A Legacy of Service
Colorado was still an untamed wilderness, when the discovery of gold near Pike’s Peak in 1859 brought the area to the nation’s attention. During that year at least twelve Jews of German descent migrated to Colorado to join in the quest for freedom, new opportunities and wealth. Many of these Jewish fifty-niners established small businesses in new towns and mining camps throughout Colorado, but the majority made their homes in Denver. Although these German Jews felt a strong sense of kinship and Jewish identity and met for Rosh Hashanah services that very first year of 1859, not until the 1870s did the Denver Jewish community mature and achieve permanence.
In 1871 the Hebrew Cemetery Association was formally organized and in 1872 B’nai B’rith was founded in Denver, an organization that was to influence the growth and development of Colorado’s Jewish and general community for over a century. From the very beginning, B’nai B’rith members have stood at the forefront of Colorado’s political, economic and social development. Many of the early B’nai B’rith members also helped organize Congregation Emanuel, which was founded in 1874, and subsequent generations of B’nai B’rith leadership have made their mark on numerous projects in Colorado, extending the impact of the organization even further.
Denver’s B’nai B’rith was organized as a lodge of the larger B’nai B’rith of America. Similar in motive and operation to the national organization, Denver Lodge #171 was undertaken to provide a base of fraternal networking and mutual aid, and evolved into a social and philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting humanitarian causes. The discussion which resulted in the founding of Denver’s B’nai B’rith is said to have taken place in the insurance office of Louis Anfenger, one of Denver’s leading pioneers. Anfenger articulated the major underpinning of the Lodge when he observed “one of the cardinal principles of our Order is to battle against prejudice and to vindicate justice.”
The first organization meeting of Denver’s B’nai B’rith took place on April 7, 1872 at Clark and Gross Hall located on Market Street between 15th and 16th Streets. Membership would be open to any Jewish male over the age of twenty-one, who demonstrated “good character,” and dues were set at one dollar and fifty cents. The initial membership of B’nai B’rith numbered twenty-five, and included men who were prominent in both the Jewish and general community, such as David Kline, who served as the first president, Vice President Fred Saloman, Secretary Louis Anfenger, and other noted businessmen and professionals, including Philip Trounstine, Ben Wisebart, Dr. John Ensnore, A.M. Appel, Edward Pesky, C.A. Schemer, Jules Londoner, Michael Hattenbach, and Leonard Meyer. At first the lodge shared meeting rooms with Congregation Emanuel, but in 1929 the B’nai B’rith Lodge acquired a building of its own, located at Colfax and Williams.
In the early years, the Denver Lodge, composed primarily of German Jews, concentrated its activities on loans, insurance benefits, caring for the sick, arranging funerals in the absence of a professional undertaker, and working towards better relations with the larger gentile community. The plight of Jews in Eastern Europe and the massive immigration to the United States after 1880 brought additional challenges to the Lodge over the next decades. Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Denver B’nai B’rith Lodge and the national order, as well, was the support of the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives, in Denver, which enabled the struggling hospital to open its doors to indigent victims of tuberculosis in 1899. Operating under the motto “None May Pay Who Enter, None May Enter Who Pay,” NJH became a beacon of hope to thousands of Americans throughout the United States, in both the Jewish and gentile communities.
Ultimately, the Eastern European immigrants and their children would cause a shift in the make-up of the Lodge, and in 1916 Joseph Lieberman became the first descendent of Eastern European Jews to become president of Denver B’nai B’rith Lodge #171. As the years passed, within the local Denver community and in other cities like Cripple Creek, Leadville, and Trinidad, where other lodges were established during the boom years, and later in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Boulder, B’nai B’rith served not only as a social, education, and philanthropic force but also as a central clearing house for those in trouble or in need. Fighting anti-semitism and eliminating discrimination against all minorities, a longtime priority of B’nai B’rith, became formalized with the 1941 establishment of the Anti-Defamation League in Denver, later the Mountain States Region.
The Lodge became particularly effective in regard to youth. From the early innovative “Big Brother” and “newsboy” clubs to counter juvenile delinquency among Jewish youth at the turn of the century, to the establishment of the BBYO (B’nai B’rith Youth Organization), AZA (Aleph Zadek Aleph), BBG (B’nai B’rith Girls), and later the Hillel Council to assist and educate Jewish youth on college campuses, B’nai B’rith of Denver has compiled an enviable record. In 1946, B’nai B’rith Women was established with Mrs. Fannie Heller as first president. Over the next decades five more chapters were founded, until they consolidated into one chapter in 1982, B’nai B’rith Women of Metro Denver, known for its dedication to community service and the perpetuation of Judaism. Support of the Hillel Council, with outreach programs at all of Colorado’s major universities, and the Ronald McDonald House, which assists families of critically ill children, are two primary focuses.
The B’nai B’rith Lodge #171 of Denver was also joined by Mile High Lodge in the 1940s and Colorado Lodge 2271 in 1960. Today they are merged into one lodge, but continue their work with Russian immigrants, Jewish prisoners at Canon City, community service projects such as Operation Brotherhood, education programs and forums, and restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Leadville.
Today, B’nai B’rith of Colorado continues to build upon the foundation of Jewish commitment, philanthropy, and social service to the local, national, and international community first laid by the founders in 1872. For over 128 years, B’nai B’rith Denver has compiled an admirable record of service, and as part of the greater international B’nai B’rith, the largest Jewish organization in the world, it unites the Jewish community, in dedication to the betterment of the Jewish people, the strengthening of Israel, and the preservation of Jewish learning and life around the world.