Shortly after its establishment in 1892 in New York City, a branch of Der Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) made its way to Montreal in 1907. Firmly entrenched in the radical labour movement, and founded on principles of mutual aid, the Workmen’s Circle provided a diverse range of services to its members; these included health care, a library, social clubs, and access to Jewish cemetery plots. Ideologically, this Jewish fraternal organization had its roots in the Eastern European socialist political tradition of the Bund. Emphasizing secular, progressive Yiddish culture, it was officially opposed to Zionism and chose the side of social democracy more than communism. The Montreal founders – mostly immigrant Russian Bundists – maintained close links with the Jewish Labour Congress and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (today’s NDP). Indeed, 1940 saw the election of two Workmen’s Circle members, Michael Rubenstein and Albert Eaton, to the municipal council.
One particularly important contribution made to Montreal’s Jewish community was the creation of Workmen’s Circle schools, beginning in 1920 with one school located near the Jean Talon Market. Named for the famed Yiddish-language author, the three Abraham Reisen schools provided supplementary Jewish education in the afternoons. By the late 1940s the Abraham Reisen schools served approximately three hundred students annually, but their constituency dwindled slowly until their last adult Yiddish classes ended in 2005.
From only twenty-six founding members, the population of the Workmen’s Circle was one-thousand-strong by the 1920s: well before its mid-century heyday. The group faced a steady decline in the years following World War II, as the Jewish community of Montreal became more and more entrenched in the middle class. In recent years, the organization formally disassociated with the American branch for financial reasons, and renamed itself the gender-neutral “Worker’s Circle.” Once located at 4848 St Lawrence Boulevard, their old building is now best known as the home of concert hall La Sala Rossa. A bastion of leftism in Jewish Montreal, the Worker’s Circle celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2007, and still maintains an office in the Snowdon neighbourhood.
Compiled by Sarah Woolf.
American Jewish Historical Society. "Guide to the Records of the Workmen's Circle, undated, 1903-1993." New York: Center for Jewish History, 2001.
Block, Irwin. "'Circle' played vital role in immigrant life." The Senior Times [Montreal] October 2007.
Dale, Daniel. "Pioneering Jewish group fading, victim of its own success." The Toronto Star 2 Mar. 2009
"Montreal Schools." Jewish Montreal of Yesterday. Jewish Public Library Archives. 2010.
"Worker's Circle." Jewish Montreal of Yesterday. Jewish Public Library Archives. 2010.
Lambertson, Ross. Repression and resistance: Canadian human rights activists, 1930-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
Wiseman, S. "The Jewish People's School of Montreal." Journal of Jewish Education 20.1 (1948): 58-63.
*Images courtesy of Jewish Public Library Archives and the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives.