The Workmen’s Circle or Arbeter Ring (אַרבעטער־רינג) is a Yiddish language-oriented American Jewish fraternal organization committed to social justice, and to Jewish education, culture and community-building. The Circle provides schools, summer camping, adult retreats and year-round programs of concerts, lectures, and secular Jewish culture and holiday celebrations.
Founded in 1892, the Workmen’s Circle became a national order in 1900. It was established as a social and cultural Jewish labor fraternal order. Its purpose was to provide members with mutual aid and health and death benefits and to support the labor and socialist movements of the world. Historically, the Workmen’s Circle was closely tied to the heavily Jewish garment unions, the Yiddish labor press, and the Socialist Party. The Circle was highly dedicated to raising the education levels of members and bringing social change in America. Workmen’s Circle functions provided a place for Jewish radicals of different ideals to mingle.
In its early years, the Workmen’s Circle remained true to its radical origins by building radical ideals into membership requirements. Prospective members had to belong to a union and to vote only for working-class parties. One branch was dissolved because its members were thought to be too religious.
Dedicated to the promotion of progressive Yiddish culture, the organization established a wide array of cultural activities including the publication of books, adult education and singing and drama clubs. It also promoted Jewish education for young people by opening afternoon and Sunday schools for Jewish children, known as shules, in 1916. In addition, the Workmen’s Circle established homes for the aged, summer camps, Yiddish theater clubs, and several choirs.
The first convention of the Workmen’s Circle took place on March 29-30, 1901, in New York City. With increased Jewish immigration to the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Workmen’s Circle became ever increasingly popular. In 1905 membership was at 6,776. Just eight years later membership rose to 45,666. Peak membership was reached in 1925 with 87,000 members. Such a high increase is partially explained by the growing number of Jews on the political left and a lack of major competing organizations in the field. Membership began dropping after 1929 to approximately 55,000 in 1978. Despite its roots as a working-class organization, more and more of the Circle’s members were middle class. The average member age also rose dramatically, from 28.7 in 1909 to 55.4 in 1970. Along with changes in membership, the dominant focus of the Circle changed from ideological concerns to Jewish cultural activities.
Two enduring activities of the Workmen’s Circle have been education and the Folksbiene. The Folksbiene, now known as the National Yiddish Theater, was organized in 1915 during the heyday of New York’s Yiddish theater. It still performs Yiddish theater in New York City. The educational system of the Workmen’s Circle was designed to “teach children to read, write, and speak Yiddish; to acquaint them with Yiddish literature; to acquaint them with the history of the Jewish people; to cultivate in them a feeling for social justice; and to develop their aesthetic abilities.” By 1950, the Arbeter Ring taught approximately 38,000 students.
More recently, the Workmen’s Circle describes itself as a “progressive-liberal organization committed to advancing democratic frontiers, eliminating poverty, strengthening civil rights, promoting universal health care and opposing bigotry, tyranny and totalitarianism.”
The organization today has district offices in Boston and Los Angeles, and a national headquarters in New York. There are approximately 10,000 members nationwide. It owns and operates a summer camp, Camp Kinder Ring, located in Hopewell Junction, New York. An adult vacation facility, Circle Lodge, shares the campgrounds and has bungalows and cottages.
(This history was compiled for the website of the Boston Workmen’s Circle by its members from material drawn from archives of Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring newsletters, anniversary journals, and the published history of the Workmen’s Circle, The Friendly Society by Judah J. Shapiro, Media Judaica 1970.)
The men and women who built the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring were Jews who fled the poverty, oppression and rising violence of Eastern Europe in the late 19th and 20th centuries. They came to America to build new lives. Their story in many ways defines the American Jewish story. It is the story of the vibrancy of secular Jewish identity, the vibrancy of Yiddish culture and, in many ways, tells the history of the American Jewish left. It is also our story, our roots, our legacy and the foundation upon which we are building the Workmen’s Circle today.
We start our telling of the story at Ellis Island, the entry point for most immigrants. The path from Ellis Island led to the sweatshop. Poverty wages. Long hours. Hazardous conditions. No unemployment insurance, no health or disability benefits, no security.
On April 4, 1892, a handful of Jewish sweatshop workers — cloakmakers – met in a tenement on New York’s Lower East Side and formed a mutual aid society. They called it the Workingmen’s Circle. Despite its name, two of the first members were women.
This small society grew to 300 members and officially became the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring in 1900. By 1920 there were over 80,000 members, and The Workmen’s Circle had become one of the largest Jewish organizations in America.
The Workmen’s Circle provided benefits that poor immigrants were otherwise denied: health benefits, sick benefits, death and funeral benefits. A bustling social services department. A full service health center. Tuberculosis hospitals. Homes for the aged. And Workmen’s Circle cemeteries with head stones that read like a who’s who of the Jewish left and Yiddish authors and artists.
But the Workmen’s Circle was no ordinary fraternal organization.
The Early Years
The Declaration of Principles adopted in 1901 at the first Workmen’s Circle Convention proclaimed:
The constant want and frequent illness which particularly afflict the workers have led us to band together in the Workmen’s Circle, so that by united effort we may help one another. The Workmen’s Circle knows that the aid which it can bring to the worker today is no more than a drop on a hot stone. It will do in time of need. But that there shall be no need—this is the true ideal. The Workmen’s Circle desires to be one more link in the workers’ bond of solidarity, ultimately bringing on the day of complete emancipation from exploitation and oppression.
