In 1843, Henry Jones and 11 other German-Jewish immigrants gathered in Sinsheimer's Café on New York's Lower East Side to confront what Isaac Rosenbourg, one of B'nai B'rith's founders, called "the deplorable condition of Jews in this, our newly adopted country."
Thus, B'nai B'rith (children of the covenant) was born.
The original members' first concrete action was creating an insurance policy that awarded members' widows $30 toward funeral expenses, and a stipend of one dollar a week for the rest of their lives. Each child would also receive a stipend and, for male children, assurance he would be taught a trade.
It is from this basis of humanitarian aid and service that a system of fraternal lodges and chapters grew in the United States and, eventually, around the world.
Many of the earliest achievements of B'nai B'rith represented firsts within the Jewish community, including aid in response to disasters:
- In 1851, Covenant Hall was erected in New York as the first Jewish community center in the United States.
- One year later, B'nai B'rith established in New York the Maimonides Library, the first Jewish public library in the United States.
- Immediately following the Civil War—when Jews on both sides of the battle were left homeless—B'nai B'rith founded the 200-bed Cleveland Jewish Orphan Home, described as the most modern orphanage of its time.
- In 1868, when a devastating flood crippled Baltimore, B'nai B'rith responded with a disaster relief campaign. This act preceded the founding of the American Red Cross by 13 years and was the first of many domestic relief programs.
- That same year, B'nai B'rith sponsored its first overseas philanthropic project, raising $4,522 to aid the victims of a cholera epidemic in what was then Palestine.