Jews and helping other people that need help. Obviously when B’nai B’rith was created, they were concerned about the Jewish plight.”
A primary focus of B’nai B’rith in its early years was combating anti-Semitism. It continues that ongoing struggle, even though one of the organization’s “children,” the ADL, has become the world’s most effective weapon against anti-Semitism.
In addition, B’nai B’rith devotes considerable effort and resources to such causes as advocacy on behalf of seniors issues (it was one of the few Jewish groups to actively lobby on behalf of the Affordable Care Act in recent years), senior housing (B’nai B’rith provides subsidized housing for some 7,000 senior citizens in the US) and disaster relief (it was an important and immediate presence in Haiti after that nation’s devastating earthquake).
As Saltzman ticks off these activities, it becomes clear why he supports B’nai B’rith and why he is proud of the work it does for Jews and others.
“If you truly believe in what you’re doing you need to have the faith in it and the courage to continue,” he says. “That’s what we do as an organization.”
A MAJOR focus of Saltzman’s leadership at B’nai B’rith is working to sustain the organization through changing times.
While most official members are on the older side of the Baby Boom generation, increasing numbers of the unofficial “supporters” are younger. Saltzman is working to enhance that segment of the organization, largely through its “Young Professional Network” program.
“It’s challenging,” he says, “because the needs of young people are different than the needs of the older person. We’ve embraced that, rather than fight that to attract the younger demographic. That is where our future will be. We can’t exist on 60, 70, 80 year olds. We need the 20 and 30 and 40 year olds to be a part of the organization.
“We are creating an environment for them to participate in the manner in which they want to participate, in the areas that they want to participate, not just locally but also internationally.”
The younger side of B’nai B’rith is different from Saltzman’s generation in many ways. They communicate much more readily and effectively through social media and digital technology. They are less interested in socializing than in activism. They tend to be considerably more knowledgeable about, and focused on, Israel than their older colleagues.
“Certainly their needs in life are different,” Saltzman says. “Their activism is as unique to themselves as mine is to myself.”
But there are also many similarities, some of which are considerably deeper than the differences, he adds.
While today’s younger generation focuses on such issues as the effects on Israel of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, Saltzman remembers how his own Jewish activism began in 1967, when the concern was whether Israel could survive an attack by several Arab armies.
“You don’t necessarily have the same issues,” he says, “but they find their own issues.”
Similarly, younger B’nai B’rith activists today use currently popular terms like tzedakah and tikkun olam, but the values and ethics behind those terms have been integral to B’nai B’rith since the beginning, even though the terminology was different.
Saltzman points to the creation of National Jewish Hospital in the late 19th century, a humanitarian project that received significant and crucial aid from B’nai B’rith members across the country.
In fact, National Jewish Health’s main administrative center on Colfax and Colorado Blvd. is a former B’nai B’rith building.
“B’nai B’rith has had a significant role ever since we were created in terms of helping people in the United States,” Saltzman says.
“It makes you say they always have been there and they always will be.”
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News