A History of the SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workers (formerly Workmen’s) Circle

by Eric A. Gordon

The first WC branch in Southern California was founded January 21, 1908, and named for Karl Liebknecht, leader of the German Social Democratic Party, after which American Socialists modeled their movement. Over the years, branch names indicated the locale in which they operated — North Hollywood, Bay Cities, San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, even Beverly Hills and Elsinore. Others were named for important Jewish personalities, such as Chaim Solomon, B. Charney Vladeck, Meyer London, Artur Ziegelboim, Avraham Liessin, Morris Hillquit, and Albert Einstein. Southern California also had a Karl Marx Branch. Branches were also named for non-Jews: socialist Eugene V. Debs, poet Walt Whitman, IWW songwriter Joe Hill, anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

WC had an ILGWU Branch: As in New York, Jewish garment workers comprised a significant portion of the work force. Vanguard Branch 1016, founded in 1937, later absorbed other branches as they dissolved (at our 50th anniversary in 1958, WC had 28 branches in Southern California). Today, after its latest merger with New Directions Branch 1092, it is called the New Vanguard Branch. With about 350 members, it is the larger of the two remaining branches in the District. The other in Sholom Branch 1089 in the San Fernando Valley, which promotes WC activity farther afield from our District headquarters on South Robertson Blvd.

The early years of WC history in Los Angeles are tied to the foundation of the City of Hope as a haven for tuberculosis patients. Hundreds of diseased Jewish sweatshop workers came to Los Angeles for the climate and clean air. The existing Jewish community spurned them, and they succumbed to hunger, unemployment, and social ostracism. They were embraced only at WC, whose members organized the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association with $150 raised at their first meeting.

WC opened a sanitarium without discrimination and without charge to all who needed care, and to that end, in 1913, purchased ten acres of land in Duarte. Initially, they faced opposition from the larger Jewish community, which feared an invasion of tuberculars and an inability to care for them. The JCRA erected a few tents, took on a volunteer doctor, nurse and cook, and made the City of Hope a fact. By that point, the project had gathered considerable popular support. At the 1914 WC convention, the national organization endorsed the project. City of Hope later expanded into treatment of all chest diseases, cancer, and now AIDS, to this day retaining the early socialist policy of free treatment.

Fraternalism, Cultural Work and Community Service

In keeping with the fraternal goals of the national organization, WC in Los Angeles maintained a Cemetery Department to provide a patent need to its members. WC also ran a credit union, offered life and other insurance policies, and provided low-cost medical care through its network of affiliated doctors. As elsewhere in the country, WC members were overwhelmingly working-class, and availed themselves of such needed benefits.

In the 1950s, WC was planning an old age home for its members. After it had collected money, and had purchased land in the San Fernando Valley, WC realized that it alone could not long maintain such a home. WC donated its assets to the Jewish Home for the Aging for its new locale in Reseda. From the start, and to this day, WC members went to live out their last years there. For many years WC continued to raise funds for the Home.

The Workmen’s Circle consistently indicated a profound sense of Jewish community concern. WC also funded the City of Hope, ORT, YIVO, Mt. Sinai Hospital, Histadrut, the Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish Socialist Farband, and the Bund, and sponsored blood drives. Our name is engraved in stone as a sponsor of the new Skirball Cultural Center.

WC members created for themselves and for the wider community a vibrant cultural life. Yiddish reading groups existed all over town. Poets gave recitations. Immigrants who had lived through tumultuous times wrote and published their memoirs. WC welcomed speakers and theatrical troupes from around the world. WC sponsored a Yiddish chorus, a bowling league and other teams. WC also taught Yiddish to adults and children. With its schools (shuln), summer camp, holiday celebrations, benefit programs, a myriad of lectures, concerts, and political campaigns, WC amounted to a full, rich, many-faceted Jewish and communal life characterized as a huge extended family.

Shuln and Camp

The program of the Workmen’s Circle schools, as of the organization as a whole, was Jewish, secular, and Socialist. Shuln existed in Los Angeles consistently from 1919 to around 1980. The first shule, with about 80 students, was located at Brooklyn and Soto in East Los Angeles. Immediately following the “Left-Right” split in the late 1920s (Communists sympathetic to the Soviet Union left to form their own organizations), a new school was built on Soto Street. It later relocated to a building owned by the Jewish Socialist Farband on Cincinnati Street.

Existing branches grew and new branches were founded. New neighborhoods outside of Boyle Heights became heavily Jewish, such as City Terrace and West Adams. In 1930 WC built a shule/cultural center on Evergreen Ave., with classrooms, kindergarten, and auditorium. In 1936 WC opened the Avraham Liessin School on West Adams and West Blvd.

