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The Jewish Pass

The Growth of Jewish Institutions in Los Angeles' Sepulveda Pass

Erik Greenberg, Author

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Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and the University of Judaism

(or American Jewish University as it is called today) is the only Jewish institution in the Sepulveda Pass not named for a specific person.  If it was, though, it should likely be called The Mordecai Kaplan University of Judaism. Kaplan, one of the giants of American Jewish thought and observance, first called for the creation of such a university in 1945 as part of his vision of a reconstructed Judaism.  

KAPLAN WAS BORN IN 1881 IN LITHUANIA in a town some 50 miles outside of Vilnius. His family emigrated to the US in 1889, when Mordecai was about 8 years old, and settled in New York. The young Kaplan divided his studies between two intellectual worlds--the powerful yiddishist Orthodoxy of his father and the westernized learning of the New York public schools. Kaplan went on to degrees at City College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a graduate degree from Columbia University in Philosophy.   At Columbia, Kaplan was exposed to a range of philosophical approaches to religion and life.  In particular, Kaplan came into frequent contact with the great social philosopher John Dewey.

DEWEY HAD A PROFOUND IMPACT ON KAPLAN’S THINKING, which would be revealed in Kaplan’s understanding of the meaning and structure of religion.  Writing at the height of the industrial revolution, Dewey, in sharp distinction to the most deeply held American belief in the individual, saw humans as deeply social beings who thrived on cooperative existence.  Humans only succeeded when they worked together towards common goals.  The Deweyesque sense of community fit well with Kaplan’s vision of Judaism.  For Kaplan, the Jewish experience was, or should be, a cooperative one.  In one of his earliest pieces on Judaism, written in The Menorah Journal, Kaplan described religion as the collective life force of a people.  In 1934 in his most famous book, Kaplan called Judaism not just a religion, but a civilization, “a cultural and spiritual complex of language, literature, history customs, and social institutions organized around a conception of God.”

BUT IN AMERICA, that civilization had become dismantled.  In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, Jewish civilization could thrive.  Jews all lived together, they were identified as Jews wherever they went, they could only do certain jobs.  But in America, Jewish emancipation gave Jews the freedom to break out of these strictures.  In 1924 Kaplan wrote that “We rejoice that we are no longer segregated from the rest of the world.  But we have not yet learned how to prevent social contact and intercourse with the non-Jewish population from effacing our Jewish individuality.”  This threat to Jewish uniqueness, the American Jew’s ability to be utterly blend in with the American crowd should he so choose, compelled Kaplan to articulate a new kind of American Judaism.  Though Kaplan had been an Orthodox rabbi, and though he spent much of his career teaching in the Jewish Theological Seminary after the development of the Conservative movement, ultimately Kaplan called for a new kind of American Judaism--a literal reconstruction of the Jew and the Jewish experience, the creation of a cooperative  Jewish life centered around the study of Jewish learning, history, culture, and language, as well as a commitment to a Jewish center in Palestine.  This vision of a new American Judaism, of a reconstructed Jewish life, came to be called Reconstructionism.  

This video offers a brief description of the ideology behind Reconstructionist Judaism

But in order to create this ethos of Jewish learning, American Jews would need to create unique American Jewish institutions of learning.  And in 1945, Kaplan articulated just what such an institution should look like. 

ON FEBRUARY 4, 1945, at the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Teachers Institute, Dr. Mordecai Kaplan presented a speech that called for the creation of a new center of Jewish learning.  The rabbi made it clear that he did not seek the creation of a Jewish university (i.e., a university sponsored by Jews), but instead a University of Judaism—an academy dedicated to the teaching of all things Jewish.  Kaplan called for an institute that could train a generation of Jewish leaders to address the needs of the modern American Jew.  As he stated in his speech,

The main function of a higher educational institution which wants
to remove from the mind of the Jew all doubt as to the worthwhileness of Jewish
life should be to train leaders who will know what has to be done at the
present time to render Jews both cooperative and creative socially and
[Kaplan’s italics].

He stressed that in order to foster such cooperation and creativity this new school would need to provide “a widely ramified curriculum of studies that w[ould] make provisions for the many vocations which already exist[ed] and for many more which [were] bound to develop . . . .”  He envisioned a metamorphosis of the seminary from a rabbinic training program to an institute that examined all subjects of Judaic interest.

TODAY'S UNIVERSITY OF JUDAISM, renamed American Jewish University in 2007, reflects some of Kaplan's vision for such an institution.  It attempts to provide a broad curriculum in undergraduate and graduate courses.  It attempts to infuse its students with a Jewishly informed ethos.  In other ways, though, the university has not lived up to Kaplan's vision.  It is, for example, intensely denominational, housing numerous institutions and structures for the Conservative Movement, including a west coast Conservative seminary.  Still, institutions change over time, and the existence of a University of Judaism (regardless of its new name) indicates the continuing legacy of Mordecai Kaplan, and his interest in a learned Jewish community.



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