The people who built the Workers Circle/Arbeter Ring were Jews who fled the poverty, oppression, and rising violence of Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They came to America to build new lives, a vibrant Yiddish culture and secular Jewish identity, and an American Jewish left. Their story is also our story, our roots, our legacy, and the foundation upon which we build Boston Workers Circle today.
- Jewish identity is proudly rooted in cultural heritages and a commitment to justice.
- Members help to create and run all programs.
- Continuity is built on the foundation of our history as a 120-year-old mutual aid organization founded by Jewish immigrants.
- Educational opportunities are available for every generation: a pre-school playgroup, a cultural Sunday School for children grades K through 7, a social action teen group, classes for adults of all ages, plus a unique young adult community.
- The treasured cultural legacy of Yiddish language and culture finds contemporary expression and meaning in our social justice Yiddish chorus, language classes, reading and conversation groups, singing, informal activities, creative incubator projects, and more.
- In our secular holiday celebrations, life cycle events, our library, and our programming, we explore the cultures of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrachi Jews, Jews outside the U.S., and the experiences of Jews of Color.
- Participatory and creative arts engage as well as entertain.
- Social action committees foster dialogue and debate, mutual understanding, and activism rooted in radical yiddishkayt (secular progressive Jewish values).
- The pursuit of a more just and humane world is woven into all holiday celebrations, educational and arts programming, and children’s activities.
- We seek to be a community that is inclusive and accessible to all, with a fully accessible building and Sunday school classes, ASL-interpreted High Holiday observances, supertitles at chorus concerts, and hybrid in-person/virtual programming.
- We work to build and strengthen ties with local and national progressive organizations and movements.
Our story starts in 19th-century eastern Europe, where the ideas and ideals of the Renaissance reached Jews in Poland and Russia, inspiring alternatives to strict orthodoxy. Socialist writers, including IL Peretz, Morris Winchevsky, and Dovid Edelshtadt, created stories, poems, and songs to reach and teach the Jewish masses in their common daily language, Yiddish. This new secular progressive Jewish culture, radical Yiddishkayt, was fed by the political, social, and economic upheavals of Eastern Europe. These upheavals led to mass immigration of many Jews to di goldene medine, the golden land of America.
Birth in the Sweatshops
Our story moves to Ellis Island, the entry point for most immigrants, where they learned that the streets of America were not paved with gold. The path from Ellis Island led straight to the sweatshop, with poverty wages, long hours, and hazardous conditions. Workers had 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 mutual aid and cultural organizations in America.
The Workmen’s Circle provided benefits that poor immigrants were otherwise denied: health benefits, sick benefits, death and funeral benefits. It provided a bustling social services department, a full service health center, tuberculosis hospitals, homes for the aged, and children’s Shules and summer camps. And The Workmen’s Circle provided cemeteries, where headstones read like a who’s who of the Jewish left and of Yiddish authors and artists.
The Early Years
The Workmen’s Circle was no ordinary fraternal organization. The Declaration of Principles adopted in 1901 at the first Workmen’s Circle Convention proclaimed (in Yiddish):
“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 to be a part of the general labor movement. Members were “duty bound,” according to the constitution, to be loyal to their unions. By 1940 the Workmen’s Circle ran 100 Labor Lyceums, or community centers, across the country.
The organization considered itself to be a part of the general labor movement. Members were “duty bound,” according to the constitution, to be loyal to their unions. By 1940 The Workmen’s Circle ran 100 Labor Lyceums, or 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 some of the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire are buried in a Workmen’s Circle cemetery in New York.
Beyond the Safety Net
But we were still more than an arm of the labor movement, and more than a safety net in time of need. The Workmen’s Circle also served as a community in which 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 Shules (with at least a dozen in Massachusetts), 19 choruses, 9 summer camps, 9 drama societies, and several mandolin orchestras flourished from coast to coast.
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 Forverts, 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!”
A Better World
On the cover of the report to the Fifth Convention in 1905 was this inscription in Yiddish: Mir Kemfn Kegn Krankhayt, Fri-Tsaytikn Toyt, un Kapitalismus – We Fight Against Sickness, Premature Death, and Capitalism. Though united in their goal of building a better world, members were of many leftwing political stripes, and divisions within the left were mirrored in The Workmen’s Circle: 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. But no matter their individual political affiliations, members of 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 could have been 35, but in Alabama the law required that all members of the order be white. We declined a license there. Branches spread across New England, including Boston, Worcestor, Springfield, New Haven, Portland, and Providence.
