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Register of the Records of the



10 ft.

MSS 42


Judith Felsten

October 1982


THE WORKMEN'S CIRCLE (ARBEITER RING) is a Jewish fraternal organization, founded in New York City in 1892 and federated as a national organization in 1900.  Its early members were immigrants from the Russian Pale of Settlement, Yiddish-speaking working class people with strong Socialist, tradeunionist, and secular Jewish identification.  Organized in local branches (chapters) which often followed landsmanshaftn (hometown) or workplace social groupings, the Workmen's Circle provided both insurance benefits and a variety of cultural activities.  Over the years, its benefits came to include life insurance, sick benefits, funeral and burial benefits, local medical services, homes for the aged, and sanitarium facilities for tubercular members.  Today many types of health insurance are offered; there is a New York social service department.  The insurance benefit programs are administered through national departments; the medical services and residential programs, through regional district offices and governing committees.

Workmen's Circle historically has consisted of strong autonomous branches, which send representatives to district governing committees and delegates to national policymaking conventions.  The national and district offices, run by professional staffs, coordinate organizational activity.  Each Workmen's Circle branch is chartered through the national organization with the concurrence of the regional district committee.  Members join both the national organization and a specific branch, through dues payments and participation in democratically structured departments.  Individual membership applications are approved for insurance classes that vary with age and gender.  Membership in benefit departments, e.g., the Medical Department or Cemetery Department, is an individual choice.  General membership has not been a prerequisite for attending the childrens' schools or participating in many Workmen's Circle cultural activities.

Workmen's Circle has been a major voice for preserving Yiddish language and culture in the United States.  Its cultural and educational programs are organized on a local basis with the guidance of national departments.  It is known for its adult lecture programs, its secular Jewish children's schools and camp programs, and its dramatic and choral organizations, all of which have been active for several decades.

Vigorous political involvement also has been characteristic of Workmen's Circle.  Three generations ago, Workmen's Circle members were active in the Socialist Party battles against the Communist Party, in the opposition to territorial Zionism, and in the American trade union movement.  Like much of the Jewish labor movement, Workmen's Circle moved away from the Socialist Party to support Roosevelt's New Deal policies, as well as the United States' entry into World War II.  It worked actively against the rise of antiSemitism and fascism during the 1930s.  It was a founder of the Jewish Labor Committee.  Always known as the Red Cross of the labor movement, Workmen's Circle has joined many humanitarian relief efforts, and supported many Jewish charities outside its own circle.

Since the 1940s, the organization has been best known for its humanitarian interests, its political liberalism, and its commitment to Yiddish culture.  The Holocaust and the maturing of an Englishspeaking American generation, one that has experienced greater affluence and cultural assimilation, created the need for a conservative cultural program, emphasizing the survival of the schools, the future of the Jewish Daily Forward, and the preservation of Yiddish language and literature.  These circumstances also have resulted in political responses that the founding generations could not have expected.  Through such activities as bond campaigns and cooperation with the Allied Jewish Appeal, Workmen's Circle has joined the mainstream of American Jewish support for the state of Israel.  Many members have become supporters of Israel.  Like its old allies, the garment workers' unions, Workmen's Circle has continued to look to the Democratic Party for national political leadership.  It has recognized in the party's welfare state policies a commitment to many of the benefits it traditionally provided its members, and a responsiveness to human rights concerns like the repression of Soviet Jewry that are the focus of much of Workmen's Circle social justice activity today.

THE WORKMEN'S CIRCLE, PHILADELPHIA DISTRICT was one of the larger centers of the organization's activity.  Unfortunately, no records of its earliest activities are known to exist today.  Later records and verbal information indicate that the first Philadelphia chapter was Gershuny Branch 12, chartered in 1904.  At least ten branches, with a minimum of twentyfive members each, existed before World War I.  They were named after shtetl villages (Bialystoker, Rovner), as landsmanshaftn were, or after contemporary Yiddish Socialist leaders (Morris Sigman, Vladimir Medem).  Organization activity centered in the 505 Reed Street building in South Philadelphia, which had a general assembly hall and a meeting room for each branch.  The United Hebrew Trades and city Socialist Party organization shared the building.

