Workmen's Circle: Engaging young Jewish students in social issues

Workmen's Circle: Engaging young Jewish students in social issues

December 15, 2016

On a recent Sunday morning in a small office-turned-classroom, three 11-year-olds preparing for a trip to Ellis Island interpreted the political undertones in a century-old political cartoon about immigration. As they did so, the trio – Saul Ferholt-Kahn, Moxie Strom and Benjamin Ro – digressed to discuss costume ideas for the next carnival for the Jewish holiday of Purim. “We already did the political thing last year,” Strom said.

“We always do political things,” came the reply from one of her peers, as they continued to reflect how the previous holiday’s costume portraying the biblical character Mordechai as Bernie Sanders went astray without a wig.

Conversations about John Oliver, the immigration status of the workers who built Trump Tower and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, are not unusual for these children. In fact, those discussions are encouraged at the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School, where a generation of young social activists is being nurtured during classes held on Sundays throughout the school year.

The Circle's lessons build on its Judaic roots to thread together moral context from the Torah, social activism and labor vernacular from early 20th century Jewish emigrants, and current issues. The organization runs a network of eight schools which together serve 300 students and are a progressive bulwark in a country that, at least at the federal level, has lurched to the right.

Launched in 1990 by a group of parents with about two dozen students, the Midtown school now teaches 35 kids ages 5 to 13 each year. During the three-hour Sunday sessions, kids’ chatter can be heard emanating from rooms, along with klezmer music and Yiddish.

“People don’t talk about social justice until high school, and so I have to adapt a lot of materials,” educator Hannah Temple said to students in her class while looking through educational texts meant for much older students.

Projects can include trips to Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to compare previous generations’ immigrant experiences to the present day.

“They get engaged in a different way than when we’re learning history staight up, for example, because I think that young people don’t have a lot of opportunities to be taken really seriously,” Temple said. She plans lessons that can be tied to advocacy, upcoming holidays and other activist groups’ events. The year ends with a Purim production.

An ally of the “Fight for 15” campaign to raise the hourly wage to $15, Circle kids went to fast food restaurants on Mother’s Day to deliver cards of support to working mothers. “When our kids are on the front line, it sets a whole different mood than anything adults can do,” said Josh Fraidstern, co-president of the school’s 10-member parent board.


An instructor helps one of the youngest students transform into “Super mensch”

The Workmen’s Circle, founded in 1892 by a group of Eastern European immigrants, became a national order in 1900. The group, “closely tied to Jewish unions, the Yiddish labor press and the Socialist Party,” reached a peak of 87,000 members in 1925, according to the American Jewish Historical Society, which holds 90 years of the Workmen’s Circle’s records written in three languages. The group’s profile retreated as emigres assimilated into American society and use of the Yiddish language diminished.

Today, the Circle – in alignment with a 2013 study that found that three of five Jewish Americans believe that Judaism is mainly about culture or ancestry – focuses not on religion but a secular mixture of heritage, progressive values and history.

“The way we express our Jewish identity is through activism,” said Ann Toback, the executive director of the Workmen’s Circle.

“I meet people constantly who tell me that ‘my grandfather was a member,’ and so on and so forth, and didn’t know that we still exist,” said one parent, Mitch Horowitz, as children chattered outside the door of an office. “Not only do we still exist, we’re not just some archive or museum, as you can see, we’re quite active. I think that people often feel somewhat reassured and kind of stoked that this old socialist organization is not only still around but has young faces and is still quite active.”

Horowitz, whose 9- and 12-year-old kids attend classes, joined eight years ago. At the time he thought the group was an “old time lefty organization” but didn’t know there was a youth element. He considered joining one of the many synagogues in the tri-state area, but said he was looking for something that “more structurally challenged the inequities of our society.”

As a result of their involvement, Horowitz said his kids are likely more aware than others that fast food workers, waiters and other retail workers may not be earning the pay or benefits they deserve, but during the week the focus returns to just being a kid.

“They’re a great deal more interested in Pokémon Go than they are in democratic socialism, so it doesn’t necessarily present a social friction,” Horowitz said. “But I think the (weekday school) teachers appreciate it because, frankly, I think they appreciate hearing from any kid who just has maybe a slightly different perspective on a current issue.”

Toback, who has led the organization since 2008, guided it through a rebranding and began focusing on expanding the schools. About five years ago, the group moved from the East Side of Manhattan to the Garment District, where many of the base of laborers who formed its early foundation would have worked decades ago. “It’s back to our roots, but it’s starting fresh,” she said.

The organization also offers Yiddish classes for adults, summer camps and a volunteer-led teen community service group which generally meets monthly to perform projects such as volunteering for the Special Olympics, visiting senior centers and participating in the New York Cares Day of Service. Since the election, as incidents of bias-based crimes have increased, students have been engaged in lessons on standing up to hate speech and responding to religion- or race-based bullying. Toback said that the school’s underlying message is that “no one goes it alone.”  

The group, which has revenues of more than $2.6 million, is funded primarily through private grants, membership dues and a “long-term sustaining grant,” according to its most recent report.

While many of the classes at the shule are subsidized by the group, tuition ranges from $700 per year for kindergarteners to $1,300 for a series of Bar Mitzvah preparation classes. There are discounts for siblings. A staff of about a half-dozen work part-time while 30 to 40 parents volunteer on an occasional basis to bring food, assist teachers and clean up. The Midtown school (along with four others in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Long Island) attract kids from across the area, with outreach mostly via word-of-mouth.

Beth Zasloff, now the director of the Midtown school, first became involved when she signed her child up for the program – though her great grandfather was active in his chapter in Central Pennsylvania many years ago. Zasloff helps develop curriculum and works with the main organization, which operates from the Midtown school.

In an age where kids are often engrossed in social media, Zasloff said the face-to-face interactions kids experience during the Sunday classes help build community, social connections and empathy. “Many of our kids are still too young, even, for social media, so I think for kids of a certain age, it’s the only way to have a really multi-sensory experience.”

Fraidstern appreciates the activist values the program teaches children. Circle kids aren’t just bystanders. “It’s not a remote control, you’re not calling in your vote, you’re not just active on social media, but you are physically and emotionally – but particularly physically – involved in how the world’s gonna be,” he said.

Dan Rosenblum