Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
When the Rebekah Degree was authorized by Odd Fellowship in the 19th Century, it was a huge breakthrough for women. Odd Fellows became the first fraternal order to admit women. Well, initially Odd Fellowship didn’t exactly admit women on the same par with men. The Rebekah Degree was created as an “honorary degree” than men could confer on their wives and daughters. Women were still not admitted into Lodges of Odd Fellows. But eventually, the honorary degree evolved and became a full-fledged degree, and Rebekah Lodges were formed. But while men could join a Rebekah Lodge (and some, particularly husbands, did) women were still prohibited from joining Odd Fellows Lodges. Essentially, the Odd Fellows Lodge became known as the “man’s Lodge” and the Rebekah Lodge became known as the “woman’s Lodge.” In fact, even today, some of the most senior members of the Order still refer to the Lodges in this fashion. That changed (thankfully) around the turn of the 21st Century, when membership in Odd Fellows Lodges was finally opened to women.
Yet is Rebekah even an appropriate role model for women in the 21st Century? Rebekah is a character out of the Old Testament. And her claim to fame is the following: Abraham was looking for a wife for his son, Isaac. Abraham and his family were living in Canaan at the time, and he didn’t want Isaac to marry a Canaanite. So, Abraham sent Eliezer, his servant, to his own kinsmen in the town of Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. When the servant came to a well in Nahor he prayed that God would give him success, and in particular, he prayed that whichever young woman provided water for him and his camels would be God’s choice to be Isaac’s wife. As the servant was praying, a beautiful young virgin named Rebekah came to the well. She not only gave the servant some water, but she also watered his camels until they were sated. This was the sign for which the servant had prayed. The servant gave Rebekah a nose ring and two bracelets, spoke to her brother (Laban) and her father (Bethuel), and all was settled – the marriage was arranged. So, Rebekah traveled with the servant to a strange house in a strange land, to Abraham’s house and wed Isaac. A quaint story, but not exactly compelling to and inspiring for 21st Century women. Rebekah was beautiful and kind (giving water to a stranger and his camels) and obedient to men (she dropped everything to go with a stranger to marry a person she had never met). What message does this send to the modern woman?
The irony of all this is that both ancient and modern history is replete with stories of strong, influential, powerful, caring and kind women – including Cleopatra, Boudicca, Artemisia, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Catherine the Great, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Florence Nightengale – these are women whose lives impart important lessons and who can be important role models to potential members in this new century.
Men and women in the 21st Century are quite different than men and women of the Bible, or for that matter, men and women of the 19th Century when the Rebekah Degree was launched. And in my opinion, the continuation of a separate Branch of Rebekahs is incompatible with modern society. I firmly believe that the Rebekah Degree should be retained, rewritten and modernized (and given a new name – perhaps the “Degree of Equality”), but that Rebekah Lodges and Odd Fellows Lodges should merge. The future of Odd Fellowship, in my view, is one Order with many advancing Degrees. I do not say this lightly, as I am active in my Odd Fellows Lodge, my Rebekah Lodge, my Encampment and my Canton.
I have raised this issue in some of my earliest writings. I joined the Order in 2004, and by 2005 had come to the realization that (1) we were shrinking as an Order, (2) to reverse the trend we needed to attract new members, (3) and the only way to attract new members was to change the way we operate. In 2006, I wrote my “Ten Principles” (which you can find at pages 6-8 of my first book “The Future of Odd Fellowship – To Be or Not To Be”). In those principles, I suggested that while the Rebekah Degree was trend-setting in the mid-1800’s when it was founded, in the 21st Century there is no need for “separate but equal” Lodges – and that a plan must be developed to unify Rebekah Lodges with Odd Fellows Lodges. I further suggested that the various Branches of the Order must be consolidated and unified as well.
This is, frankly, inevitable if our Order is to survive. If we truly believe in non-discrimination and equality, these separate units for men and women make no sense. The numbers of persons joining the Rebekah Lodges – and Ladies Encampment Auxiliaries, and Ladies Auxiliaries Patriarchs Militant – is shrinking. Per SGL statistics, our Order is collectively shrinking. Rebekah Lodge membership is diminishing by 2.99% per year; LEA membership is dropping at 6.48% per year; and LAPM membership is declining by an astonishing 9.21% per year. This is damaging, debilitating and demoralizing. There are 20 jurisdictions in North America that now have less than 300 members in the entirety of the jurisdiction. We are dying as an Order by the “death of a thousand cuts” – a slow, painful demise. While our numbers are decreasing, the average age of members is increasing. Very few young women (and even fewer young men) join the Rebekahs, or LEA or LAPM today. A long-time and respected member of the Odd Fellows, Rebekahs, Encampment and Canton recently said to me: “It’s ridiculous to have to carry four dues cards for the same organization, and to have to make four dues payments.” And it’s true. We are, as a fraternal order, much too diffused. We are shrinking in membership at unsustainable rates, and every year we close and consolidate Lodges, Encampments and Cantons. Even Sovereign Grand Lodge has discussed the need to merge our diffused branches. This discussion must be more focused and must proceed at a faster pace. We are running out of time. LAPM and PM need to merge. LEA and Encampments need to merge. Ultimately, Rebekahs and Odd Fellows need to merge. And then we can have one unified fraternal Order with nine degrees: The Initiatory Degree (or as it used to be called, the Degree of Trust), the Degree of Friendship, the Degree of Love, the Degree of Truth, the Rebekah Degree (or, as I suggest it be called, the Degree of Equality), the Degree of Faith, the Degree of Hope, the Degree of Charity, and the Degree of Universal Justice. All under one tent.
This, in my view, is the future of Odd Fellowship. And the sooner we come to grips with this reality, and deal with it in an intelligent and thoughtful way, the better and stronger our Order will be. The ball is in the court of Sovereign Grand Lodge.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California