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.
For the first time, too, the Workmen’s Circle is no longer as closely linked to the Forward Association, with which for a century it had close ties, including shared workspaces. With the sale in November of a building in Manhattan jointly owned by the two institutions, the Workmen’s Circle will soon move to a new national headquarters in the city’s Garment District; it plans to use its proceeds from the sale to fund the new educational programs.
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. It became a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in the past year, with a budget that Toback describes as being “in the millions” and provided by “a combination of membership dues, contributions and program revenue.” The Workmen’s Circle 990 forms have not yet been made available.
For many years now, the organization’s focus has been on maintaining the handful of shules around the country. They function as afterschool programs in which elementary-school aged students spend one or two days a week studying Yiddish and Jewish culture and tradition. And there is an emphasis on activism as a way of connecting with the commitment to social justice.
“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.”
The new vision is to build up these after-school programs even further and make them mobile, so that other Jewish communities may easily adapt them.
According to Toback, there will also be some streamlining. Yiddish, which had always been an integral part of the curriculum, will be taught not with the purpose of achieving language proficiency, but rather, she said, to impart “Yiddishkeit.” This will undoubtedly sadden those who have seen the Workmen’s Circle as one of the last protectors of Yiddish culture, though already the shules teach language with less intensity than in the past, when children would attend five days a week. Even at Goldstein’s Long Island shule, which has a rare two days a week program, Yiddish fluency is not the goal.
“We have to teach it in a way that is responsive to a new audience, that is relevant to them,” Toback said.
Another new element of this 21st-century Workmen’s Circle is that it seems much less political. Whereas the organization was once tied to the struggles of labor and deeply supportive of left-wing causes, today the main focus of the group’s activism seems to be international problems, like the genocide in Darfur or the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. It has also recently joined protests in support of the planned Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. Notably, none of the organization’s leaders wanted to define its positions when it comes to Israel, saying only that the Workmen’s Circle remains a strong supporter of the Jewish state.
There is at least one chapter, in Boston, that is particularly active on labor issues, recently engaging in protests of the Hyatt hotel chain because of the treatment of its housekeepers. But this group is seen as a vibrant anomaly. The shules are more concerned with teaching young people the general principle that they should “leave behind a better world for all.” This is far from the often bruising battles of left-wing factions that characterized the organization in its peak years.
“We are not putting ourselves out there as a political organization,” said Madelon Braun, who was elected president of the Workmen’s Circle at the end of October. “The positions we are taking are about defining yourself progressively, imparting a responsibility for each other.”
Braun is the first woman to become president of the organization, despite the Workman Circle’s long egalitarian tradition. She is also the daughter of Harold Ostroff, who served four terms as president of the Workmen’s Circle and was chief executive of the Forward Association from 1976 to 1997. Braun grew up attending Workmen’s Circle schools and summer camps, and the experience, she says, was formative for her.
“Some of our basic core identities are in danger of being diluted,” Braun said, referring to the spirit of activism and social justice with which she grew up. “We need to hold them sacred. We have to make sure to protect that which makes us the caring ‘chosen’ people.”
Certainly for people like Anne Fox, 25, who has become involved with the Boston branch, working with the Workmen’s Circle reminds her that there is nothing mutually exclusive about having a Jewish and activist identity.
“It reminds me that this type of work, for workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights, is also part of a Jewish tradition,” Fox said, “that it’s part of a Jewish legacy.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman