Workmen's Circle, Seattle Branch

  • By Lee Micklin
  • Posted 11/02/1998
  • Essay 126

In 1909, the Seattle Branch 304 of Workmen's Circle is organized. Known as the Arbeiter Ring in Yiddish, it was officially a socialist worker's organization although its activities were more social than socialist and its early membership was made up of many small business entrepreneurs. Early activities include summer picnics, festive observances of the Jewish Holidays, education (including the teaching of Yiddish), New Year's Eve celebrations in downtown hotels, banquets, and lectures.

Nationally, the Workmen's Circle was formed in 1892 by a group of immigrant Jewish workers as a mutual aid society on New York's Lower East Side. In 1900, it became a national fraternal order and by 1910 had 38,866 members. It provided a broad cultural and educational program that included lectures, theater, choruses, orchestras, and established schools that emphasized Jewish history and particularly the Yiddish language.

In Seattle, the Workmen's Circle's first location was a rented store on 14th Avenue and Main Street. In 1920, the members bought a building at 120 21st Avenue that had been a blacksmith shop. They established a Yiddish school and put on plays. The Workman's Circle was a cultural center for East European Jews.

Some activities of the Workmen's Circle were in keeping with their socialist bent. During World War I, members helped to organize rent strikes. They set up cooperative groceries and meat markets.

The group's Socialist background made them a police target during the "Red Scare" after World War I. (The Red Scare involved anti-radical vigilantism, raids on labor and radical organizations and newspapers, and deportations of non-citizen dissenters. It is often compared to the McCarthy Era of the 1950s.) The Yiddish School was raided; the teachers and students were booked at the Federal Center and had to appear in court. But in the end the charges were dropped.

In 1937, the Workmen's Circle purchased a site at 17th Avenue and East Marion Street. Construction of a new building was begun in December 1941. It took a year to complete, due to the scarcity of materials during the war.

The Workmen's Circle bought war bonds during both World Wars, sponsored dances for servicemen, and worked with the local United Service Organization (USO). They contributed financially toward evacuating a large group of Jewish labor leaders from Nazi Germany.

In 1973, the Workmen's Circle ceased operation.


Lorraine Sidell, "Historically Speaking: Workman's Circle," Nizcor: Washington State Jewish Historical Society Newsletter, May, 1991; Washington State Jewish Historical Society, The Jewish Experience in Washington State: A Chronology 1853-1995 (Seattle: Washington State Jewish Historical Society, 1998); Daniel Soyer, "Workmen's Circle," Encyclopedia of the American Left ed. by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1990), 856-858.

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