The Arbeter Ring and the Origins of the Vladeck Center
by Caroline Luce
The Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) was founded in New York in 1892 as a proletarian fraternal organization to provide unemployment insurance, healthcare, and death benefits to its members. The organization was established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, many of whom had cut their teeth as organizers in the Russian revolutionary movement and fled fearing persecution by Tsarist authorities, and who, after settling in the United States, recognized the dire need for such social services among their fellow immigrant workers. As committed socialists, they wanted to create an alternative support structure built on cooperative self-help so that their members would not have to rely on charity. That support structure also included education: they hosted public lectures, performances, and classes in Yiddish, hoping they might inspire their fellow Jewish workers to engage in the broader political and social movements of the time. The founders of the organization viewed Yiddish as more than just their mame loshn (mother tongue); they saw Yiddish language and culture as a potential basis for a new, more modern and secular form of Jewish collective identity rooted in the folkways of the Jewish masses and revolutionary class-consciousness. By combining the provision of social services, Yiddish culture and education, and political and labor organizing, the Arbeter Ring aimed to empower Jewish workers throughout the global diaspora to lead the fight to create “a shenere un besere velt”—a more beautiful and better world.
Los Angeles’ first branch of the Arbeter Ring, no. 248, was chartered in 1908. Named in honor of German socialist Karl Liebknecht, the organization in its earliest days encompassed Jewish radicals of a wide variety of ideological persuasions and partisan affiliations, including anarchists and socialists as well as veterans of both the Socialist-Zionist organization Po’ale Tsiyon and the Bund (Der Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln, un Rusland), resulting in what long-time member Julius Levitt described as “boisterous” branch meetings.1 What the members shared was a commitment to improving the lives of the local Jewish working-class, particularly those Jewish workers sent to Los Angeles by the Industrial Removal Office (IRO), a New York-based charitable organization that sought to relieve overcrowding in eastern cities by relocating Jewish immigrants to other parts of the country, coordinated in tandem with the local Hebrew Benevolent Society (HBS). The HBS worked to find jobs and housing for some of the new arrivals, but, in other cases, denied aid to those they deemed insufficiently hardworking or employable, evidence that, as Levitt described, they had, “snobbishly erected a partition between themselves and their brethren in need.”2 The members of the Arbeter Ring, instead, used Yiddish to educate Jewish immigrant workers and mobilize them to fight for better wages and working conditions through collective action so they would not have to rely on the charity of the HBS. The chartering of branch 248 coincided with a wave of union organizing that resulted in the city's first chapter of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, of which many of branch 248's founders were also members, as well as unions for Jewish carpenters, painters, and bakers. As a reflection of its ties to the labor movement, the Arbeter Ring held its meetings for several years in the Labor Temple, headquarters of the Los Angeles Central Labor Council.
The Arbeter Ring’s membership also overlapped significantly with that of the Yiddish-language branch of the local Socialist Party, which was chartered in 1910. Led nationally by Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party positioned itself as the political arm of the labor movement, aiming to empower the workers as voters so as to enact legislation that would improve their lives, including prohibitions on child labor, laws mandating the 8-hour day, public ownership of utilities, and unemployment relief and other forms of social insurance. To advance these goals, the Arbeter Ring helped register people to vote, distributed information in Yiddish about political issues and candidates, and hosted mass meetings, the first of which featured a lecture by Baruch Charney Vladeck, a veteran of the Bund and the Arbeter Ring, who spoke at a campaign rally for Socialist Party mayoral candidate Job Harriman in 1911. Branch 248 member Julius Levitt also served as the local agent for the Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward)—the largest Yiddish newspaper in the United States which received financial support from the Arbeter Ring—traveling to smaller communities in the region to expand the paper’s distribution, submitting articles about activities in Los Angeles, and, eventually, managing a local office of the paper.3
After Vladeck’s visit, branch 248 launched its first major community-organizing campaign: an effort to build a sanatorium for Jews suffering from tuberculosis. The curative qualities of Los Angeles’ warm, dry climate had been promoted by the city’s boosters to attract tourists and healthseekers to the region, and, by some estimates, as many as 60 percent of the Jewish workers sent to Los Angeles by the IRO were suffering from chronic illnesses like tuberculosis.4 While the HBS had opened a clinic to assist these healthseekers, the members of the Arbeter Ring viewed their efforts as woefully inadequate and insufficient to meet the ever-growing demand for services. Members of branch 248 instead proposed to use mutual-aid to establish a sanatorium where every tubercular could receive treatment regardless of need through a new organization, the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association (JCRA). The Arbeter Ring funded the first on the JCRA’s campus in Duarte when it opened in 1914, and its members also tapped the national and international branches of their unions. In the years that followed, donations from the ILGWU and the Jewish Bakers Union funded new cottages and clinics, each built with labor donated by the Jewish Painters’ and Carpenters’ Unions. Within ten years of the founding of the JCRA, its sanatorium had grown to include over thirty buildings with beds for 120 patients, as well as a large recreation hall and library, and came to be known as the City of Hope.
