Pikesville man makes B'nai B'rith his business

September 12, 1990|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

Kent Schiner says it will take a businessman to take care of the business of B'nai B'rith International.

And the businessman he has in mind is Kent Schiner.

A local insurance underwriter and financial consultant, Schiner was elected president of B'nai B'rith, the world's largest Jewish organization. The election took place late last month in Dallas at the group's 35th biennial international convention. The president serves for two years and can seek re-election once.

Schiner, who succeeds New York attorney Seymour Reich, beat Washington attorney Richard Heideman by a "very close" margin from a total of about 600 votes, according to B'nai B'rith spokesman Buzzy Gordon. He will not divulge the exact margin.

Neither will Schiner, 57, who nonetheless contends that his victory was not as hard-fought as is claimed.

"The margin was comfortable to me," he says with a breezy confidence that he will need as the head of the 157-year-old organization with more than 500,000 members in 46 countries.

An old hand at the workings of B'nai B'rith, Schiner has held numerous positions at the state and national levels of the organization, including senior vice president and chairmanships of the national leadership committee, the national marketing committee, the members' insurance committee and the 1988 international convention.

Schiner, a New York native who moved to Baltimore when he was 10, lives in Pikesville with his wife of nearly 34 years, Barbara, a ballet instructor. They have three children.

Rabbi Seymour Essrog of Beth Israel Congregation, where Schiner is a member, says Schiner "really paid his dues in B'nai B'rith. He started at bottom rung of the ladder and worked really hard to get to the top. It's a very prestigious role that he has now, being captain of that ship."

To hear the captain tell it, the ship is negotiating some rough waters these days.

"The two biggest problems we face -- and all big organizations face them these days -- are a shortfall in fund-raising and declining membership," Schiner says. "I'm having our treasurer and a small committee review, line by line, our budget for every item that can be eliminated. That's already in progress."

Also, he wants to generate more income by tapping into foundation grants and asking members to remember B'nai B'rith as fondly as possible in their wills.

Which raises the problem of a middle-age to elderly membership that is dwindling rapidly.

"I see getting some young blood into our leadership as a top priority," Schiner says. "A key way of doing that is to improve the status and image of B'nai B'rith locally. We have to work at the grass-roots level. We need better public relations so we can communicate to the community all the good things we're doing. Most people aren't aware of the programs we have."

B'nai B'rith is perhaps best known for its work against anti-Semitism, and also for its agencies for Jewish education, senior citizen housing, youth activities and health care.

Turning to the lingo of the businessman, Schiner adds that B'nai B'rith will have to trot out some tried and true marketing strategies if it hopes for a viable future.

"That comes from my insurance background," he explains. "Insurance salesmen are highly skilled and trained in such areas of business as advertising, marketing, how to close a deal, how to provide good service.

Those are the kinds of things we'll need to do with B'nai B'rith."

During his tenure, Schiner is likely to oversee the official RTC admission of women into B'nai B'rith International. For 90 years, Jewish women have been able to join B'nai B'rith Women, but never the main organization of men.

Now, in the wake of a five-year agreement drawn up at the Dallas convention, the women's group would become autonomous, and women would be allowed to have dual membership in both B'nai B'rith International and B'nai B'rith Women. Women would even be able to run for the presidency of B'nai B'rith International.

The final step is for the members of B'nai B'rith Women to ratify the agreement, probably next month, according to Schiner.

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