Home to 1.76 million Jews, New York is the epicenter of Jewish life in the United States. As families around the world gathered earlier this week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – The Workmen’s Circle, a social justice organization focused on a progressive Jewish identity, held a celebration of a different type.
The organization has been in existence since the 1900s and is the nation’s major non-university Yiddish educator, according to Eva Zasloff, who sits on the board of directors. Originally, their shul – or school – taught immigrant Ashkenazi Jews who came from Eastern Europe and wanted to continue their cultural traditions, said Zasloff.
True to the Workmen’s Circle focus on the teaching of Yiddish, the Rosh Hashanah celebration kicked off with upbeat singing of traditional Yiddish songs. “We stand here, as family and friends of the Workmen’s Circle community, to deepen our self-reflection about the meaning of the New Year,” said Judy Bro, the lead speaker of the service and a teacher at Workmen’s Circle’s shul.
“Two million people around the world speak Yiddish…but there used to be eight million people who spoke Yiddish before the Holocaust,” Bro said. She expressed concern that the thousand-year-old language is not widely taught and is fading away. “Most of our great songs, poetry, plays, books are written in Yiddish. If people lose their language, they lose their culture and then they lose themselves,” she said.
Bro led the service in self-reflection, giving people the opportunity to look back on the past year. Instead of the traditional tossing of bread into a body of water to atone for their misdeeds, she invited the audience to “throw away” their failings by writing down what they would like to get rid of on a piece of paper. The papers were then collected and tossed into a bowl of water.
Later in the service, attendees acknowledged sins such as “ignoring the poor and homeless people” and “closing our hearts and our neighborhoods to people of other backgrounds and races.”
Bro told the families gathered about the new Yiddish-language version of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” which recounts the story of a Jewish family in Imperial Russia. She explained how Tevye, the main character, and his Jewish community faced anti-semitism and changing traditions while still holding onto their basic Jewish values. “We can’t compare our situation today in the United States with the anti-semitism that Tevye and the town faced back in Russia. However the threat of a growing American anti-semitism cannot be ignored,” she said.
But Bro added that Jews are not the only targets of discrimination. “That should make us just as vigilant for others, who like us, have faced centuries of prejudice and violence and continue to face it…people of color, LGBTQ, women,” she said.
She also expressed that, although today’s American Jews don’t have to flee their homes due to anti-semitism, their history of being expelled from numerous countries should lead them to be compassionate toward refugees. Workmen’s Circle frequently partners with HIAS, a Jewish-American nonprofit organization that provides assistance to refugees, because Jews were once [people] in a strange land too, Bro explained.
“Around the world, people are being persecuted because they are different and…the doors to freedom for those who are being persecuted and are seeking refuge are bolted shut here and abroad,” said Bernice Siegal, a speaker at the service and also a member of The Workmen’s Circle board of directors. “It was not so long ago that the doors to safety and freedom were closed to Jews fleeing from the horrors of the Holocaust.” Siegal encouraged the crowd to join hands with each other and rally against hate and oppression.
“In the last 20 years, The Workmen’s Circle has had a resurgence and redefinition with not only Yiddish and cultural livelihood, but also social justice and connections with issues around economic justice and racial justice,” said Zasloff.
Bro said one of The Workmen’s Circle’s recent social justice causes was fighting for the $15 per hour minimum wage in New York. The initiative was passed and has resulted in similar efforts nationwide and on the national level. The group also pushed for all residents of New York to have the right to a driver’s license, regardless of immigration status, so that they can get to work.
“Part of [these efforts] is helping support low-income people and people of color who are going to be discriminated against if those things are not passed,” said Bro.
The Rosh Hashanah celebration concluded as it began, with traditional Yiddish singing and music. “May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease, when great and wondrous peace embraces the world,” the families in the service said in unison.