Frontier towns were notoriously chaotic, disorganized, and rowdy places. There was no social safely net, so people turned to organizations for help. Fraternal societies are member owned, not for profit organizations that provide social cohesion and essential services for their members. Membership offered evidence of one’s social standing, prominence in the community, and a place to network and socialize. Additionally, fraternal organizations provided needed benefits not available through government or other agencies. By pulling their resources, members of the benevolent societies were able to provide each other with assistance for health care and insurance. They also provided charitable aid for the less wealthy.
Fraternal societies were deeply involved in the civic culture of Victoria. They gathered in delegations behind marching bands, participated in parades and at other public celebrations. These organizations were often involved in funeral processions from funeral homes to the cemetery. When asked, they participated in grave-site rituals. A number of the Jewish Freemasons including Lewis Lewis and Simon Leiser were given both Jewish and Masonic burial rights. The activities of the fraternal organizations were extensively covered in the local papers.
Jewish involvement in the local fraternal organizations was strong. A few of the societies limited membership to white men, but no restriction was applied to Jews. Because of their social standing, and general acceptance by the wider community, Jews did not experience discrimination from the local fraternal organizations. Two of the founding ten Freemasons were Jewish and four of the founding five Odd Fellows were Jewish.
The first Masonic Lodge was founded in 1859, the same year as the Hebrew Benevolent Society was formed. As Freemasonry is not a Church or Christian based society, it has always been open to Jewish involvement. Jews were able to keep their own faith AND be members of Masonic Lodges. Freemasons hold themselves to a very high ethical standard. One’s oath meant that one complied with the tenants of Freemasonry. Loyalty was expected and received. Failure to meet the standards resulted in a loss of membership.
In a chaotic frontier town, knowing who to turn to and who could be trusted was a very important factor in succeeding socially and in business. Identifying with one’s faith group was one key tribe, but often not enough. Because the Freemasons strictly enforced their high ethical standards, members would have a lot of confidence and faith in each other. For Jews, this meant that beside they had another ‘trust’ group to which they could turn.
In the early days, generally speaking, membership in the Masonic Lodge was open to the wealthier, upper class of men. This offered better networking opportunities and a dependable source to secure or advance credit. Freemasons are also able to recognize each other by striking poses, with a handshake, or other known methods of identification. Being a member of a ‘trust’ group with global reach was another factor which made being a Freemason very attractive to Jews.
Masonic Chains belonging to Frank Sylvester Photo from descendant B. Campbell
For more information about the Jewish Freemasons buried in the historic Jewish Cemetery: