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Founder Member and Past Master of
Montefiore Lodge #78 G.L. of the State of Israel


A paper delivered to the Regular Meeting n° 19 of Montefiore Lodge,
Tel Aviv, the 29th of December 2002.


            In Masonic circles throughout the world, particularly in English-speaking countries, the question of the future of our Order has become a pressing issue. The past fifty years have marked gradual erosion in the number of Masons in the world. In the USA, to give an example, from the 1950's until the end of last century, the membership of the 50 Grand Lodges dropped by more than fifty percent. These numbers cause for serious reflection. Some lodges had to close down, others merge, and everywhere the maintenance of the beautiful Masonic temples or halls that are our proud window to the world has become a heavy, almost unbearable burden.

            Another important point is the geriatrification of the lodges. As less young men join, and those who do join remain in the lodges a shorter time, the average age of the remaining members creeps up, making the lodge even less attractive to the younger generations.

            Attempts have been made to find the causes for this situation. Obviously, a combination of factors is at work. In the USA, some observers claim this is the return to normal sizing of the Fraternity, after the unusual expansion that took place after the Second World War; others point to the changes society at large has experience in the last century, and particularly in the last decades. We perceive the increasing self concern of the younger generations, the "bowling alone" syndrome, the influence of television, and now Internet, making people more sedentary and less gregarious.

            This situation, which is also felt in our own country, does not seem to have the same effect in other areas of the world, such as Latin America, France and Turkey, to give some examples, where Freemasonry follows traditional rules of strict selection of candidates, slow advancement through the degrees – one to two years between one degree and the next – small lodges, and active participation in the lodge demanded from each brother.

            If we want to change the course of the present trend, I believe that our problem has to be analyzed, because it is composed of two factors, both equally important: acquisition and retention.

            The first question is how to make our lodges attractive to the younger generations. Acquisition, this is the fundamental first step. Let us think for a moment. What can we offer the young man in his thirties or forties, which would make him want to join a lodge? A friend, or a relative, of course. That is perhaps the most common source of our recruitment. However, it is far from being a sure thing. How many of the brethren in your own lodges have succeeded in bringing in their offspring? I wonder if you need two hands to count the fingers.

            Ours is a voluntary association. We don't publicize, we generally don't ask anybody to become a Mason. That's against one of our rules. "Of you own free will and accord" and so on. So, contrary to a business selling doughnuts or dresses, which can advertise and make special offers, bargain days, end of season sales, we must offer something that our "customer" – that innocent prospective candidate – will be enticed to buy on his own. By his own will and accord.

            Allow me to digress. Some of you may be trying hard to hold your horses and not jump up to yell: "It's being done in the USA!" Yes, it is true, one day Master Masons – they call it the Grand Master's Class: Initiation, Passing and Raising of a few hundred candidates in one day. These assembly-line Masons have certainly enjoyed a bargain basement sale. But in business, liquidation sales usually end up with the closing of the business. Let's hope it doesn't happen to us.

Some critics call the resulting brothers McMasons, doubting that they can get any meaning from the ceremonies they watched as spectators. The jury is still out about the effectiveness of this procedure. Some observers claim the resulting Masons are no different from the ones who went through the degrees in a couple of months. Still, this measure does not appear to have much effect on the hemorrhaging lodges, which continue losing two to three percent of their membership each year.

            So, I ask again, what can we offer? Something that is unique to our organization, which you cannot find in the Rotary or the Lions or a London club.

Fraternity? Yes, certainly. But similar links of brotherhood exist among graduates of the same university, members of the same synagogue, veterans of the same army.

            What we have, different from all the others, is an esoteric tradition. A philosophy, not a religion, yet tolerant of all religions. A tradition of teaching by symbols. We are an academy like no other, with a curriculum that brings together and extracts the best of the philosophical ideas that have nurtured western civilization.

            And we have a secret. Yes, the Mason's secret. Wake up, Brethren, because now I'm going to reveal our secret for all to hear! Our secret is – drum roll in the background, please – we want to improve the world.

            Big secret! Big words! And how do we propose to achieve this momentous task? Conquering the world with steel and fire? Finding the way to turn water into oil? Making the entire world speak Hebrew?

            No way. Simply this: by improving ourselves.

            Every human being is capable of polishing his imperfections, restraining his bad impulses, developing positive inclinations, what we call polishing the rough stone. We can be better, if we really want to.

            We can do it, and nobody can do it for us. Not even Freemasonry. We get only symbolic tools: a hammer and a chisel, and perhaps a 24-inch gauge. Tools that we must handle, not anybody else.

