Ann Toback, executive director of the Workmen’s Circle since 2008, has led the organization through a rebranding process in which it has adopted a new Jewish learning-based mission rooted in intergenerational learning and cultural celebration. Taking a page from its history of progressive activism, Toback, a former union leader, has also launched an activist agenda focused on making $15-an-hour the national minimum wage. This is an edited transcript of The Jewish Week’s interview with her last week.
Q: The Workmen’s Circle was founded in 1900 to help Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe resettle here. How has it changed?
A: The needs and priorities of the American Jewish community have changed and we are responding in new and different ways. We started as a fraternal benefits society that provided such things as life insurance and health benefits, and have become a progressive, Jewish nonprofit.
Today we are seeding and supporting vibrant Jewish learning communities, many of them centered on a Jewish complementary school that meets on Sundays or weekday evenings. We also are creating opportunities for Americans to connect to their Jewish culture, to celebrate our heritage and to take action for social and economic justice.
Your group has a new look, including a new logo that is said to represent a vision of community and continuity. Please explain.
It was important as we changed and connected with this new century that our outward appearance also connects with the new audiences that we’re reaching out to. Our new logo is a series of concentric circles that represents circles of community today and that is always attached to our tagline: “Jewish culture for a just world.” It hearkens to where we came from and where we are going as well.
Has the Pew Research Center report of 2013 finding that just 31 percent of Jews are affiliated with a synagogue affected your organization’s work?
We think there is an enormous audience in the 69 percent of Jews who are looking for an alternative means to connect to their Jewish identity. Many of them reported in the survey that they connected to the Jewish values of social and economic justice, as well as to Jewish culture through a variety of markers, such as food, music and literature. And many talked about expressing their Jewish identity by striving to make the world better. The Workmen’s Circle has programs and opportunities to connect to a community of likeminded people that can exactly meet their needs. And we think many of our offerings are very meaningful to Jews of all affiliations.
You also host Jewish holiday celebrations that are open to all.
Yes, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we have programs at different locations around the New York area. We don’t come together from a religious perspective but to connect with our cultural heritage. So we celebrate a new year and new life. Around Yom Kippur we speak a lot about forgiveness and what we can do better in the year to come. On Sukkot our students and families come together to celebrate the harvest and speak about preserving the environment. Purim is often a time when we talk about injustice, and on Passover the emphasis is often on fair labor practices and inequality in the workplace.
Whom are you attracting to these events?
We welcome everyone and many of those who join us are often in interfaith families. … We need to welcome people who want to be a part of us. We are a membership organization, although you don’t need to be a member to take part in our activities. You do have to be a member, however, to attend our schools and our summer camp, Camp Kinder Ring in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. We have about 8,000 members but serve between 20,000 and 30,000 people each year.