Founded by Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe, the Boston Workmen’s Circle has fought for social justice and inclusiveness since its inception. More than a century later, the group’s mission has not changed. But thanks to a group of passionate students, it now has a new, more inclusive name: the Boston Workers Circle.
“It’s not a workmen’s circle,” said 14-year old Reuben Pomerantz, one of the students who pushed for the change. “It’s not just men. Boston Workers Circle is a gender-neutral name and more inclusive, and I think it reflects what this organization is about.”
Each year, students at Boston Workers Circle examine a contemporary issue of workers’ rights as part of the Sunday School curriculum, which teaches the history of Jewish-led social movements.
One day in class, a student pointed out that the name was gender-specific, and her classmates agreed. They decided to write to the organization’s board, which said it was open to changing the name.
The students’ petition eventually made its way to the national group, which announced its new name on Dec. 2, about two years after the students first wrote to the board. The Boston chapter followed suit the next day.
“Our bold students who organized for this name change recognized that our name was out of sync with our values,” said Jen Kiok, the group’s executive director. “A gender-neutral name change is long overdue.”
As it turned out, the hard part wasn’t persuading the board to change the name, it was deciding what the name should be.
Some older members of the community pushed for the original Yiddish name Der Arbeter Ring, a direct gender-neutral translation, students said. Some didn’t want to change the name at all. But in the end, the overwhelming majority chose Boston Workers Circle because of its simplicity.
“The biggest debate at the end was where to put the apostrophe,” Jasper Milstein, 14, added with a laugh. The organization wound up excluding the apostrophe altogether.
This wasn’t the first time these students pushed for social change. In 2016, just months before they proposed the name change, the fifth graders stood in solidarity with Florida tomato pickers outside a Wendy’s in downtown Boston. They urged customers to boycott the fast-food chain unless it agreed to pay a higher price for tomatoes, which advocates said could boost farm wages.
With almost 600 members, the secular Jewish cultural organization in Brookline emphasizes the importance of solidarity with unions, low-wage workers, immigrants, Muslims, and other groups that may experience oppression. The organization offers a variety of programs and clubs, including a Jewish Muslim Solidarity Committee, adult education courses, and a social justice group for teenagers.
For more than 20 years, the group has taught students about the history of Jews in the labor movement, encouraging them to pursue activism and social justice at their school and beyond.
That message has resonated with Pomerantz and Milstein, who said their successful efforts show how important it is to listen to kids and to give them a voice. They’ve graduated from the Sunday School program, but said they will continue to spread ideas about social justice to their peers.
“Kids have great ideas,” Milstein said. “They should be listened to more.”