The branches were independent of each other, but planned similar events, like anniversary celebrations, lectures, and dances.  Members pledged their solidarity to the labor movement and their loyalty to the Socialist Party ticket; they were active in its campaigns.  Philadelphia Workmen's Circle before the war could offer little material benefit other than the national life insurance and death benefit programs, but each branch took an active interest in the physical and economic welfare of its members.  In 1914, the district took its first step toward local benefit programs.  The city Cemetery Committee, representing the branches, purchased a section of Montefiore Cemetery.  It acquired land in Har Judah Cemetery the following year.

After the war, the organization grew and new programs developed.  Philadelphia opened children's schools shortly after the New York members first organized schools in 1918.  The curriculum included Yiddish language and literature, Jewish history, and socialist principles.  A small number of professional teachers staffed the schools, which added grades as the students' skills advanced.

The Philadelphia Workmen's Circle comprised seventeen branches by 1924.  In the early 1920s, they joined other labor and socialist groups to purchase the Music Fund Hall, 810 Locust Street, as a Labor Institute.  It functioned between 1926 and 1934, but the financial burden of this large hall proved too much for the organizations to sustain. The Workmen's Circle branches resolved to move into smaller quarters with the Philadelphia edition of the Jewish Daily Forward and several other Jewish socialist organizations.  They relocated to 415 South 19th Street, which they renamed the Labor Educational Centre.

By the early 1930s, Workmen's Circle members had moved into North and West Philadelphia.  There were over ten schools, in several neighborhoods and a mitelshule (high school).  Camp Hofnung in Bucks County offered youth and adult recreation.  Local benefit plans improved.  The Cemetery Department was formally chartered in 1933.  A Medical Department offering convenient family medical services began in 1935.  (It closed only when the federal Medicare program began in 1966.)

The Philadelphia Workmen's Circle changed during the 1920s and 1930s.  The internal battle provoked by the Bolshevik revolution had torn members away; they joined the Communistassociated International Workers Order after 1930.  The remaining branches undertook an organizing drive that created a new sense of regionalism as it reached into South Jersey and upstate Pennsylvania.  Workmen's Circle chartered new branches like the Young Circle Labor Art branch, the Englishspeaking Franklin D. Roosevelt branch, and the Bakers and Bread Salesmen branch.

In 1939 there was a formal reorganization.  A Joint Committee for Workmen's Circle Institutes and Socialist Branches had governed the Philadelphia district, with an executive committee and a District Organization Committee handling daytoday activities.  In 1939 the Joint Committee was reconstituted as the City and District Committee.

The events of the late 1930s and the tragedy of the Holocaust brought the Philadelphia Workmen's Circle closer to liberal Judaism.  It participated in war and refugee relief work, in war bond drives, and later in campaigns to aid the state of Israel.  Its political and cultural activity emphasized Jewish identity and the fascist threat.  Its outspoken anti-Communism developed into an active concern for Soviet Jewry.

During the postwar period, the organization adapted its social programs again to the needs of its aging membership, while working to attract younger members also.  In 1950, the Philadelphia district opened the Workmen's Circle Home for the Eastern Region in Media, Pennsylvania.  It was designed to house one hundred elderly residents in the familiar atmosphere of Yiddish culture.  A new membership drive begun in 1954 organized several branches, among them the Albert Einstein branch and the April 19th, whose members were Holocaust survivors resettled in Philadelphia.  There was a new District Organization Committee, specifically intended to recruit new members.

The school program, which was supported by ladies' auxiliaries, a national office Subsidy, and the city Federation of Jewish Agencies/Allied Jewish Appeal, became an increasingly important focus of activity.  The spectrum of the district's programs has remained the same into the 1980s, although the camp property was sold in 1968.

