During the 20th century, Jews played a key role in the American labor movement. Though quiet during the late 19th century, the Jewish labor movement was invigorated by the mass immigration of Eastern Europe Jews between 1880 and 1920, many of whom were socialists or Bundists from pre-Revolution Russia. Jews created their own labor unions and labor-centric mutual aid societies, including the United Hebrew Trades and Workmen’s Circle (Der Arbeter Ring), but also took on prominent roles in non-Jewish ones. Sidney Hillman led the Amalgamated Clothing Worker’s Association (ACWA), founded in 1914, for its first 30 years; Samuel Gompers founded and served as president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from its beginnings in 1886 until 1894, and then again from 1895 until his death in 1922; and David Dubinsky served as president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) from 1932 to 1966. American Jews were also involved in many memorable labor movement moments. Clara Lemlich Shavelson, along with the ILGWU, led the Uprising of 20,000, a massive 1909 strike of primarily Jewish women in New York City shirtwaist factories. The next year, the ILGWU led an even bigger strike of New York City cloakmakers, the majority of whom were Jewish. The following year, in 1911, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 women and girls, 102 of them Jewish. Other Jews, including Emma Goldman, Bessie Abramowitz Hillman, Pauline Newman, Rose Pesotta, and Rose Schneiderman played vital roles in American labor movement.
Below are the JHC’s archival collections related to labor and labor history. Click on a title to see an overview of the collection, view the collection’s finding aid (guide to the collection and its contents), and, if applicable, view the digitized collection on our Digital Library & Archives.
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Created to provide mutual aid and education, The Workmen's Circle was established in New York in 1900 and officially chartered in 1905. Massachusetts established an Independent Workmen's Circle in 1903 to maneuver around prohibitive insurance laws, but was able to unify with the national organization in 1921. Several chapters were operational in Massachusetts by 1911. The Boston District often mirrored National's development, including the establishment of cemeteries, a chorus, a camp, and I.L. Peretz Schools. The Workmen's Circle focused on Jewish life and culture, promoted the use of Yiddish, and provided a place of learning for members. The Workmen's Circle was also instrumental in the creation of the Jewish Labor Committee in 1934. This collection contains correspondence, meeting notices and minutes, mortgages, curriculum, event flyers and programs, and news clippings from the Boston District, local branches, New England Region and National offices.
The Farband Labor Zionist Order was a Jewish fraternal organization founded in 1910 and chartered in New York in 1913. With branches across the United States and Canada, it functioned as a mutual aid society aligned with the Socialist and Zionist political party Poale Zion. The material in the collection includes correspondence, newspaper clippings, publications, press releases, photographs, meeting minutes, brochures, and memos.
Albert I. Gordon was a rabbi, author, and sociologist. Rabbi of Temple Israel of Washington Heights, New York (1929-1930), Adath Jeshurun in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1930-1946) and Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts (1949-1968), Rabbi Gordon also served as Executive Director of the United Synagogue of America (1946-1949) and wrote numerous articles and pamphlets, as well as the books Jews in Transition, Jews in Suburbia, Intermarriage, and The Nature of Conversion. Gordon also hosted a radio program in Minneapolis on WCCO for many years. While in Minneapolis, Rabbi Gordon served as a labor arbitrator for 23 different industries and was a member of the National War Labor Board. This collection contains typescripts of Gordon's radio addresses; research, notes and interviews for his books, various sermons and speeches; correspondence, photographs, and materials from his synagogues.
In the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Brockton, Massachusetts was an industrial center that drew Jewish artisans and laborers to the city. They formed an organization known as the Labor League. This collection contains ledger books with member names and financial records.
To address community concerns surrounding the increase in anti-Semitic attacks in primary Jewish neighborhoods, the Associated Jewish Philanthropies organized an interim committee in 1938 to examine interfaith cooperation in Boston. After this committee dissipated, Associated Jewish Philanthropies organized the Central Advisory Committee during World War II. This committee, led by Isaac Seligson, established the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston in 1949, headed by Robert Segal. The Council was comprised of representatives from a number of central Jewish organizations in the area. The Council continually modified its goals and purpose to reflect the changing political and economic landscape. After World War II, focus shifted to include Jewish representation in non-sectarian community or public groups, civil rights, community relations, and fund solicitation practices. Throughout the 1950s, and 1960s, committee work also addressed religious liberties, intercultural education, Israel and the Middle East, civil liberties, immigration, legislation, and discrimination. In the 1970s, council committees continued to focus on Middle East affairs, Church and State, human rights and Jewish concerns, as well as Soviet Jewry, media, and the Boston Holocaust Memorial. Presently, the Council, now known as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), focuses on continuing the tradition of mobilizing the Jewish community around issues of social justice and support for Israel and Jewish people around the globe. Throughout its history, JCRC advocated for labor rights and worked with various labor organizations, including the Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish National Workers Alliance, and Workmen’s Circle.
