Merle Levine is not only the president of the Toronto Workmen’s Circle (TWC), a humanistic Jewish fraternal order, she has been a member of the organization for almost 80 years. In fact, it’s a bit of a family business.
Her grandparents, Morris and Beckie Langbord, were founding members and her father, Karl Langbord, managed the organization for decades.
“I became a member on June 28, 1939 – the day I was born,” Levine said, laughing.
Levine has wonderful memories of growing up in the TWC, or Der Arbeiter Ring, as it is called in Yiddish. Promoting Jewish culture and the Yiddish language has been an important mandate of the organization, which is rooted in secularism and social justice.
Levine and Mel Cederbaum, the director of the TWC, met on March 27, to discuss the organization’s upcoming centenary celebration. A brunch will be held at 11 a.m. on May 5 at the TWC’s headquarters at 471 Lawrence Ave. W. in Toronto. The festivities will include archival exhibits and presentations, along with a song and dance program.
The TWC will be marking the 100th anniversary of its incorporation and the 60th jubilee of its Lawrence Avenue centre.
Its incorporation actually took place in 1917, while the TWC’s headquarters opened in 1957.
Cederbaum acknowledged the two-year gap in celebrating these milestones. “We do everything slowly,” he joked.
The Workmen’s Circle started in New York City in 1892 as a fraternal order to support immigrants. A Toronto branch was established in 1908.
The TWC incorporated in 1917, after the American branch was able to extend fraternal benefits like health insurance to its Canadian members, Cederbaum explained.
However, he stressed that the primary connection between the two groups was their shared political ideology and social justice ideals.
Within the TWC, there were several branches. Levine’s grandparents belonged to the anarchist group.
In 1925, the TWC established a Jewish communal camp at Lake Wilcox in Richmond Hill, Ont.
The following year, the organization purchased a tract of 50 acres along Duffin Creek, near Pickering. Half the acreage was set up as a summer cottage colony for TWC members and the remaining land was allocated to Camp Yungvelt, a children’s summer camp.
Members owned their cottages, but the land was communal property, Levine said. “It was a phenomenal environment. It was very creative, with plays and lectures for children and adults. The goal was to promote Yiddishkeit to well-rounded kids.”
During the school year, the children attended TWC-run nursery schools and the I.L. Peretz Schule, a supplementary Jewish school.
Before Toronto’s Jewish community moved north along Bathurst Street in the mid-1950s, the TWC’s activities took place in the downtown core.
Levine recalled attending Passover concerts at the Victory Theatre on Spadina Avenue. I.L. Peretz Schule classes were held in converted houses, until the present building on Lawrence Avenue opened.
It was built as a school, but the classrooms are now rented out to a daycare.
As socialists, many TWC members were politically active and “pushed for government-funded health care,” in Canada, but once universal health coverage was available, there was less incentive for people to belong to TWC, Levine noted.
The last summer at Camp Yungvelt was in 1971. It closed because of declining enrolment. A lot of them no longer wanted to go there, Levine lamented. “The kids didn’t want to learn Yiddish. They wanted to learn water skiing.”
To register for the centenary brunch, call 416-787-2081, or email: [email protected] Registration closes on April 26.