Today, with six branches and two schools, the district's activities include support for the Home, sponsorship of Jewish cultural events, holiday observances interpreting Jewish history in the traditionally secular Workmen's Circle spirit, and resettlement work among Soviet Jews in Northeast Philadelphia.  Its close relationship with the Jewish labor movement continues through its participation in the Jewish Labor Committee.


RECORDS:  The Workmen's Circle records were the gift of the City of Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.  The records have been processed with the cooperation of Workmen's Circle Office for the Eastern Region, 1211 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.  We especially wish to thank Harriet Kronick, Director, and Joseph Bragirt, Chairman.  Use is unrestricted.

INTERVIEW RECORDING:  Benjamin Sherman, longtime Workmen's Circle member, provided information about the history of the Philadelphia district in several interviews.  Tape cassettes of the interviews are available for research use.

FUNDING:  Arrangement and description of the Workmen's Circle records was made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Accession number: M73-83


RECORDS:  The Balch Institute's current holdings span the years 1931-1968.  They include minutes, correspondence, financial records, and membership records from the City and District Committee, its predecessor the Joint Committee, and the District Organization Committee, the Cemetery Department, the Medical Department, and the Educational Department.

The records document the Workmen's Circle organizational concerns and benefit programs; there is little direct documentation of branch activities.  The City and District Committee series, including the District Organization Committee records, contains a long run of minutes and much correspondence.  The records of the Cemetery and Medical Departments describe the services offered and the departments' administrative methods, through correspondence, financial records, and administrative files.  Teachers' grade books from Shul 6 and the North Philadelphia Mitelshule, extensive school financial records, and administrative records from Camp Hofnung's last three seasons comprise the Educational Department series.  The minutes, department correspondence, and teachers' grade books are written mostly in Yiddish.

INTERVIEW RECORDING:  Benjamin Sherman, Philadelphia Workmen's Circle member since 1915, described the organization's early history in a sixpart interview, 1982-1983.  He discussed the chartering of new branches, and described the "mitzvahs" (good works), educational events, and social activities.  Other topics include the organization's official and unofficial responses to the United States entry into World War I; its relief work during the 1918 influenza epidemic; and the ideological splits during the 1920s which led many members to leave Workmen's Circle for the International Workers Order.  Mr. Sherman also described such local leaders as David Braginsky, Harry Berger, and Morris Shapiro.

The origin and success of each Philadelphia district service department is described.  The Medical Department, the Media Home, and the Cemetery Committee are assessed most carefully.  Mr. Sherman explained how he and other fathers started West Philadelphia Shul 11.  There are full discussions of Workmen's Circle principles and the organization's future.

Mr. Sherman also vividly described his early personal history: his childhood in a Ukraine shtetl, his early working years in Berditchev and Odessa, and his immigration to Philadelphia in 1913.  He described life in South Philadelphia at that time.

An index to the tape cassettes is available.  The location numbers in the left margin are keyed to the recording machine's tape footage counter.  The numbers and the content descriptions follow the sequence of the interview.  They have not been reorganized into subject or chronological order.  The descriptions merely indicate the content; they do not transcribe it or convey its flavor.  User copies of the cassettes are available for use in the Balch Institute Library.


Series I:  CITY AND DISTRICT COMMITTEE, 1931-1964 (1968), 6 l.f.

The records of this committee are the primary documentation of Philadelphia area activities.  Each branch sent representatives to the committee, and these representatives governed each local service department.  The committee chairman and secretary, as well as the district director, handled the organization's relationships to the national offices and to other organizations.  The minutes of the Joint Committee, the 1930s District Organization Committee, and the City and District Committee contain reports from branches and departments.  The correspondence includes communications from many Philadelphia area and national Jewish labor organizations, from local branches, and from the national Workmen's Circle offices. Correspondence from the City and District Committee is distinct from 1950s District Organization Committee correspondence, which concerns regional membership recruitment activities. The series also contains scattered reports and administrative records from conferences, banquets, yearbook solicitations, and bond drives.

Series II:  CEMETERY DEPARTMENT, 1914-1915, 1944-1959, 1  l.f., 2 oversize folders.

