December 2006

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The Folksbiene Playhouse (est. 1915), the oldest Yiddish theater extent, brings beloved classics and more modern theatrical forms to the stage. Operated under the auspices of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring in New York, The Folksbiene season is from October through January. Simultaneous English and Russian translations are available to the public. (Photo: Workmen's Circle.) 
Networking Central

The Workmen's Circle
In the tradition of Milton Kant.

-- John Oliver Mason

Milton Kant, born in New York and raised in the Bronx, recalls his activities in the Workmen's Circle, "My parents were members for many years, and my wife's parents were members. After we married and had children, we wanted to give them a [Jewish] secular, cultural upbringing and background that the Workmen's Circle provides. We joined the Workmen's Circle and we sent them to the Workmen's Circle shul (school). At that time we lived in Long Island."

Kant is 80 years old and has worked as an electronics engineer for such firms as RCA, GE, and Sperry. He currently resides in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

The Workmen's Circle, says Kant, "started out as a fraternal insurance society, under the supervision of the Department of Insurance of the State of New York, and it sold insurance." The Circle also has been active in promoting and preserving Yiddish culture, and in social justice activities.

"A couple of years ago," says Kant, "[The Circle] made a decision to get out of the insurance business. They sold the insurance portfolio to another insurance company, and now they're no longer a fraternal insurance society, they're now a regular educational and charitable organization, a 501(c)3 type of organization."

The Circle says Kant, "used to have a big network of schools in Philadelphia, but they're not in existence anymore. They have schools in other places, like New York, Detroit, Boston, and the other big cities. The successor to the Workmen’s Circle schools in Philadelphia is the Children’s Folkshul."

The Circle is part of the Kehillah for Secular Jews in the Delaware Valley , which emphasizes cultural expressions of Jewishness instead of religious ones. "We describe ourselves," says Kant, "as Secular Jews, who are still Jews, who are not religious but still observe many of the holidays and other features of Jewish life."

Besides the schools, the Circle has supported the Folksebiene Yiddish Theater in New York, and the magazine Jewish Currents has merged with the Circle. "[The Circle] sponsors concerts," says Kant, "and other cultural activities in the places where they have a really active membership."

At one time, Jewish Currents had a strong Communist influence: "It started out," Kant recalls, "as practically a Communist Party organ." The magazine merged with the Circle in a mock wedding ceremony.

According to Kant, "The reason for [the merger [is that] most of the former Communists who were involved with [the magazine] aren’t Communists anymore. They left the Communist Party a long time ago." Some of them, he says, left when Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev described Dictator Joseph Stalin’s excesses in the famous speech at the twentieth Party congress. Others left later when the Soviet Union backed the Arab states against Israel in the 1967 war.

Kant added, "When the Workmen’s Circle first started, they had a spectrum [of opinion] of membership, and they still have it. A lot of the people who were involved in Jewish Communist organizations actually broke away from the Workmen’s Circle. In the twenties, when the Soviet Union first started and the Communist Party was formed in this country, there were big fights in a lot of the Jewish organizations, in the unions and other groups, between the Communists and Socialists primarily. In the Workmen’s Circle and other places, the Communists were thrown out, and they formed their own organizations. IWO (International Worker’s Order) and the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order came out of that." Kant explained now many of these groups went out of business due to pressure from the federal government during the Red Scare of the ‘fifties Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Photo courtesy of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews.

"This factionalism," recalls Kant, "was in many unions, and some were taken over by the Communists, and some threw them out. They had rival organizations for a long time. Some of them still exist." The Communists, he says, "were known for setting up front organizations, and in infiltrating other groups and trying to take them over. There was a constant turmoil there, and a lot of the energy was dissipated in those kind of internal struggles in those days."

In social justice work, "the Workmen’s Circle takes positions on most of the major issues of interest today." Kant further explains how the Forward , periodically carries the Circle’s "Where We Stand" column, and in their conventions, members adopt resolutions covering these issues, which include health care, the environment, Israel, Iraq, drugs, prisons, and education.

The Circle, Kant concludes, is a member of the President’s Conference of Major Jewish Organizations, and the local group is a constituent agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; they receive grants to conduct cultural activities, such as the Workmen’s Circle Chorus.

Past Networking Central Groups of the Month

In this section, we highlight a new local group each month in order to encourage networking.

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