Membership Month: What did membership mean in the early Workers Circle?

Illustration by BWC Executive Director Rebecca ZImmerman Hornstein

As Membership Month gets into full swing at BWC, now is the perfect moment to look back at all the wonderful memories of the past year, and get excited about all that this coming year has to offer! This Membership Month’s theme is “Radical Roots, Future Fruits,” and invites us to look back at our origins while giving ourselves permission to radically imagine a better, more just future together. 

As a Jewish cultural organizer I have gained so much perspective in studying the words and deeds of our forebears, a practice reflected in Pirkei Avos, or “Ethics of the Fathers,” where it is written, “Know from where you came, and to where you are going.” (3:1). In working to solidly root our cultural organizing at BWC, I have taken this dictum to heart and begun the process of looking to some of the earliest figures of the Workers Circles to learn about how they conceived of their values and purpose.

In his 1936 work The Workmen’s Circle: Its History, Ideals, Organization and Institutions, early Workers Circle historian Maximilian Hurwitz begins his recording of the Workers Circle’s early history with a section topically entitled, “The Story of an Oak,” which explains how the Workers Circle grew from the acorn of its first iteration, a small group organized as the Workingmen’s Circle by a few cloakmakers in New York City. He could not have known that almost ninety years after his work was published, we would once again return to the metaphor of growing seeds in understanding our own organization’s history and the meaning of membership for our community.

Hurwitz goes into extensive detail about the numerous departments that were established in the early years of the Workers Circle, including: Cemetery and Funeral Departments, Sanatoriums, Educational Department, Shuln, Medical Department, Summer Camps, Social Service Department, Women’s Clubs, and Young Circle League. He paints a picture of a passionate and rigorous community, with members habitually agreeing to invest more and more of their limited time, money, and energy into enriching the health and happiness of the membership. The early Workers Circle sought not just to alleviate physical suffering, but to provide intellectual and emotional wellness for members, with meetings set aside for group learning, lecturers brought from far and wide, and even a small publishing house established to make important works available to members.

As I come to learn more and more about the Workers Circle’s early years, I’ve gained more and more appreciation for organizing with our community. The value of being part of such an incredible historical organization is that when we experience storms, we don’t blow over: our roots run deep enough to keep us stable. This membership month is the perfect time to reconnect with our history, find those roots that resonate with you, and explore what future fruits you may have a hand in producing. When I’m asked how BWC is able to host such an incredible community, I always say, “Through our members, anything is possible.” To all the new and renewing members, I look forward to organizing with all of you in the year to come!

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