Deeds and service contracts for Workmen's Circle plots in Philadelphia area cemeteries are the oldest documents in the collection.  Four sites are documented here: Montefiore Cemetery (Abington, Montgomery County), plots acquired in 1914; Har Judah Cemetery (Upper Darby, Delaware County), 1915; Mt. Lebanon Cemetery (Philadelphia), 1933; and Mt. Jacob Cemetery (Glenolden, Delaware County), 1953.  The series contains legal documents, blueprints, and correspondence that is primarily about maintenance and administration of the Montefiore plots.  The correspondence is arranged in an alphabetical subject file covering 1944-1946 and 1954-1956 only.

One interesting communication is from the Philadelphia branch of the Granite Cutters' International Association of America (AF of L), noting union and nonunion monument firms "who do Jewish business," and asking department support in a labor dispute.  Also in this series are department audits, 1953-1959, applications for permission to erect gravesite monuments, 1949-1950, and quarterly branch summaries of department membership, 1953-1956.

Series III:  MEDICAL DEPARTMENT, 1953-1967, 1 l.f.

The Medical Department records include minutes (1954-1959), membership and medical service reports, and financial information from the years 1953-1967.  No one set of records is complete, but together they show how the department worked.  The membership cards, 1936-1955, give individual names, insurance certificate number, address and branch number.  The cards for each branch are alphabetically arranged.  The quarterly change of status reports, 1955-1965, from each branch give name, address, and change of status; cards for each branch are chronologically arranged.

The membership records also include a folder of lists, 1958-1964, giving members' names by branch or by medical service district.  There are also lists of Medical Department committee members, and of medical staff retained by the department. Annual service reports give totals for visits to these doctors.  Monthly medical service reports from the doctors, 1955-1964, note the number of visits and types of treatment required.  They are organized by year and month.

Most of the correspondence, 1954-1965, concerns topics like confirmation of lectures for the Open Forum series, changes in staff, announcements of new services, and member complaints.  There are also financial records, including audits, a ledger, and various quarterly reports.

Series IV:  EDUCATIONAL DEPARTMENT, 1935-1958 (1966), 1.5  l.f., 3 oversize boxes.

WORKMEN'S CIRCLE SCHOOLS: The attendance and grade books, 1935 through 1956 and 1967, were kept by the teachers of Shul (School) 6 and the Mitelshule, both meeting at the same North Philadelphia addresses.  The books give students' names, addresses, and public school grade levels. Some volumes give parents' occupations.  There are also summaries of the teachers' lesson plans, and notes giving the teachers' names.

The financial records, 1946-1958, include monthly reports from each Philadelphia school that itemize its income and expenses, as well as monthly and annual department summaries.  Detailed monthly reports to the Allied Jewish Appeal (now the Federation of Jewish Agencies) describe the department's operating budget, sometimes including enrollment and attendance figures after 1950.  The financial records are arranged by year.  They are housed in oversize boxes.

CAMP HOFNUNG: Most of the records from the Philadelphia district's Bucks County camp come from its last few seasons, 19631966.  They include applications and registration cards which give family addresses and parents' occupations; employment applications and contracts; a payroll ledger; and several audits.  A report by Leo Levenson in October 1965 summarizes the camp's history during this period.

A 1947 appraisal, mortgages from 1948 and 1957, insurance policies describing the property, and a general ledger which includes depreciation and cash reserve figures, 1946-1965, comprise the remainder of the series.

Series V:  SOCIAL SERVICE DEPARTMENT, 1939-1952, 1 folder.

This folder of correspondence, most of which is in Yiddish, consists of branch requests for financial aid to members whose health problems have exhausted their resources.

Series VI:  BRANCH 124, 1932-1933, 1 volume.

Minutes of branch meetings, written in Yiddish, fill the first fifteen pages of the record book.

Series VII:  BRANCH 1938, 1941-1943, 1951-1973, 1 volume.

This record book appears to note benefit payments to branch members who also are Medical Department members.

Processing Archivist: Judith Felsten Processing Assistant: William Gagliardi Translation Assistance: Hannah Kliger

Accession number: M73-83