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Dr. Felix Adler (1851-1933) was the Founder of the Ethical Culture movement. He was born in Alzey, Germany, the son of a rabbi, Samuel Adler. When Felix was six, his father was appointed head rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in New York City and his family immigrated to the United States. Adler earned his undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1870, and already being regarded as his father’s successor, he was sent to Heidelberg University to prepare for the rabbinate.

Upon his return to America his father’s congregation asked him to deliver a sermon from the pulpit. That address, The Judaism of the Future, created a lot of talk because he had not mentioned God.  When asked directly if he believed in God, young Felix responded, “Yes, but not in your god.”  Thus ended his future at Temple Emanu-El. But in that address were the seeds of Ethical Culture.

During the two years following, Adler taught Hebrew and Oriental languages at Cornell University. His outspoken attitude and his convictions drew the criticism that he was”dangerous” to his students, and he relinquished the professorship in 1876.

That same year, at the age of 24, Adler founded the New York Society for Ethical Culture. His lectures before the Society on Sundays were well known and attended, and were routinely reported on in the New York Times. Adler’s belief in deed above creed led the Society to foster projects that focused on the poor and underserved in the community.

In 1902 Adler was given the chair of political and social ethics at Columbia University which he held until his death in 1933. Well known as a lecturer and writer, Adler served as rector for the Ethical Culture School until his death in 1933. Throughout his life he always looked beyond the immediate concerns of family, labor, and race to the long-term challenge of reconstructing institutions like schools and government to promote greater justice in human relations. Within Adler’s ethical philosophy, cooperation rather than competition remained the higher social value.

Adler was the founding chairman of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904. In 1911 he led the creation of the First International Race Congress, held in London. In 1917 he served on the Civil Liberties Bureau, which later became the American Civil Liberties Bureau and then the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 1928 he became president of the Eastern division of the American Philosophical Association. He served on the first Executive Board of the National Urban League.

As a member of the New York State Tenement House Commission, Adler was concerned not only with overcrowding but also by the increase in contagious disease caused by overcrowding. Though not a proponent of free public housing, Adler spoke out about tenant reform and the rents which he considered exorbitant. In 1885 Adler and others created the Tenement House Building Company in order to build “model” tenements that rented for $8–$14/month. By 1887 six model buildings had actually been erected on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Even though critics favored restrictive legislation for improving tenement living, the model tenement was a progressive step forward.

By the late 1890s, with the increase in international conflicts, Adler switched his concern from domestic issues to the question of American foreign policy. While some contemporaries viewed the 1898 Spanish American War as an act to liberate the Cubans from Spanish rule, others perceived the U.S. victories in the Caribbean and the Philippines as the beginning of an expansionist empire. Adler at first supported the war but later expressed anxiety about American sovereignty over the Philippines and Puerto Rico, concluding that an imperialistic rather than a democratic goal was guiding U.S. foreign policy, eventually serving as Vice President of the Anti-Imperialist League. Ethical Culture affirms “the supreme worth of the person” and Adler superimposed this tenet on international relations, believing that no single group could lay claim to superior institutions and lifestyle.

Unlike many of his contemporaries during World War I, Adler didn’t feel that the defeat of Germany alone would make the world safe for democracy. Peace could only be achieved, he thought, if the representative democratic governments remained non-imperialistic and if the arms race was curbed. As a result, Adler opposed the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations. As an alternative, he proposed a “Parliament of Parliaments” elected by the legislative bodies of the different nations and filled with different classes of people, rather than special interests, so that common ground and not national differences would prevail.

Adler lectured extensively throughout his life and published such works as Creed and Deed (1878), Moral Instruction of Children (1892), Life and Destiny(1905), The Religion of Duty (1906), Essentials of Spirituality (1908), An Ethical Philosophy of Life (1918), The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal (1925), and Our Part in this World.

He remained the Society’s Senior Leader until his death in 1933 at the age of 81.

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