The organization considered itself a part of the general labor movement. Members were “duty bound,” according to the constitution, to be loyal to their union. By 1940 the Workmen’s Circle ran 100 Labor Lyceums — community centers — across the country.
One veteran Boston member, interviewed at age 91, remembers the Chelsea Lyceum vividly:
Chelsea was loaded with shoe workers. And also in Peabody, you had leather workers. It seemed like the strikes were everywhere. The source of the activity in organizing unions was the Workmen’s Circle center, the Chelsea Labor Lyceum. The workers would come in on their own. They were Italian, Armenian, Irish. A lot of Jewish workers. And they were taken care of. We had a lot of people who did picketing. For the big national strikes, we gave tons of food; we were famous for that. Not only that, we had a social hall where they could play cards. And we had a beautiful library, really nice library, run by some members.
The Workmen’s Circle came to be known as the Red Cross of Labor. It is no accident that the victims of the Triangle Fire are buried in a mass grave in the New York Workmen’s Circle cemetery.
A Better World
And still we were more than an active arm of the labor movement. More than a safety net in time of need. The Workmen’s Circle served as a spiritual home in which the members and their families could express their cultural, educational, and social strivings.
The first constitution required that, every other week, meetings be devoted entirely to education. The organization published thousands of books in Yiddish so that the Jewish workers could educate themselves – books on psychology, physics, political economy, literature.
The first children’s Yiddish school – the origins of today’s Shule — was opened in 1918, to “imbue the young with the radical spirit, cultural heritage and language of their parents.” By 1940, 145 shuln (with at least one dozen in Massachusetts), 19 choruses, 9 summer camps, 9 drama societies, and several mandolin orchestras flourished from coast to coast.
Though united in their goal of building a better world, members were of many leftwing political stripes: Communist. Socialist. Anarchist. Social Zionist. Bundist. The first member expelled from the Workmen’s Circle was kicked out in 1901 for working on behalf of the Republican Party. On the cover of the report to the Fifth Convention in 1905 was the inscription: Mir Kemfn Kegn Krankhayt, Fri-Tsaytikn Toyt, un Kapitalismus — We Fight Against Sickness, Premature Death, and Capitalism.
There were divisions within the left that were mirrored in the Workmen’s Circle. But whatever their political affiliation, the Workmen’s Circle stood united for civil and human rights across the decades. By 1920 the Workmen’s Circle had branches in 34 states. It might have been 35, but in Alabama the law required that all members of the order be white. We declined a license. In the 1930s, black sharecroppers in Arkansas asked a visitor, “Tell us something about this New York organization with that strange name – the Workmen’s Circle – that has helped us so generously.
The 1940’s to Today
During the 1930s and 40s, this society founded by Eastern European Jews focused on fighting fascism in Europe, working to save political activists and Jews. And we fought successfully to open the doors of the US to Displaced Persons in the aftermath of the Holocaust. When the DPs arrived in America, Workmen’s Circle members were there to greet them in Yiddish and to help settle them into their new lives.
And still the civil rights work at home continued. We were there in 1947, sponsoring a tour through the south to test a Supreme Court Decision that outlawed segregated seating on interstate buses. We were there for the protests against lynchings in the 1950s and for the freedom marches of the 1960s.
In the words of another veteran Boston member:
One of the things I remember most about my own early days in The Workmen’s Circle is how we saw each other as friends as well as Comrades. We loved those song fests which followed most meetings and functions. On key or off key, we sang! Hold the Fort, Solidarity Forever, Joe Hill, We Shall Not Be Moved, Which Side Are You On. We agreed or we disagreed about socialism or the Forvertz, but we turned that mimeograph machine until our hands ached. And there was always the “after” which meant going to the Franklin Park Cafeteria or the G&G deli on Blue Hill Ave. For me — membership has been a lifetime of pure joy!
But by the 1960s, Workmen’s Circle membership in Boston and around the country had significantly declined. By the ‘70s the Boston chorus had disbanded and the last remaining Shule in Massachusetts, at that point located at our current Brookline address, had closed its doors. Then in the late 1980s the Shule was reopened under the leadership of activists who came of age in the 1960s and wanted a secular, progressive Jewish education for their young children. At the same time, a new generation of young adults seeking to reconnect with the language and culture of their roots reinvigorated Yiddish language programming at the Workmen’s Circle.
Check with the Workmen’s Circle national office for more information.
Recent Workmen’s Circle National Presidents
Years of Service
|Moishe “Mark” Mlotek||1996–2000|
The newspaper affiliated with the Arbeter Ring, The Forward (פֿאָרװערטס forverts), was at one time reputed to have had the largest national circulation of any non-English language newspaper in the United States. The Forward reemerged in 1990 in an English language edition (as well as a short-lived Russian version; the Yiddish version also continues to be published) and appears to be growing in readership. For a brief period between 2007 and 2009, all Workmen’s Circle members received the magazine Jewish Currents.
Programs for young people
The Arbeter Ring runs many schools of Jewish culture, known as shules, for elementary through middle schoolers. Shuls emphasize the teaching of Jewish history, from Abraham onward. Jewish culture, including klezmer music and traditional Jewish cooking, is also emphasized, along with the Yiddish language and surrounding culture. Students learn to sing traditional songs in Yiddish, as well as in English and Hebrew. At the end of a student’s time at shul, when he or she reaches age 12, a secular Bar/Bas Mitzvah ceremony, called a commencement, is held. Commencement students prepare a research paper, a family history paper, and a writeup on community service they have performed through the year. At the group commencement itself, students give a talk on their research topic of choice, often also telling their family history.