Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was born on June 11, 1881, in Lithuania. His family moved to America in 1889. After receiving a traditional Jewish education, Kaplan studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) while also attending first the City College of New York, followed by graduate studies at Columbia University. Upon completing his education, Kaplan accepted a rabbinic position at New York’s Kehillath Jeshurun and began teaching at JTS.

Early in his career, Kaplan began developing certain unique thoughts and concepts about Jewish theology. He placed great importance on viewing Judaism as an evolving civilization, which he called “peoplehood.” One way he put this philosophy into action was in supporting efforts to create places like the Jewish Center in Manhattan, of which he became the founding rabbi in 1918. The Jewish Center acted as a community center with arts, culture and athletics, built around a synagogue. As Kaplan’s personal philosophies continued to develop away from traditional thought, however, he was released from his employment at the Jewish Center in 1921. The next year he helped create the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, where he served as rabbi and where he oversaw what is considered the first American public Bat Mitzvah, that of his daughter Judith.

Developing philosophies such as prayer as a tool of self-conscientiousness and a naturalistic concept of God, Rabbi Kaplan found himself more and more isolated from the established and more traditional American Jewish theologic organizations, although he did maintain his teaching position at JTS. In 1939, beginning with Judaism As A Civilization, Rabbi Kaplan published books explaining his unique view points. Following his belief in a broader understanding of a Jewish society, he helped create the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University), that strived to encompass the diversity of the American Jewish community. Five years after Rabbi Kaplan’s retirement from JTS (1963), he and his son-in-law, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, created the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, marking the official founding of the Reconstructionist Movement.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan passed away in New York City on November 8, 1983, at age 102.

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