The Arbeter Ring also devoted its institution-building efforts to Yiddish culture and education. They organized a “People’s Chorus” that performed at fundraisers and events and, in 1921, opened a Yiddish school, first at the Socialist Party headquarters on Cincinnati Street and, later, at a home on Evergreen Avenue. There, they offered classes on Yiddish language, Jewish history, and secular philosophy combined with singing, dancing, drama, and other cultural programs to Jewish children after school. Their goal, as one school administrator described, was to instill in local Jewish children, “the consciousness of his historical fate and absorption of those wonderful cultural treasures which the Jewish people created in the course of its history, so he would be able to continue further the goldene keyt [golden chain] of Jewish culture."5 To the same end, the District Committee also purchased a 100-acre plot in Carbon Canyon (approxiamately 45 miles east of Los Angeles) where they established a summer camp for children and their families. The roads built at the camp were named to honor the intellectual and cultural figures from which the local Arbeter Ring drew inspiration: they included Debs Road, Karl Marx Avenue, Whitman Avenue, Emerson Street, and Tolstoy Road.
In 1926, the Arbeter Ring purchased a lot at the corner of St. Louis Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Boyle Heights to serve as its new headquarters. Both the Jewish population and the organization had grown considerably in the years since its founding; at least a dozen branches had been established, including the original branch no. 248, branches in Long Beach, Pasadena, and San Diego, as well as two anarchist branches, an English-language branch (named in honor of poet Walt Whitman), a Women’s Branch, and at least three branches formed among residents of Boyle Heights, all of which were tied together under the umbrella of the Southern California District Committee. The building on St. Louis, which they named the Vladeck Center, housed the offices for the District Committee, as well as those of several Jewish unions, including the various locals of International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and the Yiddish-language branch of the Socialist Party. Dozens of other organizations also used the space for Yiddish cultural events, lectures, fundraisers, mass meetings, and even wedding anniversaries, the Vladeck Center quickly becoming a major hub of Yiddish-based labor and left-wing organizing in the neighborhood.
1 Yudl (Julius) Levitt, “The Arbeter Ring as it was once,” in Souvenir booklet, 25th Anniversary of the Arbeter Ring in Los Angeles, 11.
2 Levitt in Pinches Karl: Seventy Years of Life and Labor (Los Angeles: Published by the Southern California District Committee of the Workmen’s Circle 1951), 69-75. Vorspan and Gartner, History of the Jews of Los Angeles, (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1970), 112. Benjamin Louis Cohen, “Constancy and Change in the Jewish Family Agency of Los Angeles: 1854-1970” (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1972), 17-19.
3 Yudl (Julius) Levitt, “The Arbeter Ring as it was once,” 12. See also Zunland, vol. 4 (1925): 83.
4 See testimony of Frances Noel to the U.S. Senate, Report of the Commission on Industrial Relations, “The Open and Closed Shop Controversy in Los Angeles,” 1914, 5727.
5 Meltzer, Lazar, "Twenty-five Years of Arbeter Ring Schools in Los Angeles," translated by Mark Smith, in Khesbn 1, no. 1 (1946): 89-93.