A student and teacher play the violin during a presentation on child victims of the Holocaust at the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School in Manhattan, April 23, 2017. (Ben Sales via JTA)

This New York City Sunday school teaches Jewish kids Yiddish — and socialism

NEW YORK — The Jewish Sunday school teacher, a black accordion strapped to her shoulders, stands before a photo of a 1927 Jewish protest in Warsaw and introduces her students to an important holiday observed by their ancestors.

It isn’t Passover, which has just ended, but another that is approaching in a couple weeks: May Day, the unofficial May 1 holiday celebrating workers’ rights.

“Socialism is the idea that everyone should have what they need,” says the teacher, Hannah Temple, as a projector flashes images of a protest sign and Jewish immigrants marching in a labor demonstration. On the walls, multicolored signs declare “Jewish communities fight for $15” — a minimum wage campaign — “We are all workers” and “Remember the Triangle Fire,” a reference to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 146 garment workers at a factory and galvanized the labor movement.

Temple teaches the children words to a Yiddish May Day anthem and offers a short primer on early 20th century labor activism.

“We need to sleep some, we need to work some, but we need some time that’s for us,” she says, describing the campaign for an eight-hour workday. She invites the few dozen students and parents in the room to a May Day protest in downtown Manhattan. A few hands go up.

“Maybe?” she asks. “Maybe is great.”

The Yiddish sing-along-cum-socialist teach-in is the morning meeting of the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School, a secular Jewish Sunday school that combines Yiddish language and culture education with progressive social justice organizing. It’s one of eight such schools, called “shules,” in four states serving a total of 300 students aged 5 to 13 — teaching them everything from an Eastern European melody for the Four Questions to how to protest on behalf of underpaid fast-food workers. The curriculum ends with a joint bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for the seventh-graders.

Students at the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School in Manhattan read through a play in Yiddish, April 23, 2017. (Ben Sales via JTA)

Though it’s more than a century old, the Workmen’s Circle, a left-wing Eastern European Jewish culture and social justice group, has seen its fundraising and school enrollment grow in recent years. Part of the boost, leaders say, was due to the diametrically opposed presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Donald Trump.

Sanders, says executive director Ann Toback, awakened American Jews to secular, progressive Jewish culture conveyed with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Trump, she adds, sparked Jews on the left to organize in protest.

Workmen’s Circle made a lapel pin bearing the faces of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump accompanied by the words “mensch” and “putz,” respectively. (Josefin Dolsten via JTA)

Workmen’s Circle isn’t shy about its political leanings. Following the presidential election, it made a lapel pin bearing the faces of Sanders and Trump accompanied by the words “mensch” and “putz,” respectively.

“Before there was Bernie, there was the Workmen’s Circle,” Toback says. “Is there a way we can connect to so many of his followers? The values that he based his campaign on are really the inherent values of the Workmen’s Circle and our movement.”

In the five-month period after the election, the group saw its donations double over the same stretch the previous year. It has opened five of its eight Sunday schools in the past three years. The biggest, in Boston, has more than 100 students. In May, the Manhattan school will be hosting a spring open house for the first time.

“More people are coming to us looking for — ‘I want to engage in social justice activism,’” says Beth Zasloff, director of the Midtown school. “I know that for me, after the election, having a community, having a place to go where I know we can address these issues with our children, felt extremely important.”

The Midtown school, like its counterparts, eschews traditional Jewish Sunday school mainstays like learning Hebrew or studying ritual and prayer. Israel isn’t a focus. Workmen’s Circle has partnered in the past both with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a left-wing group that focuses on domestic issues, and Habonim Dror, the left-wing Labor Zionist movement.

Instead, kids take three types of classes: arts and crafts, Yiddish language and history, and culture and social justice. Last Sunday, the three students in the Yiddish class were reading a play, in transliteration, about a robot. The teacher would read a line in Yiddish and translate, which a student repeated.

The arts and crafts class was making banners for an immigrant rights protest. In the history and culture class, four students prepared for their bar and bat mitzvahs next year. For the ceremony, they’ll do a research project on their family history and interview an elderly relative. Later that Sunday, this year’s bar mitzvah class made presentations on children who were killed in the Holocaust.

Beth Zasloff, director of the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School (Courtesy of Zasloff via JTA)

One student said knowing Yiddish made her feel like her friends at school who hail each other in the hallways in Bengali. Another said her favorite Workmen’s Circle experience was participating in the Jan. 21 Women’s March in New York City. And for some, the appeal lies in attending a Sunday school that avoids the standard memorization of Hebrew prayers.

