December 17, 2010
By Gal Beckerman
For David Goldstein, who grew up in an Orthodox household but has largely abandoned religion, it is still a thrill to hear his children speak Yiddish. Having them learn the language at the school run by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring is Goldstein’s way of passing on the things he thinks are most fundamental about Jewish identity: the culture, the rich history and tradition. They are the elements that, he feels, have the best chance of surviving into the future.
“Maybe it’s a dead language, but it connects the kids to something very live inside of all of us,” said Goldstein, a lawyer who is the secretary of the Workmen’s Circle and a volunteer teacher at his local Long Island shule, as the Workmen Circle schools are known. “It’s not so much for them to be speaking Yiddish fluently, but more as a way of opening their minds and souls to something in our collective past that it is extremely important to connect to.”
This may be the best summation of how the Workmen’s Circle, which is now 110 years old, sees its role today. It is, in many ways, an organization at a crossroads — its executive director says it is “incubating” — trying to figure out how to become relevant for a contemporary Jewish community that is light years away from the world that first fostered it. The plan is to reboot by offering something it feels religious Judaism has failed to provide: an education toward a cultural Jewish identity that uses religion as a trigger for activism and connects with a legacy of progressivism and commitment to universal values.
The top leaders of the Workmen’s Circle (two women, for the first time in the organization’s history) are gambling on the assumption that this education is something American Jews desire for their children. The anecdotal evidence that this is true is convincing — Goldstein’s shule on Long Island, for instance, has grown in the past two years to 120 students from 45 — but scant, and it’s not clear how the Workmen’s Circle can translate those numbers more broadly. …
Started in 1900 as a fraternal organization that came to represent an extremely influential force in the labor movement — providing, among other things, health insurance benefits to tens of thousands of workers — the Workmen’s Circle had, at one point, nearly 100,000 members all over the country.
In its heyday, it ran a network of shules and an upstate New York summer camp that taught Yiddish; it also tried to impart the values of social justice. The organization has always had an educational component, upholding and looking to pass on a certain secular Jewish identity that is rooted in the socialist ideals of the Eastern European immigrants who arrived in America at the turn of the 20th century.
As the community originally served by the Workmen’s Circle moved onward and upward from its start as low-wage laborers, the organization experienced a slow but steady decline. Not only did Yiddish disappear from the lips of most Jews, but the Jewishly identified leftist activist culture that reached its peak in the 1920s and ’30s has receded.
Today, the Workmen’s Circle has 9,500 members, according to its executive director, Ann Toback, who came from a career in publishing to join the organization in 2008 — the first woman to hold that position.
“Our expression of Judaism is through activism,” Toback said. “And we also believe that young people come to activism through being literate Jews. The two things go together.”
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