B'nai B'rith International, a Jewish humanitarian and social work agency that has been in the forefront of the fight for civil liberties, was hit yesterday with a picket line of 18 rabbis protesting the organization's refusal to bargain collectively with them on wages and working conditions.

The picketing rabbis, who carried signs saying, "B'nai B'rith Stop Exploiting Us" and "Recognition Is a Basic Right," are members of the Association of Hillel Jewish Campus Professionals, a 34-year-old group of rabbis and laymen who run Hillel Jewish student centers on campuses around the country. These centers, among other things, offer counseling to students in religion, ethics and academic matters.

More than two-thirds of the association's 90 members get their salaries from B'nai B'rith, which finances many Hillel campus offices. As such, B'nai B'rith is one of the largest single employers of rabbis in this country.

In a written statement released late yesterday, Gerald Kraft, president of B'nai B'rith International, said: "We regret the decision made by this group to attempt to pressure B'nai B'rith today through public display rather than the continuation of what had been a fruitful dialogue."

While reaffirming his organization's "dedication to the principle of collective bargaining," Kraft said that procedure is inappropriate for setting salaries of Hillel directors, whose jobs are "highly individualistic."

"Up to now we have been pretty much at the mercy of B'nai B'rith in matters of salary and benefits, and many of us feel what we receive is not adequate," said one of the demonstrators, Rabbi Robert Saks, director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center at the University of Maryland.

The public demonstration, which lasted for about five hours, was taken only after much "hesitancy and ambivalence" on the part of the Hillel rabbis and "is an expression of our dissatisfaction and our desire to negotiate as equals," Saks said.

The roots of yesterday's actions go back to February, according to the association's president and George Washington University's Hillel director, Rabbi Gerald Serotta. In that month B'nai B'rith's financial management committee rejected a new salary scale for Hillel rabbis and their lay staff members that was worked out over three years in informal meetings between the association and B'nai B'rith's own Hillel Commission.

In February, the association asked B'nai B'rith for recognition as a collective bargaining unit for negotiating salaries and working conditions.

"Due to a lack of response" from B'nai B'rith, association members voted by a large majority to affiliate with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in April, Serotta said.

On Monday B'nai B'rith's board of governors voted to reject the request for recognition, Serotta said.

The average salary of Hillel campus rabbis is $24,000, or $8,000 to $10,000 less than the average salary of rabbis heading congregations, Serotta said. Some employment conditions, such as paternity leave, were also subjects the rabbis wished to negotiate.

"We have not been able to pay our bills and people are looking for other professions," said Jeremy Brochin, lay associate director of the University of Maryland's Hillel office. "Because of that . . . we are concerned that quality people are leaving and not coming in the profession. It's a tremendous blow to the Jewish community on college campuses."