“This is secular, and I’m not super religious in terms of my beliefs about God,” says Moxie Strom. “So it’s nice to have something that doesn’t focus so much on ‘God said this and God said that.’”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring was founded in 1900 in large part to help Jewish immigrants from Europe succeed in America. Along with advocating for better working conditions, it offered members services like health care and loans. It supported socialism at a time when Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan helped elected a Socialist Party candidate, Meyer London, to Congress.

No longer socialist but still left wing, the Workmen’s Circle fights for those issues largely on behalf of non-Jewish workers, leading campaigns for immigrant rights or better pay.

And instead of helping Yiddish speakers integrate into America, the organization’s cultural mission has flipped, preserving and promoting an old world culture for American Jews. It runs Yiddish language classes for adults and a summer camp for kids, and hosts culinary and holiday events.

“There’s so much culture they’re missing,” says Kolya Borodulin, the group’s associate director for Yiddish programming, who grew up in Birobidzhan, the Soviet Union’s Jewish Autonomous Region. “Jewish holidays, traditions described by famous Yiddish authors — any contemporary issues you name — are reflected in the Yiddish language. So you can see this parallel universe in Yiddish.”

Even if they go to eight years of Sunday school, Borodulin says, the students are unlikely to come out speaking proficient Yiddish, or even reading a page in the language’s Hebrew script. The school’s aim, rather, is to reinforce a cultural and ideological Jewish identity in its students. The aspiration is that years after they leave, they will be able to connect to their Judaism on holidays, in song and on the picket line.

“What resonates most with them is the social justice and having a sense of what we believe in,” says Debbie Feiner, whose two sons, ages 9 and 12, attend the Midtown school. The older one, she says, understands that “when you see some injustice, you need to take action. He can’t be a passive bystander, and he’ll connect that with his Judaism.”

A long time ago, in a kibbutz far away . . .

Yoav was my kibbutz brother, secular and an ardent Zionist. He had an encyclopedic mind that could recite in detail kibbutz history, lore and socialist ideology. Today, Yoav is an equally intense, knowledgeable and ideological Charedi guy living in the Midwest. He recently offered to pay me money for introducing him to the woman he married more than 25 years ago.

I refused to accept it.

Our friendship dates back to the summer of 1970, when I was 19 years old. He was 17. It was my first trip to Israel.

I was standing in the chaotic Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, with no idea where I was going. While deciphering the schedules, I met some other American students, who told me they were spending the summer on a kibbutz where there were plenty of extra beds, a beautiful pool, free food and lots of beautiful German volunteers. I remembered my mother’s last admonishment before I got on the plane in Los Angeles: “Don’t end up on one of those communist kibbutzes and become a socialist having nonstop sex with all the other communists who want to live communally.”

There was no way I was going to resist this kibbutz invitation.

A few hours later when we arrived at our destination, I asked my American hosts many questions about the place. They said, “Let’s introduce you to Yoav. He loves to tell the Americans about the kibbutz.”

As Yoav led me through the grounds, we bonded instantly. He was a brilliant, deep, complicated thinker. That afternoon he invited me to his parents’ house for the 4 p.m. tea, where I met his entire family.

They became my Israeli family. I returned to the kibbutz for several summers. His parents were like my own parents, quenching and stimulating the thirst I had for understanding Israel and the Jewish people. They embraced me and scolded me. Yoav and I spent hours, late into the night, in ideological discussions, challenging one another’s views. When I returned to Los Angeles, we wrote long letters continuing on the summer’s debates.

Two years after he went into the army, he evaporated. He stopped writing. My last summer at the kibbutz, he never appeared. His parents did not know what to tell me.

I married. I began a profession. Five, maybe six years later, I received a phone call one day in Los Angeles. “This is Yoav.”

During our first meeting, he was icy cold. We met again, and he warmed up a bit. We met a third time, and the ice melted and the river began to rush with explanations and admissions. His army years were terrible. He was now questioning the legitimacy of kibbutz life and the entire Zionist enterprise. He was angry and cynical. He hated anything having to do with Judaism.

He knew two people in Los Angeles — me and a young lady named Suzie, who had lived on the kibbutz for several years. Suzie and I were both in advertising and sometimes did business together. She had an employee, a young Jewish woman who had moved to Los Angeles from a small town in the Midwest. We determined to fix her up with Yoav.

They eventually married. I was the best man at their wedding.

They began their married life in Los Angeles. Yoav left his cynicism behind and in Torah and Jewish learning found a path to funnel his questioning and his depth. The couple moved to a big city in the Midwest, near the town where they got married. I went once to visit, and then he again disappeared — into a world of yeshiva life, with little time to see me.

My wife and I had three children. We began to take regular trips to Israel. On each trip, we made certain to go to the kibbutz. Yoav’s family embraced me, my wife and our children as part of their family. We have remained very close until this day. Yoav’s ultra-orthodoxy has not been easy for them.

Over the last 16 years, since my visit to see Yoav, he and I have spoken about three times, mainly in my phone calls when his father died.

