Reprinted with permission from Jewish People, Jewish Thought (Pearson Education).
[Mordecai] Kaplan was born in 1881 in the small town of Svencionys, in the Lithuanian district of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia. At the age of eight he came to the United States with his family. Kaplan’s early religious education was traditional, but he attended public school and Columbia University where he absorbed a modern critical approach to religion and to the Bible. After ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902, Kaplan served as rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in New York until, in 1909, he was appointed dean of the newly established Teachers Institute of the Seminary and soon afterwards also made professor of homiletics, midrash, and philosophies of religion. During his more than fifty years on the faculty of the Seminary, he attracted a devoted student following and, at the same time, maintained an extensive involvement in Jewish communal activities.
In 1917 he became leader of the first synagogue to incorporate a broad range of cultural and recreational activities into its program. After a split developed in the congregation over his innovative views, he and his supporters left to organize the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (1922),a New York synagogue and Jewish center based on Kaplan’s position that worship was only one of the functions that a congregation should foster.
His first major book, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), contained a detailed criticism of existing Jewish movements and a call for the "reconstruction" of Jewish life, leading him and his associates, the following year, to publish The Reconstructionist, a journal of Jewish affairs that has made considerable impact on the leadership of non‑Orthodox American Jewry. In the 1940sand 1950s, the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation issued a series of new liturgical texts: a Passover Haggadah and prayer books for the Sabbath, the high holy days, and the festivals. In 1968, the Foundation opened the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College in Philadelphia with a curriculum arranged according to priorities that the movement felt were not adequately espoused by other forms of American Judaism. Thus, in Kaplan’s later years, Reconstructionism was transformed from an ecumenical position cutting across Jewish denominational lines to a small separate movement.
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