History of SAJ
We are proud of SAJ’s radical and pioneering history as a place where intellectual inquiry and ethics meet, where bold ideas are championed, and where attention is paid to the stranger among us and near us. SAJ, now led by a team of women clergy, is proud to say that the first American bat mitzvah took place in our sanctuary on March 8, 1922, when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s daughter Judith became a bat mitzvah.
In 1922, Dr. Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, one of the most important Jewish thinkers of modern Jewish history, founded the SAJ, originally “The Society for the Advancement of Judaism” after his increasingly bold and controversial ideas could no longer find a home in established Jewish communities. Kaplan, a noted theologian, served for six decades on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and devoted his life to reconciling Judaism and modern life. Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, Kaplan’s mentee, formed the Reconstructionist movement, to maintain and transmit Kaplan’s ideas.
Kaplan was the first modern Jewish thinker to articulate that Judaism was not just a religion or a culture, rather an evolving religious civilization. Kaplan reminded us that over time and in new places, Jewish tradition has always changed — and that faced with the pressures and demands of modernity, of the need to come to terms with the world of science and reason, Judaism needed to continue to change in order to remain relevant, vibrant, and meaningful to a new generation of Jews. Kaplan also taught that Jews lived in two civilizations, the American civilization and our Jewish civilization. Instead of seeing them at odds with each other, we can draw wisdom from each to support the other.
Kaplan’s radical ideas invited an honest, reflective Judaism instead of an unthinking one. Kaplan questioned traditional notions of God as a supernatural being and commander, arguing that God was instead the force that made for salvation and meaning. Kaplan believed that we should not “check our minds at the door” when we prayed. His 1945 prayerbook, which made liturgical changes that took out references to chosenness and the resurrection of the dead, was met with controversy from the Orthodox community, even banned and burned by some. The Reconstructionist prayerbook Kol HaNeshama (1993) continued Kaplan’s legacy, adding new meaning with its beautiful commentaries.
Over its history, SAJ has been served by Rabbis Ira Eisenstein, Jack Cohen, Alan Miller, Ed Feld, Julie Shoenfeld, and Michael Strassfeld, and is currently led by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann.
In the 1990s, SAJ began affirming LGBTQ members and interfaith families. SAJ also voted to accept patrilineal descent. We now proudly affirm and celebrate all the varied identities of our congregation. In 2017, SAJ’s tagline was renamed “Judaism that Stands for All.” We are a proud part of Reconstructing Judaism.
SAJ’s clergy have made a great impact on the Jewish people
- Cantor Moshe Nathanson was a renowned cantor and the person who wrote the words for the famous Hava Nagila.
- Rabbi Ira Eisenstein served as SAJ’s Rabbi and then went on to found the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in order to keep the ideas of Rabbi Kaplan alive for future generations.
- Rabbi Jack Cohen made aliyah to Israel and was one of the founders of Mevakshei Derech, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Jerusalem.
- Rabbi Alan Miller was an intellectual giant of his time and innovated the “open microphone” style of sermons, in which the rabbi invited the congregation to share their thoughts, reactions and teachings. This practice has continued at SAJ and been adapted by many congregations across the country. During Rabbi Miller’s tenure, he became trained as a psychotherapist. He authored the book The God of Daniel S.
- Rabbi Ed Feld is a liturgist, poet, and senior editor of the new Siddur Shalem series.
- Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is the first female rabbi to serve in the chief executive position of an American rabbinical association.
- Rabbi Michael Strassfeld is the co-author of the Jewish Catalogue Series, one of the most widely read books in Jewish history, and is also the author of many other works.
- Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is a NYC and national leader in social justice activism and was the founding rabbi of Kol Tzedek, a thriving Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia.
The writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan
- Judaism as a Civilization (1934)
- Judaism in Transition (1936)
- The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937)
- The Future of the American Jew (1948)
- Questions Jews Ask (1956)
- Judaism Without Supernaturalism (1958)
- The New Zionism (1959)
- The Greater Judaism in the Making (1960)
- The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence (1964)
- The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970)
- If Not Now, When? (1973)