Question of the Week
What Jewish fraternal organization was founded by Russian immigrants to promote the preservation of the Yiddish language and culture?
Answer: The Workmen's Circle.
Founded in New York City in 1892, the Workmen’s Circle is a Jewish fraternal organization dedicated to preserving Yiddish language and culture in the United States. Its early members were Yiddish-speaking working class immigrants with strong Socialist, trade unionist, and secular Jewish identification. Its Philadelphia branch was opened around 1904.
Organized in local branches which often followed landsmanshaftn (hometown) or workplace affiliations, the Workmen's Circle provided both insurance benefits and a variety of cultural activities. Over the years, the organization offered life insurance, sick benefits, funeral and burial benefits, local medical services, homes for the aged, and sanitarium facilities for tubercular members. It also organized adult lecture programs, secular Jewish children's schools and camp programs, and dramatic and choral organizations. At a local fair, the group advertised events and programs to preserve Yiddish language and culture.
The Philadelphia District, originally located at 505 Reed Street in South Philadelphia, became one of the larger chapters of the Workmen’s Circle. After World War I, the Philadelphia District opened schools where the curriculum included Yiddish language and literature studies and Jewish history. By the 1920s, there were seventeen branches in the city; and by the 1930s, membership had expanded into North and West Philadelphia. Since the 1940s, the organization has been best known for its humanitarian interests, its political liberalism, and its commitment to Yiddish culture.
HSP holds the records from the Workmen’s Circle dating from the 1930s to the 1980s (MSS042, MSS045, PG127). Among these materials are minutes, correspondence, financial papers, membership records, and photographs, including the picture above which shows the Workmen’s Circle 50-Year Jubilee.
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.