I’ve waited to tell this story, because I didn’t know what its ending would be.

Two years ago, my assistant announced, “There’s a guy named Yoav on the phone. He said he must speak with you.”

I picked up.

“Gary, can you tell me the story of how you introduced me to Cheryl?” No small talk. No exchange of pleasantries.

I decided to go with the flow. “Yoav, is it your 25th anniversary, or something?”

“Yes,” he answered tentatively.

I began to jog my memory, jumping into the conversation as if it was natural. I didn’t want to do anything to make it difficult.

“Were you the actual person who introduced us, or was it Suzie? I need to know the exact details.”

As I began to think back, something about the question did not feel right. I asked, “Yoav, what is this really about?”

He hesitated. “It is not really about our anniversary. It’s time for us to find a shiddach for our son, and my rabbi asked if I had paid the shadchan who set up my marriage to Cheryl. When I told him that I didn’t, he said I must, otherwise our son’s shiddach may be visited with some unfortunate circumstances. And I am pretty sure that you, Gary, not Suzie, were the actual shadchan.”

I was taken aback, understanding he wanted to pay me for an act of friendship that happened 25 years ago. But, I thought quickly. “Yoav, is the payment only to be in the form of money?”

“What?” he asked, equally taken aback by my question.

I repeated the question.

“My rabbi said I have to pay the shadchan. I am sure it must be in the form of money.”

“Did he actually mention money, or did he just mention ‘payment’?”

He fumbled his words. We went back and forth. We were once again into the ideological discussion rhythm that we had established for ourselves 30 years before. It was familiar, and it was frustrating. Yet, there was none of the warmth that used to lace every volley.

As men in our 50s, we were getting nowhere with the discussion. Finally, I stopped the bouncing ball.

“Yoav, why am I asking you this question?”

“I know, Gary, why you are asking me this question.”

“Why, Yoav? Why did I introduce you to Cheryl?” I wasn’t going to let it slide.

He hesitated for a long time. I could feel his angst. But I didn’t intervene to create any comfort. “Because you were my very good friend. You saw I was lonely. You loved me like a brother.”

I could tell he hated to have to admit it. But I know this man. He had no choice, when it came to his soul, but to tell the truth.

“And 25 years later, you’re now going to offer to pay me money for that act?”

“I did not mean to offend you. I am not trying to insult you. That is not my intention. It is what we do in my community.”

“I don’t believe you are trying to insult me at all. But if you must pay because of your community’s belief system, I suggest that money is the wrong payment in exchange for being a good friend and loving you like a brother. There is something wrong with this equation, Yoav. If this is now a business conversation, what if the ‘seller of the service’ is saying that money is the wrong payment?”

I heard him take a deep breath. “Gary, our lives are very different from one another.”

“How would you know anything about my life and that it may be different from yours? How do you know what I believe and think, what my experiences have been and what my Jewish involvements are?”

He again hesitated. “You are right. I don’t know.”

I waited. There was a very long silence. “Gary, I think there needs to be some more conversation between us at another point.”

Two months later, I received a kiddush cup in the mail. It’s now been two years. I’ve never heard from him.

Gary Wexler is founder and president of Los Angeles-based Passion Marketing, consulting with Jewish and general nonprofit organizations throughout the world.

How South America’s Left Turn Impacts Its Jews

South American Jewish communities are surveying their surroundings anew after elections across the continent in recent years have been dominated by left-wing or center-left parties.

Among the changes:

  • In 2002, Luis Ignacio “Lula” DaSilva, a union leader from a poor background, was elected president of Brazil as a candidate of the Worker’s Party.
  • Nestor Kirchner, who won the Argentine presidency in 2003, has turned his left-leaning Peronist Party into a powerhouse by championing economic austerity and straightening out a country that was in bankruptcy just five years ago.
  • Michele Bachelet, a socialist and the first woman elected president in South America, seems to be single-handedly changing Chile’s historically conservative and traditional society.
  • Tabare Vazquez, a Uruguayan socialist, led his Broad Front Party to a historic victory last year, the first time in over a century that a candidate from outside Uruguay’s two traditional parties has won the presidency.
  • Evo Morales, an indigenous coca farmer and leader of the coca grower’s union, won a wide triumph in Bolivian national elections last December. Morales is closely allied with leftist parties throughout Latin America, and is personally close both to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan radical Hugo Chavez.
  • Alan Garcia, whose APRA Party in Peru is part of the International Socialist alliance, defeated left-wing indigenous leader Ollanta Humala in a runoff election earlier this year.
  • Ecuador a few years ago elected a left-wing president, Lino Gutierrez, who embarked on a more conservative program than he had promised in his campaign. After a popular uprising led by students and indigenous leaders, Gutierrez was forced to resign and flee the country. A center-left or indigenous party is expected to win presidential elections later this year.
  • In Venezuela, Chavez has been elected twice since 1999 and probably will win a third term in December. With his blatant anti-U.S. rhetoric, Pan-American vision, close relations with Castro and other leaders of what the U.S. State Department considers rogue regimes, meddling in other nations’ internal affairs and grand designs for development, Chavez has struck a chord with many left-wingers and the poor in Venezuela and elsewhere in South America.