The Labor Lyceum Association of Brockton was established in the mid-1920s as the governing body of the Labor Lyceum building in Brockton, Massachusetts. Labor lyceums were often centers for Yiddish culture and socialist values where members could gather for socializing, and they also acted as headquarters for labor unions and other political and social groups. The collection consists of two books containing minutes from the weekly meetings of the association’s Board of Directors, along with a small group of notes, receipts, and newspaper clippings.
The Massachusetts Board of Rabbis was founded in 1938 as the Rabbinical Association of Greater Boston by Rabbis Herman Rubenovitz, Louis Epstein, Joshua Loth Lieberman, Beryl D. Cohen, and Sam Abrams. During the 1970s the Board focused on its chaplaincy work in hospitals as well as timely topics, such as social action, chevruta, and health insurance for Rabbis. This collection contains minutes, correspondence and statements regarding the Board's work around hospital chaplaincy, kashruth, Israel, the labor movement, intermarriage, and the Vietnam War.
Leopold (Leo) Shapiro was born in Paris, France, in 1907 and emigrated with his parents and brother, Jacques, to Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts, when he was 8 years old. Shapiro began his career with the Boston Globe as a copy boy on the night shift. By 1928, Shapiro was reporting on education topics in Boston. Through much of his career, from the 1940s through the 1970s, Shapiro wrote about the Jewish community in Boston and abroad. Although he covered many other topics, most of the articles were about Israel, Jewish life in Boston and abroad, and the local Jewish community. Between 1946 and 1969, Shapiro wrote the column "Local Lines," which documented and publicized the activities of and programs within the Boston Jewish community. This collection contains newspaper articles written by Leo Shapiro from much of his 52-year career with the Boston Globe. The collection of articles contains works on education, politics, sports, civil rights, Boston life, the arts, as well as a number of articles on related to organized labor and unions, retirement ages, labor law, and unemployment.
Born in 1888 in Odessa, Sara (Buminowitz) Wernon Sloan immigrated to the United States at the age of ten with her mother and siblings. She became a garment worker and wrote of her experiences working in New York City. This collection contains typed manuscripts of her memoirs written in the 1970s describing her experiences as an immigrant in New York City and as a garment worker. Her account includes her participation in political movements and unionization, as well as her first marriage to Ben Wernon, an American Federation of Labor organizer. The collection also includes correspondence related to these memoirs, in which various readers of the memoirs describe their impressions.
This collection contains the unpublished memoirs of Myer Starr, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who owned a laundry service in the greater Boston area. Starr's memoir not only addresses his personal life, but the life of Jews living in the Ukraine under the Tsarist government in the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as his life after his immigration to the United States, including his work at a sugar cone bakery and a shirt shop and his joining of a labor league organization.
The Synagogue Council of Massachusetts was founded in 1941 as the Associated Synagogues of Greater Boston (and later the Associated Synagogues of Massachusetts). The documents in this collection describe the proceedings and activities of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, as well as those of its affiliated organizations, including the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Boston, the Kashruth Commission, the Beth Din, and the Jewish Chaplaincy Council. This collection contains meeting minutes, correspondence, flyers, brochures, pamphlets, reports, financial documents, photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings, directories, and newsletters.
Henry Wise was a Boston-area lawyer whose practice focused mainly on housing, fishing, and labor, three areas in which he crafted important local legislation. He also became an instructor and professor of law at numerous colleges in the Boston area, including law at Suffolk University, labor law at Wellesley College.
The Women's Palestine Agricultural Association, Palagrass, was an organization founded in Boston in the 1920s. Inspired by the work of Rahel Ben-Zvi, Palagrass was established to aid in the agricultural development of Palestine, and later, Israel. This collection contains correspondence, financial records, programs, photographs and membership information.
Articles, Webinars, & More
YIVO Bund Archives
Jewish Labor Committee Records
Remember the Triangle Fire Open Archive
New England Telephone Workers’ Strike
Labor Records at University of Massachusetts Amherst
Labor History Archives in the United States: A Guide for Researching and Teaching
Jewish Workers and Trade Unions
Boston's Labor Movement : An Oral History of Work and Union Organizing
Labor Movement in the United States