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Lodge Disbands, Leaving Behind a Scholarly Legacy

July 21, 2011 By:
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Once a month for the last 53 years, Elkins Park resident Jerry Older joined fellow members of the Judaic Lodge to share a meal, play a round of poker and discuss which charities to support.

Like so many other Jewish organizations, however, lodge membership ranks thinned dramatically over the years.

Trustees began anticipating the end about 15 years ago, said Older, 80, the group's former treasurer.

"We tried to hang on and do what we could," he said.

This summer, they finally gave in.

"You just can't get new members in organizations anymore," he said. "Things have to change, I guess. It's a shame."

Though the organization dissolved in June, the last few members have left a scholarship fund behind to perpetuate the memory of their 135-year history.

Gratz College will award scholarships from the annual interest accrued on the Jewish fraternal organization's $155,000 gift. The majority of the scholarships will be designated for college students, though some will also be reserved for Jewish Community High School attendees, said Gratz's president, Joy Goldstein.

The Judaic Lodge has supported various Jewish and secular charities since 1876 when the Grand Lodge in Williamsport, Pa., granted a group of young men a charter to create Philadelphia Lodge No. 1, Order of Free Sons of Israel. According to Jewish Exponentarchives, one of the early requirements for membership was that applicants agree to become American citizens.

For immigrants who had "nothing around for them to do" other than work, the lodge served as a vehicle "to get together and yet have a charitable purpose," said Sidney Weitzman, a trustee and past president from Glenside.

Aside from the general ideals of friendship, charity and truth, the lodge provided modest financial benefits for members who were laid off or sick.

"Back in tough times, it helped put a little bit of bread on the table," said Weitzman, 81.

At its height, the group included roughly 1,600 members in five lodges under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of Philadelphia. Members paid about $30 a year to participate in monthly meetings usually held at restaurant banquet rooms, often staying afterward to eat and play board games or cards, Older said. Several men played in Jewish basketball, bowling and softball leagues. Women were invited to join in for bingo events and an annual banquet.

Through a charity fund established in 1947, the group made annual donations to organizations such as the Friends of Israel Scouts, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, United Way, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Passover League.

As membership dwindled, the lodges consolidated and changed names.

"I can only imagine what it was in its heyday," said Abbey Spector, 54, the group's last president. When Spector joined 10 years ago, following in his father's footsteps, it had already become challenging for the aging population of members to travel to events.

In the last couple of years, Spector said, it was hard just to get seven of the remaining 32 members for a quorum at the meetings that by then had migrated to his Somerton home.

"It used to be a father brought in his son or a friend brought in a friend," Weitzman said. "In this busy world that we live in today, other things have supplanted it."

So, after months of questioning where they were going and what their purpose was, Weitzman said, they voted to disband.

Unlike some other places they researched, he said, Gratz was willing to manage a scholarship fund that would continue the Judaic Lodge name without shaving off a large percentage for administrative costs. In addition, the college will manage the life insurance benefits that the organization set up years ago for long-standing members.

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