Chicago Come­back

A new gen­er­a­tion, alien­ated from Is­rael, en­gages the pro­gres­sive, U.S.-fo­cused group

Forward Magazine - - News - By Aimee Leav­itt

The Work­men’s Cir­cle, the pro­gres­sive mu­tual aid group founded in 1900, is resurg­ing.

It was at a Purim party last year that Rivka Yeker, a stu­dent at DePaul Uni­ver­sity, met a 20-some­thing woman like her­self, who taught at a unique, re­cently es­tab­lished school for young Jewish chil­dren.

The Work­men’s Cir­cle’s Sun­day school, Yeker learned, stressed Yid­dish cul­ture and so­cial jus­tice, and fo­cused on Is­rael hardly at all.

Yeker was im­me­di­ately taken with the school’s cur­ricu­lum, and with the ideas of the Work­men’s Cir­cle it­self, which spon­sored the pro­gram. Dur­ing her fresh­man year, Yeker, 20, whose par­ents are Soviet Jews, tried be­com­ing in­volved in Hil­lel and Chabad, but found she didn’t re­ally share any in­ter­ests with those she met there.

“Ju­daism to them is white,” she said, re­fer­ring to the Hil­lel and Chabad House stu­dents. “I don’t know how to say this, I don’t want to of­fend any­one — but it felt like there was no room for pro­gres­sive think­ing or any­one who didn’t fit into the white, Ashke­nazi, het­ero, cis mold. They will tech­ni­cally ac­cept you, but it’s still weird. You’re al­ways on the out­skirts.”

Yeker and her friends had been look­ing for a way to com­bine their so­cial con­scious­ness with their Jewish her­itage. But un­til their Purim en­counter, none had thought to pur­sue this via a group that many Jews don’t even know still ex­ists. Now Yeker and her friends are in­volved with build­ing the Chicago chap­ter of the Work­men’s Cir­cle.

Founded in 1900 in New York, the Work­men’s Cir­cle func­tioned as a com­bi­na­tion mu­tual aid so­ci­ety and agency for work­ers rights. Its mem­bers were largely Jews of Eastern Euro­pean ori­gin or de­scent who leaned left po­lit­i­cally. (Over time, they evolved to New Deal Demo­crat from so­cial­ist.) They were anti-as­sim­i­la­tion and anti-Zion­ist, and, be­tween po­lit­i­cal marches, they cul­ti­vated a rich Yid­dish cul­ture; many of the Work­men’s Cir­cle’s mem­bers were in­volved with this very news­pa­per.

The move­ment started to fade by the 1950s as Jews as­sim­i­lated — and the Holo­caust ended the pos­si­bil­ity that many more Eastern Euro­pean im­mi­grants would fol­low to take their place. In re­cent years, though, the Work­men’s Cir­cle has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a resur­gence. It’s at­tract­ing many younger Jews who are ei­ther un­will­ing or un­able to pay sy­n­a­gogue dues, or who, like Yeker and her friends, don’t feel much of a con­nec­tion to more es­tab­lished groups. Most, they found, are con­nected in some way to the Jewish fed­er­a­tions, whose pol­i­tics too far to the right for their com­fort.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2013 study by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, less than one-third of Amer­i­can Jews be­long to a sy­n­a­gogue. Young Jews, in par­tic­u­lar, are averse to join­ing groups and in­sti­tu­tions. And the Work­men’s Cir­cle isn’t im­mune to this; its mem­ber­ship has de­clined to 8,000 to­day from 10,000 in 2013. But dur­ing this same pe­riod its mail­ing list has steadily grown, and to­day it stands at 25,000, ac­cord­ing to Ann To­back, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

“I think that one of the weak­nesses of the Amer­i­can Jewish land­scape has been that it hasn’t tied to­gether all the many dif­fer­ent parts of our his­tory and tra­di­tions,” To­back said. “There’s been a con­scious ef­fort [among Ashke­nazi Jews] not to em­brace their Eastern Euro­pean her­itage. The unimag­in­able tragedy of the Holo­caust has pushed many peo­ple to look in only one direc­tion for Jewish tra­di­tion. By deny­ing 1,000 years of Eastern Euro­pean her­itage, we cre­ated a gen­er­a­tion who weren’t fully formed in a way.”

The Work­men’s Cir­cle, To­back said, sees Ashke­nazi Jewish iden­tity as a holis­tic ta­pes­try: “cul­ture, so­cial jus­tice, Yid­dishkeit, learn­ing — it all goes into Jewish iden­tity.”

Jill Morowitz, one of the found­ing par­ents of the Sun­day school, was most at­tracted to the Work­men’s Cir­cle’s con­cen­tra­tion on art, cul­ture and his­tory, and to its be­lief that so­cial jus­tice was not just about char­ity, but also about work­ing to­ward per­ma­nent change in the com­mu­nity.