            And our trust is that by becoming better men ourselves, our family becomes better, our closest environment improves, and eventually the whole society becomes a more tolerant, a more enlightened place to live.

            Another thing, unique to our organization, is that we are a big family. That's why we call each other brother, is it not? Like in every family, we sometime have arguments; let's face it, it's not unusual for brothers not to love each other, but the basic feeling, the bond of brotherhood remains strong. The stories are numberless, of how Masons help one another, even in the most trying circumstances, men who meet for the first time, who may never meet again, yet the bond is there, linking them at once as old friends.

            So, let's assume we have succeeded in bringing in the new Brother, he's young, intelligent, well educated. How do we keep him in the lodge? That's our second problem. Retention.

            Brethren, I have visited quite a few American lodges, and also some in England, not many, I admit. Always, everywhere, I was very well received. And yet, I must be honest. In recalling what I felt, the truth is, I was often bored.

            Opening ritual, minutes, welcome the visitors, report of the treasurer, report on sick brothers, approve expenses (that's an American shibboleth), and then out we go to eat. Some places I visited, they stopped a ceremony in the middle to have dinner, and then continued. In some lodges the "meal" was a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.

            And then they complain the members don't come to the meetings? I think those who do come should get a medal, for endurance beyond the call of duty.

            But let's not discuss what they do overseas. Let's think of what we can do here, at home.

            First of all, coming to the lodge should be fun. It should be a pleasant experience, one you want to repeat, to enjoy again.

            Apart from the conviviality, it should be mentally stimulating. Make it an occasion to think, to exchange ideas, to teach and to learn. There is an old saying, if two people have one dollar each, and they exchange, they still have one dollar each. But if each has an idea, and they exchange, each one will now have two ideas.

            Some will say, we are not all authors, or scholars, nor have the time to do research, to write academic papers. True, in part. I have seen young people, very busy in their professional life, who still find the time to do something they like, visiting a library, searching material in the internet, and they write wonderful papers, some of which I was fortunate to have printed while I was Editor of Haboneh Hahofshi.

And if a lodge is really unable to produce its own material for discussion, Brethren, there is a world of Masonic literature available for the asking! Pick a journal, or a book, and have someone read a few pages. Then discuss. Talk to each other. Talk is the cement of friendship.

            Another idea, enroll your lodge in a research society, like the Quatuor Coronati Correspondence Circle, or the Philalethes, or the Southern California Research Lodge. The sources are hundreds. Then you get publications filled with interesting material, suitable for reading and discussing.

            Please don't misunderstand me; I'm not claiming that the lodge should be a debating society. But it should be a place to retire from everyday cares. Where you can turn off your minds from business, worries, anxiety, and devote a couple of hours to pleasant, entertaining and stimulating dialogue.

            Some of you may be asking, why don't I say a word about ritual? That, you may believe, is the core of Freemasonry. Well, not exactly. I would say that ritual is the skeleton, the backbone of the lodge, without which it would fall apart. But is it not enough. It needs the flesh and blood of active participation. Let me ask you, why do we have an Opening Ritual in the Lodge? Why can't the Master just strike down his gavel and announce that the Lodge is open for business?

            Because the time spent in opening ritually the lodge has two purposes: one, to remind us that ours is not simply another club, or a board meeting. We meet in a consecrated place, the Masonic temple, symbolically in the center of the universe. Opening the lodge we also open a stretch of time out of time. In other rituals, we stress that the lodge opens at noon and closes at midnight. Symbols, symbols.

            The second reason we have an opening ritual is to give us time to settle down, to stop thinking of the world outside with its mayhem and endless struggle. The lodge is an island of peace, of reflection, of relaxation. Repeating the well worn words of the opening ritual allows us to free our minds from daily cares and be ready for our Masonic work.

            Now, ritual is important, performing a Masonic ceremony by heart and without mistakes is commendable. Provided we remember that the ceremony is not for us, it's for the candidate. If an officer forgets a word, or uses another one instead, no harm is done. The candidate doesn't know it, unless some busybody doesn't jump to "correct" the mistake. Then the harm is done.

            A ceremony well performed is like a play. We are the cast. After the ceremony has ended, if all goes well, we all feel the satisfaction of a good performance. But then, after the ceremony, begins the second task, no less important, which is to explain to the candidates what was done, why it was done, and what it is supposed to accomplish.

            Masonic instruction is not, or not only, rote learning of a series of questions and answers, or repeating the ritual until it's word perfect. Masonic instruction is intended to make the new Apprentice or the new Fellow-Craft aware of the depth of our symbolism, of our history, our traditions, our enemies and our victories. So they become proud of being a Mason.

