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With Appointment of New President, the 'Circle' Now Comes Full Circle

November 11, 2010 By:
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Maddy Braun

Maddy Braun hardly spent any time in synagogues when she was growing up. Despite that, the Lafayette Hill resident says Jewish values are reflected in everything she does.

That, she says, comes from her family's longstanding commitment to Der Arbeter Ring -- the Workmen's Circle.

Like her parents, she grew up learning Jewish customs, songs and even Yiddish at a secular shule, or "school," affiliated with the progressive organization.

"It's where I learned our language, our culture, our history," said Braun, who works as director of finance and administration at Philadelphia Futures. "It really was instrumental in forming my identity as a Jew. And it has sustained me for a long time."

As payback for those experiences, Braun is following in her father's footsteps -- she's become the first female president of the 110-year-old, New York City-based Workmen's Circle.

Her two-year term comes as the entity attempts to breathe new life into its aging membership with a revised structure and increased focus on education.

When progressive-minded immigrants initially founded the Workmen's Circle in 1900, labor rights were at the forefront of their social-justice agenda, said executive director Ann Toback, who also claimed the honor of being the first woman in charge of the group when she assumed the top job 21/2 years ago.

During World War II, Toback explained, membership peaked around 90,000 as the organization fought for Jews to have freedom in Europe. But, she said, participation began to dwindle after Jews gained major victories in those areas. Meanwhile, the needs of the community were evolving as populations shifted and new generations focused on white-collar jobs. Jewish people no longer needed an all-encompassing local outlet that could provide everything from health resources to social gatherings, said Toback.

Making Up for Lost Time
Today, the group counts some 10,000 members in about 20 communities across North America. In addition to special events, the organization operates a large summer camp and has partnerships with eight schools, including the Jewish Children's Folkshul in Germantown. About 115 children attend the secular program on Sunday mornings.

Although the Workmen's Circle hasn't been as as responsive to the community's changing needs "as we needed to be," said Toback, "we're making up for that now. We're saying what can we provide to bring you together, what do modern-day Jews want?"

Based on their focus groups and research, said Toback, "they don't simply want to connect with being Jewish through a traditional synagogue affiliation. They want to make the world a better place in part and parcel with Judaism. And that's the part of Judaism we want to teach."

To do that, she said, "everything about how we exist is in change."

Internally, Toback said, the group changed its governance to a direct democracy, giving every member a say in major decisions. For the first time this fall, members voted by mail to elect a 19-member board of directors and approve the sale of the nonprofit's building on East 33rd Street in Manhattan, once also home to the English-language Forward newspaper. In a few months, the headquarters will move into rented offices in the nearby Garment District. Profits from the building sale will go into a fund to expand Workmen's Circle communities.

Braun, a mother of two and grandmother of four, said her first project will be working with Toback to identify areas that are ripe for growth and develop a strategic plan to seed communities. The goal, she said, is to have thousands of new members by 2015. To engage them, the organization will host cultural and educational events, and build a website where people can create an interactive community around Jewish activism.

Braun said Philadelphia will likely be a targeted area because of the group's history here.

Milton Kant recalled when he first moved to Cherry Hill, N.J., in 1971 and discovered Workman's Circle branches in Wilmington, Del.; and in Atlantic City and Camden, N.J. The Philadelphia district even had groups that conducted meetings entirely in Yiddish and ran at least three shules, said Kant, 85, who added to the mix by founding a South Jersey branch.

All but one Philly branch has since dissolved. That group exists mostly on paper, Kant said, though some of the 100 or so remaining members support the city's Kehilla for Secular Jews.

Toback said she will also be adding professional educators to her 16-member staff, who will develop an "exportable" education model drawing from the successes they've had in their shules. Those educators will provide resources to existing educational programs while helping to launch new shules. "What we're teaching is a Jewish literate activism," said Toback. "We are teaching people what it is to be Jewish."

And yes, that still includes learning Yiddish, a nod to the group's immigrant heritage.

Braun said she's confident that the Workmen's Circle will be able to attract a new generation of progressive activists: "We know there's tremendous potential out there." 

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