In the 1930s, Black sharecroppers in Arkansas asked a visitor, “Tell us something about this organization with that strange name – The Workmen’s Circle – that has helped us so generously.”
During the 1930s and 40s, this society founded by Eastern European Jews focused on fighting fascism in Europe, and worked to save political activists and Jews. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we fought successfully to open the doors of the US to Displaced Persons. 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 the civil rights work continued after the war. 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 anti-lynching protests in the 1950s and for the freedom marches of the 1960s.
By the 1960s, The Workmen’s Circle no longer attracted many young members. The numerous Workmen’s Circle centers in the greater Boston area, including Boston, Brookline, Chelsea, Lynn, Malden, Peabody, and Taunton, consolidated down to one center at 612 Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester. In 1962, the center in Dorchester relocated to 1762 Beacon Street in Brookline.
Local members continued to meet and host Yiddish classes, film series, and lectures, to advance social justice goals, to socialize together, to celebrate life cycle events, and support each other in times of need. Early efforts to attract new members, including welcoming new immigrants from the Soviet Union, weren't as successful as hoped. The Boston chorus disbanded in the 1960s, Golden Ring Camp folded in the 1970s, and the last remaining Shule in Massachusetts closed its doors in the 1980s.
While membership in The Workmen’s Circle was declining in the 1960s, a new post-World War II generation of civil rights, anti-war, women’s and gay rights activists was coming of age, many of whom were Jewish and deeply motivated by Jewish social and cultural values.
In 1986, some of the aging members of Boston Workmen’s Circle actively recruited younger members to reinvigorate their Brookline center. They recruited Boston-based children of Workmen’s Circle members, students from their Yiddish classes, Yiddish cultural activists, and others. Together, these young progressive secular Jewish activists formed a new Boston Workmen’s Circle Branch (Branch 2001), to fulfill their aspirations for social justice rooted in radical Yiddishkayt, which could not be met by any other Boston area Jewish organization.
The spark of rejuvenation had been lit.
From the beginning, Branch 2001 focused on Jewish education, social justice, and Yiddish culture. After a year of planning, the Shule reopened in 1987 under the leadership of a group of activist parents who wanted to create a participatory community that provided secular, progressive Jewish education for their young children, passing on radical Yiddishkayt to the next generation. At the same time, a group of young adults set out to reconnect with radical Yiddishkayt by reinvigorating secular progressive Yiddish culture at Boston Workmen’s Circle.
Together they generated a new wave of growth.
In addition to building a new community and creating new programming within Boston Workmen’s Circle, the young adults worked with local scholars and performers to create two annual New England Yiddish Culture Festivals, each with over 600 attendees. They also worked with new young members of The Workmen’s Circle in New York to create five annual Memorial Day radical Yiddish culture weekends called “Mameloshn” (“mother tongue,” a nickname for Yiddish).
Parents and some non-parent educators created and taught a Shule curriculum with the following goals:
- Helping their children understand their identity as Jewish people from a secular standpoint;
- Teaching their children about the diverse cultural aspects of being Jewish;
- Showing their children the ways in which they are Jews and also part of the world community with a deep connection to all other humans;
- Imparting a sense of social justice;
- Building a progressive secular Jewish community to celebrate holidays, make friends, debate issues, demonstrate commitment, eat, dance, kibbitz, kvetch, and enjoy!
The Shule, meeting an important need among young Jewish political activists of the 1960s and 70s who had now become parents, expanded rapidly, hired professional staff, and quickly grew to over 100 students.
In 1993, Shule parents and other young adults, responding to a growing need for adult community and holiday rituals, created unique secular observances of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, initially gathering in a backyard and later growing to over 600 attendees annually.
In 1997, the Shule started a Yiddish chorus, which expanded community-wide to become A Besere Velt (A Better World) Yiddish Chorus. The chorus initially performed at Boston Workmen's Circle events, holidays, political rallies, and senior centers. In 2000, A Besere Velt drew hundreds of attendees to its first major concert, a commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Into Our Second Century
In 2001, Boston Workmen’s Circle created a joyous half-day festival celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Workmen’s Circle, with about 700 attendees, family activities, and A Besere Velt concert with Wholesale Klezmer Band.