Morowitz (who has fam­ily con­nec­tions to the For­ward) grew up at­tend­ing a Con­ser­va­tive sy­n­a­gogue in West Rogers Park, on Chicago’s North Side. She went to He­brew school twice a week. There she learned a bit about the hol­i­days and the To­rah, but what she re­ally re­mem­bers is how her teach­ers spent most of their time try­ing to keep the stu­dents from fight­ing and from throw­ing food at each other. When she grew up and had chil­dren of her own — twin boys now in third grade — she and her hus­band joined a sy­n­a­gogue and en­rolled the chil­dren in He­brew school, just as their par­ents had done. “If you wanted to raise your kids Jewishly,” she ex­plained, “that was how you did it.”

But some­thing was miss­ing. The build­ing was nice, the peo­ple were kind, but she and her hus­band didn’t feel a real con­nec­tion to the sy­n­a­gogue. Other syn­a­gogues didn’t feel right, ei­ther.

Morowitz and a group of friends were pre­par­ing to start their own re­li­gious school so that at least their chil­dren would have a Jewish ed­u­ca­tion. But then, through a rel­a­tive, she learned about the Work­men’s Cir­cle; or, rather, she learned that a group she thought long dead still ex­isted.

Even more im­por­tant, Morowitz learned that To­back, then seek­ing to re-es­tab­lish the Work­men’s Cir­cle’s pres­ence in Chicago, was launch­ing the sort of school she’d been look­ing for — one in which spir­i­tu­al­ity is im­por­tant but where mem­bers are not re­quired to fol­low one spe­cific doc­trine.

As Morowitz put it, “No one has to feel bad about not be­liev­ing in some­thing.”

Now two years in, there are a dozen stu­dents in the Chicago group’s Sun­day school, rang­ing from kinder­garten through third grade, with another wave of younger sib­lings wait­ing in the wings. Morowitz said her chil­dren en­joy their lessons, es­pe­cially Yid­dish, and have found mean­ing in them.

A few peo­ple from the Chicago Coali­tion for the Home­less came to visit the class one day and talked about their own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing home­less. This was eye-open­ing for the stu­dents, who’d mostly as­so­ci­ated home­less­ness with the peo­ple they saw sleep­ing in the street, not with peo­ple who slept in shel­ters or who couch-surfed

be­cause they had no place to go. They be­gan dis­cussing pos­si­ble so­lu­tions; Morowitz said her chil­dren are still talk­ing about it.

“The con­nec­tion be­tween so­cial jus­tice and Jewish val­ues shouldn’t ever feel like a com­pro­mise,” said Isaac Brosilow, 25, who has be­come the group’s po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer. “But so of­ten in the way I was raised, it has felt like that. I wanted to be proud to be Jewish, and I was dis­gusted that peo­ple like Stephen Ban­non were get­ting stand­ing ova­tions at [the Amer­i­can Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee].”

De­scrib­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s aims and poli­cies as a threat “to all of us,” Brosilow said: “If that’s what you’re go­ing to jus­tify to save the Jewish peo­ple, I don’t care about you. His­tory has shown us that we can’t set­tle up next to power.”

In early May, Brosilow be­gan lead­ing a study group of so­cial­ist and Jewish texts. They started with “The Jewish Ques­tion” by Karl Marx. Many re­gard the es­say as anti-Semitic in its neg­a­tive stereo­types of Jews and Ju­daism, even as it calls for the eman­ci­pa­tion of Euro­pean Jewry to, sup­pos­edly, change these char­ac­ter­is­tics. This opened up a dis­cus­sion about what it means to be a Jew and a left­ist.

In another ac­tiv­ity, Brosilow and Yeker have re­cruited a Yid­dish- speak­ing friend who is now giv­ing mem­bers in­for­mal lessons in the lan­guage. The friend, Leah White­man, be­lieves her stu­dents are drawn to Yid­dish be­cause it’s a way of claim­ing a Jewish iden­tity that’s tied more to cul­ture than to faith or to Is­rael.

On May Day, White­man, Brosilow, Yeker and a few oth­ers joined in the city­wide march and rally in Union Park, where they met some older Work­men’s Cir­cle mem­bers. “It was amaz­ing and beau­ti­ful to watch young Jews and older Jews that have sim­i­lar be­liefs meet and be­come a part of each other’s com­mu­ni­ties,” Yeker said.

The two Work­men’s Cir­cle groups, the par­ents and the ac­tivists, have yet to gather to­gether for­mally. But Morowitz and Brosilow are look­ing for­ward to unit­ing them into a strong and ro­bust chap­ter, along with the older peo­ple and any­one else who feels he or she has no place in the Jewish world. For many, that means re­ject­ing the Is­rael-cen­tric fo­cus of most other groups, both left and right, in fa­vor of strug­gling for so­cial jus­tice in the United States.

When Brosilow be­gan to study the his­tory of the Work­men’s Cir­cle, he learned that its mem­bers in the early 20th cen­tury had em­braced what they called doikayt, or “here-ness,” as op­posed to Zion­ism, or “there-ness.”

“I al­ways felt that,” Brosilow said, re­fer­ring to this pri­or­ity. “But I’m glad to know there’s been a word for it since 1905.”


Tra­di­tion! Isaac Brosilow holds up the Work­men’s Cir­cle ban­ner dur­ing Chicago’s May Day march this year.

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