            It's like going to an opera for the first time, sung in Hungarian. We liked the music, but we really didn't get much of the libretto. Only if we come for a second time, having read a translation, we'll get the full enjoyment of the musical drama. And our dramas are much older than all the operas in the world.

            I come now to a subject than until not long ago was taboo in our lodges: the place of women in Freemasonry. Now it's out in the open. We cannot ignore the fact that our women are not the ladies of 19th century literature, ready to faint at the first wave of the fan. They are well educated our ladies, well read, many have successful careers, some of them make more money than we do! If they are interested in Freemasonry, by all means encourage them, tell them what we do, let them read our literature. Whatever is printed is no longer secret.

            Most important, the lodge as a group must incorporate the women, our wives, into the life of the lodge. The mason's wife must not feel left outside.

Let me give you a successful example: in my own lodge we often hold dinners (we call them "white tables") together with the ladies. Especially after every initiation, and we make sure the candidate's wife is warmly greeted and is made felt welcome. There is, of course, the yearly Installation banquet. And the lodge has usually festive meetings before Pesah, and on Independence Day. Once a year we perform the Day of the Rose ceremony, following the official ritual of the Grand Lodge. Once a year we spend a fraternal week-end, at a holiday resort, for the entire family, including a Masonic seminar on Saturday morning, which gets better from year to year.

Brethren, we have managed to make the lodge a family affair, and the result is that we have very few voluntary losses.

            Is this the recipe valid for all lodges? Probably not. Perhaps in one lodge the members are more interested in art, or in music, or the theatre. The principle is the same, to get together not only inside the temple, but also outside, where the whole family can participate.

Ours is not a unique experience, a couple of weeks ago I got a newsletter from the Grand Lodge of South Australia. They have a feature article entitle "The New Millennium, Freemasonry and Women". And what are their conclusions: right, exactly we I have just described, plus a few other interesting recommendations, like to dispense with the usual run of Masonic speeches and toasts at the Festive Boards, and moderating lodge hours so that the men don't arrive home very late.

The most interesting aspect of that article, however, is the positive attitude it reflects towards Women Freemasons, including a recommendation "to develop women relationship policies and form a 'Freemasonry and Women Relations Program'. A further suggestion is to allow Women's Orders to use our halls and to develop joint social, ceremonial and intellectual activities.

            Ours is a unique organization. An assembly of men who meet regularly not to make money, not to promote their business, but to learn to become better men and better brothers to one another.

            I started with some comments that may have sounded pessimistic. That's not my belief. I believe that Freemasonry, a society that has lived for hundreds of years, will survive for many centuries more, because it fills a need. Perhaps our lodges will be fewer, and perhaps they will be smaller, but Masons there will be in every country where men are free to think by themselves, and free to gather peacefully for their personal enjoyment and the betterment of the society in which they live.

            This brings me to the last subject I want to touch this evening. This is the action of Masons, and Freemasonry as a body, in mundane affairs.  

            In previous centuries, Masons were the leaders in the liberation movements against colonialism in the nineteenth century. They were the leaders of the fight against religious intolerance and clerical control in many countries throughout the 20th century. They fought against the evils of slavery and colonialism. For the separation of church and state, for many things that today are part and parcel of what we believe an enlightened nation should hold dear.

            Is our work done? Are we, the Masons of the world, going to rest on our laurels, rejoice again and again in past glories, how many men like Washington, Bolivar, Martí and Garibaldi fought to liberate their countries? Is our generation one of back-slapping, backward looking men, or are we going to look forward to our future, and emulate our predecessors, but in other ways, appropriate to the world in which we live now?

            There is much that we can do, the world is beset by the moral dangers of fanaticism, religious intolerance and superstition, and the physical dangers of overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, pollution, disease and hunger.

            If we try to find a common denominator to all these evils, I believe that the one that stands out, among all possible candidates is this: ignorance!

            And that is where our future contribution to the world must be focused: education. This is already being done. It has been done in the past; it must be done now and in the future. Masons were and are involved in education at all levels. Masons have created universities: Girard College in the States, the Free University of Brussels, University La República of Chile, are some examples. Charity is praiseworthy, but the highest form of charity is education.

            If we, as Masons, can contribute to instill in our educational institutions our spirit of tolerance, democracy, respect for the individual, we shall do the equivalent in our time of what our freedom fighters did two centuries ago.

            I believe that Masons have the mettle, and will find the will to rise and show the way in fighting against ignorance, the foundation of all the evils that threaten the future of the human race.

            We can start now, we can start here.

"Eem eyn any li, me li? Veh-eem lo achshav, matai?"

(אם אין אני לי, מי לי ? ואם לא עכשיו, מתי ? ).