Secular Judaism Turns on the Jews

January 24, 2020 | Judith Colp Rubin
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Considering the recent dust-up over anti-Semitism at New York’s prestigious Fieldston School and other schools associated with the Society of Ethical Culture, Judith Colp Rubin—who was among the third generation of her family to attend these institutions—considers the society’s founder:

Ethical Culture was the brainchild of Felix Adler (1851–1933). He was six years old in 1857 when his father, Samuel, moved his family from Germany to New York City to preside over Temple Emanu-El, the flagship of [American Reform Judaism]. Felix intended to become a rabbi himself. But his life was changed when he discovered Immanuel Kant’s supreme principle of morality, the categorical imperative.

When the twenty-three-year-old Adler returned to New York after studying in Germany, he made his first and last speech at Temple Emanu-El. It was called “The Judaism of the Future.” He called for an end to the trappings of ritual and theology and for a universal religion steeped in morality. Explicitly absent was the word “God.” His speech was considered revolutionary, but . . . when, in February 1877, the twenty-six-year-old Adler incorporated the Society of Ethical Culture, he did so with support from the Reform community. Although Ethical Culture dispensed with ritual and belief in a supernatural force, it incorporated certain aspects of religious life—such as holding Sunday services with sermons and designing its assembly hall to resemble a house of worship.

It should not then be surprising that Ethical Culture today finds itself grappling with the concept of Jewish identity. It has done so since its founding. Just how torn the school is about its Jewish roots became clear in 2015 when [its elementary school] instituted something it called “affinity groups,” a new mandatory part of the curriculum. A form arrived in an email to parents in which students, some as young as in third grade, were asked to pick their race. Their options were “African-American/Black,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “Latina/o,” “Multi-racial,” “White,” and “Not sure.” Students were then required to meet to discuss their self-affiliation and confront the affinities of others in a free-flowing mixed-race discussion.

Parents and others expressed concerns that the program was stoking the very racism it was designed to destroy by encouraging students to think in racial categories. Jewish parents had a special concern. Those who wanted “Jew” to be included among the [possible] racial identities were told by school officials . . . that this would not be an option.

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