The Workmen’s Circle

By Jonah Weinstein

Establishment

The Workmen’s Circle, or Arbeter Ring in Yiddish, was founded in New York in 1892 as the Workingmen’s Circle Society by a group of progressive-minded immigrants from Eastern Europe. Jewish workers, seeking a community and solidarity from other Jewish laborers, met in the house of cloakmaker Sam Greenburg to found the Workingmen’s Circle Society, which was loosely based on the landmanschaftn. 

The group promoted Jewish community, Yiddish language, Jewish education, and Ashkenazic culture.  On September 4, 1900, Workmen’s Circle established itself as a national organization. Today, Workmen’s Circle has continued to grow and evolve to match the needs of Jews in the United States today.

From health clinics, schools, and education centers, the Workmen’s Circle organized a variety of social organizations. The largest organization is the Camp Kinder Ring, located in Hopewell Junction, New York. Camp Kinder Ring was founded in 1927 after some Workmen’s Circle members felt that the original Workmen’s Circle camp, Camp Kinderland had become too Communist-leaning. The members who had initially founded Camp Kinderland went on to found the International Workers Order (IWO), a Communist affiliate group. During the McCarthy era, the camp was investigated for Communist behavior. Camp Kinder Ring values and promotes the progressive Socialist and Jewish values of its parent organization ((“Camp Kinder Ring: 100 Years of History.” Hazon. N.p., 28 July 2011. Web.)).

The Workmen’s Circle was a socialist, mutual-aid society. The society helped provide unemployment relief, life insurance, cemetery plots, and other necessities. All of the members were secular Jews and came together as a result of their shared radicalism, in order to challenge the exploitative labor and living conditions in New York.  Despite nearly all of its founding members speaking Yiddish, the group designated German as the official language of the group. The group referred to itself as the “Red Cross of the Labor Movement” and by 1900 had established three branches in New York and Brooklyn (Harlem and Williamsburg).  By 1905, the group claimed 5,000 members in its ninety chapters, most of them in New York City. By 1925, that number had expanded to 85,000 members ((McCune, Mary. 2002. “Creating a Place for Women in a Socialist Brotherhood: Class and Gender Politics in the Workmen’s Circle, 1892-1930”. Feminist Studies 28 (3). Feminist Studies, Inc.: 587. doi:10.2307/3178789.)). Below is the Declaration of Principles from 1900:

 

The Declaration of Principles, 1900, Workmen’s Circle

The constant want and frequent illness which particularly afflict the workers, have led us to band together… so that by united effort we may help one another.

The Workmen’s Circle, however, is aware that the aid it is able to offer the working people to- day is like a drop in the bucket. It will do in time of need. But that there shall be no need,–that is its ideal. …

[I[ts spiritual object [is] the object of helping to develop in working people a sense of solidarity, a clear, enlightened outlook, the striving, by means of their unity, to acquire that influence in ultimately, bringing on the day of their complete emancipation from exploitation and oppression (In Hurwitz: 115-6).

 

The Workmen’s Circle, has emphasized social justice and community values since its inception. They also worked to bridge the gap between Yiddish and American culture.

05/25/1902 Newspaper

((

"Workmen's Circle Enters Its Protest" May 5, 1902: 4. NewsBank NewsFile Collection, Newsbank.http://infoweb.newsbank.com/

))

 

The Workmen’s Circle structure is similarly structured to the Bund, more formally known as the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, founded in 1897. After the failure of the 1905 Russian Revolution, many Russian Jewish radicals came to New York and subsequently joined the Workmen’s Circle. The Circle established a prominent position in the New York Jewish Left alongside labor unions, the Yiddish daily Forverts, and the Socialist Party.

 

A New York Times article from 1985 describes the Workmen’s Circle as “‘the world’s largest Jewish-labor-fraternal-cultural organization.’ Others focus on its roots, which have been called ”secular-humanistic, Yiddishistic, labor-oriented, socialistic.” Still more attempt to define it by what it is not, or at least has traditionally not been: Zionist, capitalist or religious.”((Margolick, D. (1985, Nov 10). WORKMEN’S CIRCLE: 85 YEARS OF AID TO JEWS.New York Times Retrieved from http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/docview/425716276?accountid=10226))

Labor Strike

 

The immigrants realized the importance of a “unified front”  the resonance of traditional and deeply-held Jewish values emphasizing community and social justice.

The Workmen’s Circle, considered to be a “socialist mutual aid organization serving the radical Jewish community” also provided a space for women to join in the Socialist Brotherhood((McCune, Mary. 2002. “Creating a Place for Women in a Socialist Brotherhood: Class and Gender Politics in the Workmen’s Circle, 1892-1930”. Feminist Studies 28 (3). Feminist Studies, Inc.: 585–610. doi:10.2307/3178789.)).

 

Despite the progressive agenda of the Workmen’s Circle, women did not have equal say or equal contribution to meetings. However, during World War I, more women entered the public sphere and joined the paid labor force, and gained the right to vote. Workmen’s Circle, particularly women, raised money to send to European and Palestinian Jews fleeing the post-war pogroms.

In 1915, the Circle’s paper, Der fraynd (The Friend), devoted a column specifically to women, “Iber der froyen velt”(About the women’s world), which synthesized the changes happening in the women’s sphere.

The primary columnist during this period was Adele Kean Zametkin, the common-law wife of prominent Circle member and Forverts founder Michael Zametkin. The columns discussed equality in the workplace, women enfranchisement, and women’s potential to influence politics.((McCune, Mary. 2002. “Creating a Place for Women in a Socialist Brotherhood: Class and Gender Politics in the Workmen’s Circle, 1892-1930”. Feminist Studies 28 (3). Feminist Studies, Inc.: 592. doi:10.2307/3178789.))

 

the Yiddish sign in the center says,
May Day Rally in Union Square, ca. 1934

 

In 1939, Yetta Golding attended a Workmen’s Circle meeting and felt unwelcome, despite the organization’s intention at fighting for equality and social justice for all. “Only one thing irked me,” she remembered; “I was the only woman at the meeting! Something made me feel so un- heymlekh [uncomfortable] … like a miserable, poor person … a woman!”‘((McCune, Mary. 2002. “Creating a Place for Women in a Socialist Brotherhood: Class and Gender Politics in the Workmen’s Circle, 1892-1930”. Feminist Studies 28 (3). Feminist Studies, Inc.: 585. doi:10.2307/3178789.))

 

Further Reading: 

A.S. Sachs: Di Geshikhte fun Arbayter Ring, 1892-1925 (New York: National Executive Committee of the Workmen’s Circle, 1925)

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