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United Jewish People’s Order
The United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) is a national, progressive, secular and independent organization that can trace its roots back to 1926.
The origin of the UJPO in the 1920s took place during a fascinating time in Canada’s history. At that time, the Workmen’s Circle (or Arbeter Ring) was a Jewish socialist umbrella organization that included many left-wing activists, a majority of whom spoke Yiddish as their first language. Many of them were supportive of the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Communist Party. The vast majority of Yiddish speakers at the time in Canada were poor and working-class people, often labouring in sweatshops and living in substandard conditions.
However, the Workmen’s Circle was critical of the Russian Revolution and considered the Canadian Yiddish activists as too “radical”. As a result, in Toronto in 1923 pro-Bolshevik women withdrew from the Workmen’s Circle and formed the Jewish Working Women's League. By 1925-1926 pro-Bolshevik men also withdrew from the Workmen’s Circle and formed the Jewish Labour League Mutual Benefit Society in Toronto, and the Canadian Workers’ Circle in Montreal and Winnipeg. These societies provided their members with a credit union, as well as medical, unemployment and mortuary benefits – provisions that were considered quite radical at the time.
In August 1945, these organizations merged to form the United Jewish People’s Order. By the late 1940s the UJPO had more than 2,500 members nationwide, with branches in Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. But in 1950, amidst growing anti-communist hysteria, the Montreal headquarters were raided by the Quebec Provincial Police and closed, with the building sold off to a Labour Zionist organization.
In 1951, UJPO was expelled from the Canadian Jewish Congress, the umbrella organization for all Jewish groups in Canada, because of its left-wing orientation. The expulsion lasted until 1995, when the CJC finally re-admitted UJPO. Then, in 2011, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the United Jewish Appeal again severed their relations with UJPO’s Winchevsky Centre after the organization hosted a panel discussion featuring anti-Zionist activist and Auschwitz survivor Hajo Meyer, a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.
With the founding of the state of Israel, UJPO, like many left-wing Jewish organizations, had been faced with reconciling its commitment to human rights with the actions of Israel in relation to the Palestinian people. UJPO long resisted the characterization of Zionism as racist, but became increasingly critical of the behaviour of the Israeli state.
In 2001, UJPO’s Winchevsky Centre hosted the Middle East Peace Quilt, an international community art project co-ordinated by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin, with contributions by Jewish and Palestinian quilters and artists, and brought to Toronto by Miriam Garfinkle.
In its 2004 pamphlet “Who We Are,” the UJPO noted, “We support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, under which both peoples would live side by side as peaceful neighbours in secure and viable states.” But on its current website, the UJPO now says: “We support a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, which would mutually determine the sharing of land and in which both peoples would live peacefully, securely and prosperously.”
After almost a century, the UJPO is still going strong, with branches in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg. It supports the strengthening of Canada’s social safety net, universal health care and education, affordable child care and housing, environmental justice, strong unions for workers, and self-rule for Indigenous peoples, along with the recognition of Quebec’s national aspirations. UJPO also advocates for peace and social justice in Canada and the world, and has long taken a principled stand against anti-Semitism, racism, and all forms of oppression and exploitation.
The UJPO supports Jewish cultural and educational programs through Toronto-based cultural and educational institutions such as the Morris Winchevsky School (a children’s Sunday School); a Yiddish Reading Circle; the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir; and Camp Naivelt (a family-oriented cottage community near Toronto). Camp Naivelt has nurtured musicians such as the folk group The Travellers in the 1950 and the Loving Spoonful in the 1960s.
In Winnipeg, the UJPO holds discussion forums on a wide variety of topics and sponsors the Mame-Losbn Group to promote Yiddish literature and language. It also supports the Sholem Aleicham Sunday School by teaching Yiddish songs and assisting with the educational committee. In Vancouver, UJPO members produced the progressive Jewish magazine called Outlook, while also participating in the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir, and Sholem Aleichem Seniors group.
The UJPO’s current affiliations are with the Canadian Peace Alliance, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, the International Federation for Secular and Humanistic Judaism, and the International Institute of Secular Humanistic Jews.
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