In 1950, WC rebuilt a house on Pico Blvd. as a school. It also opened a school in the Valley, where Jews tended to move after the war, when Boyle Heights became almost emptied of Jews. By now Jewish families had spread out geographically and it was harder to transport children to school. In 1958, it was decided to build a new cultural center on S. Robertson Blvd., with the needs of a school high on the list of priorities. Around 1960 WC still had about 70 students.

Over 1,000 students went through WC schools in Los Angeles. By 1970, more and more homes were beginning to have scant Jewish content; so for a youngster to pass through an entire course of Yiddish Sunday school was indeed a considerable achievement.

Founded in the late 1920s in Carbon Canyon, Camp Kinder Ring won much prestige for WC, and served as a kind of summer continuation of school. The director was usually a teacher in the school. Ordinary working people created and ran it for more than 30 years for their children, and as an adult retreat. In its latter years, the camp ran up deficits and problems (the water supply chief among them), and it was sold in 1958.

Ideological History

One can recognize in The Workmen’s Circle’s early declarations of principles a specifically Marxian vocabulary expressing the sentiments of a conscious working class committed to far more than minor tinkering with the mechanisms of the capitalism system. After the ideological war in the 1920s between democratic Socialists and the Soviet-inspired Communist movement, WC generally supported the New Deal program, and remained in the Democratic Party/AFL-CIO orbit.

WC in California had the reputation of being a maverick region, known for its sense of exceptionalism. A remarkable souvenir journal called “Spain Speaks,” published January 28, 1937, recalls a function benefiting Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Organized by WC, the evening featured equal participation of the Communist Party and its front groups, which all took out full-page ads. The journal clearly shows that when the crunch came, these two opposing movements could overcome their considerable differences and join together for common cause. During World War II, WC and its close ally the Jewish Labor Committee were highly visible in the campaign to gather clothing for our Soviet allies.

The same thing happened a decade later with the operation of the United Jewish Mitlshule (1947-1958), a Sunday Yiddish high school. Especially considering the Cold War period in which it flourished, the mitlshule was unique ideologically insofar as it had three teachers, one from WC, one a Communist, and one neutral. It sponsored an active Yiddish children’s theater.

In local politics, WC was active in the coalition that elected Edward Roybal in 1949 as the first Chicano on the City Council, and that later sent him to Congress. We also participated, with such allies as the Jewish Labor Committee, in fair housing campaigns, and various strike support efforts for farm workers. The Workmen’s Circle today holds advanced positions on such issues as reproductive rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, protection of Social Security, healthcare reform, corporate responsibility, globalization, and a two-state solution to the Mideast crisis, among others. In September 2002 our National Executive Board passed a strong resolution critical of Bush’s Iraq policy.

Recent History

In the early 1960s, the WC building on Pico Blvd. was sold, and funds were contributed for a new center on S. Robertson Blvd. In its new location, WC entered a new phase in Los Angeles: the challenge of attracting younger members.

In 1988 the San Fernando Valley’s Sholom Branch was established; and in 1990, New Directions Branch 1092 was formed to give young people a place to gather, and eventually to assume leadership. Effectively speaking, that process achieved its goal once the leadership of the older Vanguard Branch became less active. In 1998 the two branches merged into a New Vanguard Branch that combined the old-timers’ lifelong organizational loyalty with the energy and vision of youth.

Since 1995, I have been privileged to occupy the post of director of the Southern California District. On a personal note, it’s a dream come true for a New Left veteran of Students for a Democratic Society to see how I can meet the challenge of an organizational responsibility of this type. Our charge is to reinvent ourselves so as to appeal to a new generation, with the same ideals, but with, necessarily, new ways of doing things. Our membership has grown, and a new sense of community somewhat akin to the old “extended family” model, has emerged. As part of the broader Jewish renewal movement, WC is seeking to re-create a Yidishkayt that speaks to today.

I say Yidishkayt because in fact we do see significant interest in Yiddish. Our Yiddish classes on four levels continue under Yakob Basner, and we attract good crowds for our klezmer and Yiddish music concerts. But Yiddish is not the only face we show to the future. We have opened A Shenere Velt Gallery, where artists show work that is consistent with our broad humanitarian ideals and goals. People are joining now because they find our Center a welcoming place to celebrate being culturally and actively Jewish.

One of the most visible projects WC has accomplished is the beautiful historical mural on our 70-foot outside wall, featuring great Yiddish writers, traditional Jewish holidays, important labor leaders, and the struggle for a better world. That artwork was featured on the annual report issued by our national organization, attesting to the vital contributions our Southern California District is making to the entire country.

Finally, we remain optimistic because we have already seen what is possible with a little elbow grease, appealing programs, good publicity, and confidence that we are providing something vital to provide to both the Jewish and the wider community.