Gratz, Workmen’s Circle Collaborate to Offer Online Yiddish Courses

A new collaboration between Gratz College and The Workmen’s Circle will offer credit for online Yiddish language and culture classes starting this fall.

The partnership, which began in November, addresses a resurgence of interest in learning the “language of the old country,” said Dr. Rosalie Guzofsky, dean and vice president of Academic Affairs at Gratz. “When I first came to Gratz, I was surprised that we had such a small program. I have always wanted to offer a more vigorous study of Yiddish.”

The Workmen’s Circle, headquartered in New York City, was formed in 1900 by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Initially a mutual aid society, The Workmen’s Circle expanded to become an organization that powers progressive Jewish identity through cultural engagement, multi-generational learning and social activism, Executive Director Ann Toback said. It also has created the largest Yiddish language instruction program in the United States. 

“We teach hundreds of students every semester in Yiddish,” Toback said. “We teach all levels, from the very beginning to classes that are really Yiddish-speaking, studying literature, news and culture in Yiddish.”

The collaboration represents a mutual desire to reach college students and offer credit. The Workmen’s Circle will provide instruction while Gratz supplies college credit for courses. The agreement also calls for development of a “train-the-trainer” program to teach the methodology of Yiddish language instruction.

“I’m incredibly excited about what we’re doing with Gratz,” Toback said. “This will work so beautifully because we already have a large group of teachers from across the world. We will have some of the greatest Yiddish instructors in the world teaching our courses.”

The Workmen’s Circle already offers online classes in real-time. Gratz hopes to work with The Workmen’s Circle to offer them asynchronously, and to students all over the world. 

Dean Guzofsky learned Yiddish at The Workmen’s Circle as a child and, as she searched for ways to expand Gratz’s language courses, she returned to her alma mater. 

“The Workmen’s Circle is a place that preserves not only Yiddish language, but also literature, culture and the history of the Jewish people,” she said. “It makes sense that Gratz partners with The Workmen’s Circle.”

Toback said the agreement is mutually beneficial because Gratz reflects the values and meaning of Jewish identity. By promoting Yiddish, the two institutions are helping preserve a shared cultural heritage.

“Yiddish language and culture is really so much a part of Jewish identity today for all of us, especially in the U.S. where so many of us come from an Eastern European background,” Toback said. “It was the language of our parents, spoken in our homes, in town halls and the marketplace. It was the language for a thousand years that some of the greatest playwrights  and poets and political activists wrote and spoke.”

If Yiddish is lost, so also is 1,000 years of “high cultural heritage,” Toback said.

“It’s critical to stay connected to our past in order to push forward into the future,” she said. “When we cut off Yiddish, we cut off a part of ourselves. To become whole people, we have to connect to the past, our heritage, our roots, and Yiddish does that in such a beautiful and meaningful way.”