Childhood education was expanded to include Teens Acting for Social Change (TASC) and Circle Playtime for preschoolers.
Shule students organize annual social justice protests on behalf of different workers each year, including Harvard janitors and food service employees, Hyatt Hotel cleaning staff, Smithfield factory workers, Shaw’s supermarket staff, migrant farm workers, Walmart department store employees, and rent control.
Young adult members create “Gragger,” a Radical Purim Party that has become an annual event with a new progressive topical Purim shpil each year.
Boston Workmen’s Circle was one of the few Jewish organizations supporting the opening of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury in 2009. A Besere Velt performed at their grand opening event.
Twenty years after successfully rejuvenating Boston Workmen's Circle, leadership again recognized the relative absence of younger members and actively recruited a new generation of young adults, including shule graduates, social justice and labor activists, shule parents, young adults committed to Yiddish as a living language, and those attracted to our commitment to inclusivity. Today, about half the Board of Directors is composed of younger members, many of our committees have intergenerational leadership, and our young adult community is thriving.
We sold our spacious but inaccessible brownstone on Beacon Street and moved in 2019 to an accessible one-level building at 6 Webster Street near Coolidge Corner in Brookline.
Shule students successfully advocated for the gender-neutral name change from Workmen’s Circle to Workers Circle both in Boston and across the country.
We recognize and embrace all diasporic Jewish cultures, including the cultures of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrachi Jews, and the experiences of Jews of Color. Music and readings in Ladino have been added to our holiday rituals. Jewish diversity workshops have been developed.
We host periodic Shabes gatherings celebrating themes such as food, visual arts, music, books, poetry, pets, May Day, and Jewish-Muslim relations.
Our social justice efforts include work on behalf of immigrants, refugees, Israel/Palestine, and Native American and Black rights and reparations.
A Besere Velt Yiddish Chorus creates annual concerts for social justice, including rights for immigrants and workers, commemorations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Bread and Roses labor strike, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The chorus also fosters collaborations to create multiethnic celebrations of diasporic cultures, including Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Black, Irish-American, Japanese-American, and Turkish-American music.
Over the years, we continue to provide comfort and community in celebration and sadness, from jubilation at the Workers Circle 100th anniversary festival to mourning together during the high holidays after 9/11, from commiserating at a Shabes gathering after the calamitous 2016 presidential election to gathering online for holidays during the covid-19 pandemic.
Today, Boston Workers Circle is a thriving intergenerational community, with educational programming for children and adults. We have a 70-member Yiddish Community Chorus, a vibrant young adult community, a broad scope of social activism, and meaningful secular celebrations of Jewish holidays and life cycle events. We embrace and find strength in diversity as a community of members of different races and ethnicities, gender identities and sexual orientations, and varied religious and spiritual backgrounds, among other identities. We support members interested in Aging in Community, reading together in English and Yiddish, and building community internally and with other organizations that oppose racism, oppression, and climate change.
Boston Workers Circle is an important site for the creation and advancement of the larger secular progressive culture within the Jewish diaspora, carrying on and advancing the values of the original founders of Boston Workers Circle over the past 120 years.
Boston Workers Circle’s uniqueness is built on three overlapping core values of intergenerational community, Jewish culture, and social justice, all rooted in radical Yiddishkayt. Click on the links below to find out how you can make tomorrow’s history with us:
- Shule (Children’s Sunday School)
- Teens Acting for Social Change (TASC)
- Circle Playtime (Preschool Group)
- A Besere Velt Yiddish Chorus
- Holiday Celebrations
- Shabes Gatherings
- Community Care
- Young Adult Community
- Aging in Community
- Yiddish Classes
- Yiddish Sing
- Yiddish Conversation
- Yiddish Reading Group
- Di Nest Creative Yiddish Projects Incubator
- Svive Young Adult Yiddish Gatherings
- Acting for Racial and Economic Justice
- Anti-Racism Study Group
- Immigrant Justice
- Jewish-Muslim Solidarity