Artwork of Shtetl Houses by Avrom Yanovsky (Canada, 1911-1979)
The precursor organizations to the UJPO (United Jewish People’s Order) evolved from the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, a socialist umbrella organization which included Bundists, socialists, free thinkers, secularists and Yiddishists. In 1926 the Workmen’s Circle disenfranchised and/or expelled those members it considered radicals (supporters of the 1917 Russian revolution). These ‘radical’ individuals formed the Labour League Mutual Benefit Society (LLMBS) in Toronto, and the Canadian Workers’ Circle (in Montreal and in Winnipeg), and other names in various Canadian cities. These organizations met the needs for a progressive social community and schooling for children, providing benefits for its members such as medical (decades before Medicare was instituted), unemployment and mortuary coverage, and a credit union, all quite revolutionary at the time.
The cultural and educational activities were mainly conducted in Yiddish, catering to the influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Each centre maintained its cultural activities under the name of the Yiddisher Arbeter Kultur Tsenter (Jewish Workers’ Cultural Centre). The vast majority of members were poor and working class people labouring in sweatshops and often living in substandard conditions. Many were in the forefront of the movement to create workers’ unions. They were socialists who were committed to equality and bringing about a “nayer, frayer velt” – a newer, freer world.
The major emphasis of these organizations’ programming was to preserve the rich history and values of Yiddish culture or Yiddishkayt, (Jewishness), through the creation of choirs, orchestras, children’s schools (Folk Shules), activity clubs, camps, dance and theatre groups.
In Toronto the Frayhayt Gesangs Fareyn (Freedom Singing Society) which subsequently became the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir (TFJC) was part of the similarly-named left-wing choral movement in North America, and was autonomously formed in 1925. The same was true with Camp Kindervelt (Children’s World), which evolved into Camp Naivelt. Within a few years both groups requested to become institutions of the Labour League. With the purchase of a house at 414 Markham Street, Toronto’s Morris Winchevsky School (MWS) was founded in 1928 by the LLBMS. Subsequently other school locations were opened to meet growing demands. In 1959 MWS became an autonomous charitable organization as UJPO-Toronto withdrew its financial support, and in 1978 the TJFC also acquired autonomy and charitable status for similar reasons.