Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s New York
While you may have heard of Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Judaism’s Reconstructionist movement and one of the most famous rabbis of the 20th century, did you know that as a boy he worshipped at the Eldridge Street Synagogue? Many people are surprised to discover that Kaplan – the founder of a new denomination within Judaism – came from a traditional Orthodox background. In fact, the man who created the bat mitzvah ceremony for his daughter in 1922 celebrated his bar mitzvah here as a boy in 1894.
What led Mordecai Kaplan to create a movement within Judaism that embraced modernity while respecting the importantce of Jewish tradition and custom? Along with the Eldridge Street Synagogue, what were the places that sparked his intellectual and spiritual journey, and where he in turn left his mark? Kaplan’s story begins on the Lower East Side but later chapters take place uptown, and in particular in the neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue
For Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, just like thousands of other Eastern European Jewish immigrants, it all began on the Lower East Side. In 1890 when Kaplan was just nine years old, his family left their small town of Svencionys, Lithuania and made their way to the Lower East Side. Kaplan was raised in an Orthodox home and his family attended the Eldridge Street Synagogue, at the time a bustling downtown synagogue. Just three years after his arrival in America Kaplan celebrated his bar mitzvah here, marking his coming of age within the Jewish faith. Still new to the world of America and the Lower East Side, Kaplan stood at the reader’s platform in the grand main sanctuary and read a portion of the Torah.
In later years, Kaplan’s novel approach to Judaism would earn him great renown, and, at the Museum at Eldridge Street, an honorable position on top of a map of eastern Europe that hangs at the entrance of our permanent exhibition. His artistically rendered portrait stands beside other notable congregants, like two of founders of the synagogue, Isaac Gellis, the “kosher sausage king,” and Sender Jarmulowsky, the “JP Morgan of the Lower East Side.” But to Kaplan, this building meant something very different than it did to Gellis and Jarmulowsky. To the latter this synagogue stood as testament to a hopeful Jewish future in America, one where Jews could worship freely and proudly live prosperously. But for Kaplan, a man who would take Judaism even further into modernity and American culture, Eldridge did not represent where he would go in the future, but rather where he came from in the past.
If you follow along through Kaplan’s New York you can see just where Kaplan would go with his future and how he got there.
City College of New York
Kaplan received a Bachelor’s of Arts from City College of New York (CCNY) in 1900. He was not just a scholar of Jewish studies but was also well-versed in secular subjects, especially in philosophy, sociology, and education. In fact, modern secular scholarship in these areas moved him towards his understanding of Judaism not as a religion but as an evolving religious civilization – one that needed both to respect its past and keep pace with modernity in order to survive and thrive in the modern world.
After graduating from CCNY, Kaplan went on to earn a Master’s of Arts from Columbia University in 1902. Ever the overachiever, he received rabbinical ordination that very same year from a school just a few steps down the block called the Jewish Theological seminary (JTS), the rabbinical college of Conservative Judaism.
Jewish Theological Seminary
Kaplan served as the dean of Teacher’s College and taught homiletics at JTS from 1909 until his retirement in 1963. It is fascinating to watch Kaplan move from one denomination of Judaism (orthodoxy) to another (conservatism), all the while laying the bricks of what would eventually become his own denomination: Reconstructionist Judaism. Because of this leapfrog it should come as no surprise that Kaplan was an outsider at JTS almost from the very beginning. Many of his writings and publications were sharply criticized by prominent faculty, and some even avoided him in the halls of the school. Kaplan, no stranger to standing out on his own, did not let this sort of behavior deter him from publishing his controversial work nor from passionately empowering a new generation of Jews to become educators.
Much credit is due to the leadership of JTS in keeping Kaplan on as a professor despite the fact that many of Kaplan’s beliefs, which he pronounced publicly in publications and journals, starkly contradicted the tenets of Conservative Judaism. Kaplan was never removed from his teaching position because, much in the spirit of American democracy, the leadership of JTS believed Judaism would best thrive in a democratic environment in which dissenting opinions could be voiced.
The Jewish Center
Many (myself included) would find it quite shocking that Kaplan served as the first rabbi of the Jewish Center, a Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side that is still active today. Kaplan took the position in 1918 but left this pulpit only three years later because he found the congregation too ideologically stifling while the congregation found him too ideologically inventive.
It is a strange and delightful quirk of history however that this longstanding and prominent Orthodox synagogue still reflects in its very structure key aspects of Kaplan’s philosophy to this day. Kaplan firmly believed that religious institutions should be concerned with fostering community and a vibrant cultural life. He convinced the leadership of the Jewish Center to incorporate this concept into its building plans, including in the structure a number of social halls, classrooms, a gym, and even, in its early years, a pool! It was Kaplan’s influence that made the Jewish Center one of the first synagogues in America to serve not just as a house of prayer but also as a center for cultural and social life of its congregants.
The Society for the Advancement of Judaism
The Society for the Advancement of Judaism was founded in 1922 by Kaplan with the help of many of his students and followers. The synagogue and cultural center is just one avenue down from the Jewish Center, but in terms of ideology the two synagogues are miles apart. Here, serving as the congregation’s rabbi, Kaplan had the freedom to truly flesh out his philosophy and lay the groundwork for what would eventually become the Reconstructionist movement.
Kaplan’s immigrant story, beginning at Eldridge Street, truly comes full circle on March 18, 1922. On this day Kaplan became the first rabbi to institute a bat mitzvah ceremony, in which a girl’s coming of age in Jewish tradition is celebrated, just like it had been done for boys for hundreds of years. Kaplan had a deep respect for Jewish tradition but was also deeply committed to engaging with the modern world. The boy who had his bar mitzvah ceremony just three years after he arrived in America in 1894, now stood at the forefront of a burgeoning Reconstructionist movement and gave his daughter, Judith, a celebration worthy of a Jewish woman. At her bat mitzvah Judith read a portion from the Torah and, as Judith puts it, “the rest of the day was all rejoicing.”
Today bat mitzvah ceremonies have become par for the course, even among Orthodox Jews, making this perhaps Kaplan’s most wide-reaching innovation within Judaism.
In his autobiography, Kaplan recalled the Eldridge Street Synagogue with fondness. On visiting it years later, he recalled: “There were the same lofty vaults in the ceiling, the same stained-glass windows, the same lighting fixtures, the large chandelier suspended from the center of the ceiling by a long, thin pipe which I used to be afraid would snap…I also walked down to what is usually called the vestry. It was there I used to pray weekdays with Father. I looked long at the seat near the Ark where he and I used to sit and engage in Talmud discussions. I recalled the joy and pride that would fill his heart when I would put a question to him that had been asked by some of the famous commentators.”
Researched and written by Mindy Schwartz, Museum at Eldridge Street intern