Commentary: Who are the Rebekahs?

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There will be a holiday bazaar, sponsored by the Oak Leaf Rebekahs #254, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the I.O.O.F. Hall at 721 SE Barrington Drive in Oak Harbor.

Bazaar Poster 2015That leads to a couple of broader questions: What is I.O.O.F.?  And who the heck are the Rebekahs?

Briefly, I.O.O.F. stands for Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization founded in England in the 18th century on the premise that those in the group believe in a supreme being and in serving their community without recognition. That practice was deemed “odd,” and so the Odd Fellows were born.

The organization came to the United States in 1819, spreading its belief in friendship, love and truth from coast to coast and 25 other countries. The Oak Harbor Lodge was founded in the early 1900s. You can find more details on the Odd Fellows here.

The Rebekahs began in the mid-1800s as a female auxiliary to the Odd Fellows. Today it is an independent service organization open to both men and women and founded on similar principles.

I became involved with the Rebekahs through a friend, not long after moving to Whidbey Island. Like many, I had heard of the Odd Fellows but was not familiar at all with the Rebekahs. What attracted me to the group was its goal of serving community and the fact it really needed members. For years, the local branch of the Rebekahs has provided a scholarship to a graduating senior from Oak Harbor High School. At its heyday, the organization boasted more than 50 members and was able to help those in need on many levels.

Fast forward to today and the Rebekahs find themselves (at least in Oak Harbor) struggling with what many similar organizations are facing – a steep decline in membership and an uphill battle to recruit and maintain new members.

This identity crisis is particularly tough for a group like the Rebekahs, which doesn’t seek recognition for its good deeds and largely goes unnoticed. It doesn’t have the same recognition as, say, the Lions or Kiwanis or Rotary. Granted, there are differences in the foundations of all those groups – many lump the Rebekahs and Odd Fellows into the “secret” group category, similar to the Freemasons, for instance.

While there are parts of the ceremony of the Rebekahs considered “secret,” one has only to join the group to share in them. Membership is open to anyone over the age of 16 who has a belief in a higher being and a desire to serve his or her community. My take on the secret ritual is that it was probably a way to make membership in the organization more special when it was founded, something only fellow members were able to share, thereby setting it apart from everyday life.

Perhaps that is where the organization today is struggling. People don’t have time to sit through a lot of pomp and circumstance in order to get to the nuts and bolts. People today just take it upon themselves to help others and don’t feel the need to be part of an organization to do good deeds.

There is nothing more satisfying than being able to help someone else, and I commend anyone who gives back to their community in any way. But I know I certainly don’t have the time or the ability to raise money for a scholarship every year. And that is where membership in something larger than oneself pays off. By joining forces and pooling resources, we are able to come together and enjoy fellowship with one another and build bonds with others under the umbrella of giving back to our community.

While the Oak Leaf Rebekahs may be struggling, I know that if we go down, we go down with a fight. We may not be able to give as large a scholarship, but at least what we give will help a college student out by paying for books for a couple of terms. Do we need to do more to promote ourselves? Absolutely! Can we do more for our community? Yes! Does the group need to become more user-friendly for today’s world? In my opinion, yes, but that’s a decision for the broader group leadership to make.

In the meantime, we’ll raise money by holding our annual holiday bazaar. We’ll ask for donations for pictures with Santa and for the coffee, hot chocolate and treats we’ll have available. All of it will go to our scholarship fund.  Will we continue to look for folks to join our little group so we can keep doing what we do and maybe even broaden the scope of our involvement? You’d better believe it. The joy in membership is the ability to give back and have some fun along the way.

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