The only chief executive in the region who doesn’t fit the mold is Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, a center-right politician who recently won re-election by a wide margin.

Most South American Jews arrived from Europe between 1880 and 1940. Most countries in the continent — with the exception of Argentina and, to a lesser degree, Uruguay — have small Jewish populations that are highly successful in terms of political, social and economic power.

Some say the situation is sufficiently different in each country to make generalizations useless.

“One must differentiate and classify these new governments, rather than use a broad brush when describing South America’s turn to the left,” said Ram Tapia Adler, B’nai B’rith’s director in Chile.

Bachelet, Lula and Vazquez “are pragmatic leftist presidents,” he said, while Chavez, Morales and Humala are “populist leaders who are not very trustworthy.”
Sergio Widder, Latin American director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, perceives more problems in left-wing grass-roots movements than in the governments. The Wiesenthal Center has produced a 10-minute video called, “Another World?” on anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum’s left-wing anti-globalization gatherings held in Latin America in recent years.

The Peruvian Jewish community illustrates divergent reactions to the new South American left.

Before Humala narrowly lost the June election, Guillermo Bronstein, head rabbi of Asociacion Judia 1870, the largest and most influential of Lima’s three main synagogues, said: “There is fear of Humala and his xenophobia, and a greater fear among Jewish businessmen and intellectuals that Peru under a Humala government could turn into another axis of anti-U.S. and anti-European attitudes, as in Chavez’s Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia.”

But in that same election, Isaac Mekler, a leader of Peru’s Jewish community, was elected to the House of Deputies on the Humala slate. The about-face by Mekler — a scathing critic of Humala until he was offered the position on his slate — caused tremendous divisions in the small Peruvian Jewish community. The community is waiting to see what positions Mekler will take on Jewish issues in Parliament.

Many analysts believe Chavez’s interference in the Peruvian election — he supported Humala and baited the eventual winner, Garcia — may have cost Humala crucial votes in what ended up being a very close election.

Wariness of Chavez — an ally of Iran and, lately, a fierce critic of Israel — is also evident in Bolivia, where Jewish community leader Gabriel Hercman earlier this year expressed concern about Chavez’s influence over Morales.
That wariness was evident at an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee conference that brought more than 1,000 Jewish leaders to Argentina in May. Some Venezuelan delegates expressed dismay at actions of the Chavez government, including a 2004 police raid of a Jewish school.

Not everyone shares the concern over the advent of the left. Considering that many South American Jews lived for decades under right-wing military dictators who flirted with fascism or under governments where anti-Semitism was prevalent, some feel the recent changes are positive.

“We in South America are passing through a wonderful moment. I am absolutely thrilled with the changes that Latin America is going through: These are the dreams we grew up with in our youth being put into practice,” said Daniel Goldman, chief rabbi of Bet-El of Buenos Aires, Latin America’s largest Jewish congregation. He was referring to aspirations for democratically elected governments that at least talk about pursuing more equitable social policies.

“It’s time we looked at the capacity of individuals, not by their religious origin,” he continued. “We have had Jews participate in some of Latin America’s most horrendous governments. We must think that if a government is positive for human beings, it is positive for the Jewish community.”

Regarding the changes in Argentina, Goldman believes that Jews “have a place just like any citizen of this country, and we have to separate the feelings of the community at large from the Jewish leaders who were always closely associated with authoritarian governments. Our leaders were not up to the circumstances of leadership even when 2,500 Jews disappeared during the military dictatorship.”

Isaac Rudnik is one of the heads of the Argentine Foreign Ministry’s Latin American Affairs Department. He was named Argentina’s special ambassador to Bolivia during that country’s political crisis last year mainly because he had developed a close friendship with Morales during Rudnik’s years of left-wing activism.

After studying in Israel as an adolescent, Rudnik returned to Argentina for law school and became a student activist in the mid-1970s. The military ultimately detained him in a provincial concentration camp, where he spent seven years.
Israel ultimately helped Rudnik leave Argentina for medical care. He returned after the dictatorship fell, and continued working for social change.

“I hear criticism of Evo Morales and Chavez being anti-Semitic and I find it absurd, especially in the case of Evo,” Rudnik said. “This is a coca farmer from Bolivia who is trying to change centuries of slavery of his people. How does anti-Semitism even enter the discussion?”