Our History

OUR HISTORY – 80 YEARS STRONG

The Winchevsky Centre is home to several Toronto long-standing Jewish institutions, including the Morris Winchevsky School, the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir, Camp Naivelt and the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO).

The United Jewish People’s Order is a national Canadian organization with sections in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal which evolved from the Workmen’s Circle or Arbeter Ring, a socialist umbrella organization that included Bundists, socialists, free thinkers, secularists and Yiddishists. After the Workmen’s Circle disenfranchised those members it considered radicals, these ‘radical’ individuals formed the Jewish Labour League Mutual Benefit Society in Toronto, and the Canadian Workers’ Circle (in Montreal and in Winnipeg) in 1925-1926. These societies, established years before Medicare would be established, fulfilled the needs for a progressive social community and schooling for children, providing its members with medical, unemployment and mortuary benefits, and a credit union, which was quite radical at the time.

The cultural and educational activities were mostly in Yiddish, catering to the influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. 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, through the creation of choirs, orchestras, children’s schools (Folk Shules), activity clubs, camps, dance and drama groups. The Toronto Jewish Folk Choir was formed in 1925, as was Camp Naivelt; within a couple of years they both became institutions of the Labour League, and with the purchase of a house at 414 Markham Street, the Morris Winchevsky Shule was founded in 1928. Subsequently other school locations were opened to meet demands.

In the summer of 1944, the leaders of Toronto’s Labour League and the Canadian Workers’ Circles met in Toronto to consider the feasibility of merging into a single national association and in August 1945, the United Jewish People’s Order was born. True to its origins, over the years the UJPO has become notable for its principled stand against anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms, its support of world peace, and its opposition to all forms of oppression and exploitation, sexism and homophobia.

The UJPO’s predecessors originally operated out of people’s homes, being run solely by dedicated members volunteering countless hours of time. Branches and lodges were established to service various groupings of members, each programming its own social and cultural events. At its heyday in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the UJPO boasted more than 2,500 members nation-wide; additional branches were established in Hamilton and Niagara Falls Ontario, and Calgary, Alberta and Vancouver, British Columbia, among others.

As the organization continued to grow, it purchased a building to better meet the needs of the members. Its first Toronto home was at 83 Christie Street and then, in 1960, it built its current home to meet the needs of a changing community – The Winchevsky Centre.