WORKMEN'S CIRCLE (Yid. Arbeter Ring ), U.S. socialist and culturally oriented Jewish fraternal order; founded in New York in 1892 by Jewish immigrant workers and chartered on a national basis in 1900 for the twofold purpose of providing its members with mutual aid, health, and death benefits, and other fraternal services, and of supporting the labor and socialist movements throughout the world. Dedicated to the promotion of progressive Yiddish culture, the Workmen's Circle developed a broad spectrum of cultural activities, including publication of books and magazines, promotion of adult education, sponsorship of singing and dramatic clubs, etc.
During its early period, the leadership of the Workmen's Circle shared the assimilationist-cosmopolitan attitudes of some of the earliest founders of the Jewish labor movement in North America. Later, with an influx of *Bundist immigrants who had either been active in or supporters of the unsuccessful Russian revolution of 1905, a more explicitly Jewish consciousness – secular, progressive, and Yiddish-language–based – was introduced to the Workmen's Circle. These ideas permeated its governing bodies, while individual branches included within their ranks individuals associated with a range of secular movements on the political left.
In 1916, it entered the field of Jewish education by resolving to establish schools for Jewish children, with the first Workmen's Circle afternoon school opening in 1917. The I.L. Peretz schools subsequently became the largest network of Jewish secular shuln (schools) in the United States and Canada.
For many years, the Workmen's Circle was an important repository of socialist sentiment. Many of its activists were active in the Socialist Party, trade unions, and the larger Jewish labor movement. As a result, it became known as "the Red Cross of the labor movement," and was proud of the appellation. A founder and leader of the People's Relief Committee during World War i years, in 1934 it was a founder, and for many years the backbone, of the *Jewish Labor Committee. It also spearheaded the formation of the *Congress for Jewish Culture in 1948.
While initially sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution and the new Soviet regime, the Workmen's Circle was critical of the Soviet government's repression of non-Communist socialists. Internecine battles of the early 1920s within the entire U.S. left, not just the Workmen's Circle, pitted Communists against Socialists, and by 1929, the organization became explicitly anti-Communist in orientation. Communists and their allies either left of their own accord or were expelled at that time. Many of those who left were active in the formation of the International Workers' Order and its Jewish People's Fraternal Order. After that breach, the Workmen's Circle often struggled against Communist ambitions within the Jewish community in general, and the environment of the Jewish labor movement in specific.
Starting with the Roosevelt Administration, many in the organization left the socialist world, joining New Deal Democrats. Some left out of conviction that the Democrats were enacting parts of the socialist program. The anti-war position of the Socialist Party in the pre-Pearl Harbor period affected others. The post-war years brought about a gradual move from socialism and social democracy. Bundist anti-Zionism was never as strong in the U.S. as in Europe, and it has been a staunch, albeit not uncritical, supporter of the State of Israel since its formation. At the turn of the 21st century, the organization was far from its explicitly socialist origins, but in a more general sense part of the liberal/left, having as a general goal the creation of a shenere un besere velt, "a more beautiful and better world."
Along with other groups that were initially fraternal organizations which drew their membership primarily from the immigration community, the Workmen's Circle had to confront the challenge of establishing a following among native-born Jews, and those whose first, and often only, language was English, not Yiddish. This challenge was especially severe as the founders and their children died off, although it did make headway among the offspring of the older members. In 1925, the Workmen's Circle had its peak membership of 87,000. This was when the wellspring of Jewish immigrants from Europe was closed by U.S. immigration policy changes, and the organization's membership began to decline. In 1967, it was down to 64,000, in over 420 branches, 98 of which were English speaking. By 1978, the number was 55,000; in 1998, 25,000; and by 2005, 15,000, in some 200 branches, virtually all of which were English speaking. As the organization moved away from a "benefits" orientation to focus on public programs of Yiddish and Jewish culture, education and social action, however, the historic definition of "dues-paying membership" has become less relevant to the organization: in 2005, it was estimated that nearly 50,000 individuals were involved to some degree with the Workmen's Circle via attendance at wc-sponsored events, as contributors, purchasers of goods and services including benefit policies, Jewish Book Center, etc. The same is true when looking at the branch structure, which was formed when communication was primarily face-to-face, and the Jewish community was less mobile. In recent years, wc activities and structure are more district- or region-oriented (e.g., Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit), and often wc work is national in nature. Some branches are simply remnants of the structure of earlier generations.
At the end of 2005, there were 15 wc-sponsored or associated shuln, many of which were the core of a local Workmen's Circle group. It maintains two geriatric centers for aged community members, and operates Circle Lodge, a summer resort/vacation center, and Camp Kinder Ring, a children's camp founded in 1927, both in the Catskills, Dutchess County, New York. The wc also sponsors the Folksbiene Theater, a Yiddish theater founded in 1915 as an amateur venue, which today operates under professional direction and supports several choirs. The Yiddish publication, Der Fraynd, founded in 1910, and the English-language Workmen's Circle Call, founded in 1933, both ceased publication in the 1990s. Ironically, in 2005, negotiations with the English-language Jewish Currents – which had roots in the U.S. Jewish Communist camp – led to a cosponsorship by the Workmen's Circle and the Association for Jewish Secularism.
M. Epstein, Jewish Labor in U.S.A.; an Industrial, Political and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement (1950–1953); Y. Sh. Hertz, 50 yor arbeter ring in yidishn lebn (1950); M. Hurwitz, The Workmen's Circle: its History, Ideals, Organization and Institutions (1936); J. Jacobs, The Workmen's Circle (2004); S. Niger, Eyn Kamf far a Nayer Dertsiung (1940); J.J. Shapiro, The Friendly Society: A History of the Workmen's Circle (1970); Y. Yeshurin and Y.Sh. Hertz, Arbeter ring boyer un tuer. Nyu-york: Arbeter ring boyer un tuer komitet, [biographical dictionary of Workmen's Circle founders and activists] (1962); A.S. Zaks, Di geshikhte fun arbeyeter ring, 1892 – 1925 (1925).
[Charles Bezalel Sherman /
Arieh Lebowitz (2nd ed.)]