“Without ‘ethical culture’ there is no salvation for humanity.”
In 1876, the New York Society for Ethical Culture (NYSEC) was founded by Dr. Felix Adler, who was both visionary and revolutionary. Dr. Adler proposed a new movement which would work toward the advancement of social justice for all. He suggested that the movement should further the principles of ethics among adults and children through education, and members of the Society should express their religious consciences through moral and humane actions. These ideas remain the cornerstones of the philosophy of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which was incorporated on February 21, 1877.
In adhering to its social and moral imperatives, the Society quickly initiated two major projects in 1877. First was the establishment of the District Nursing Service, a precursor of the Visiting Nurse Service, which is still active today. The second project was the founding of the first free kindergarten in the United States, and in 1880 the Workingman’s School was chartered. In 1895, the School was reorganized, becoming The Ethical Culture School. An upper school, The Fieldston School, was added in 1928.
Under Dr. Adler’s direction, the Society worked to improve conditions in tenement houses. Adler also established what became the [Women’s] Child Study Association, which, among other accomplishments, founded a children’s clinic that grew into the Blythedale Children’s Hospital, the state’s only independent specialty children’s hospital. Stanton Coit and members of the Society helped found the Settlement House Movement in New York. In 1901, Camp Felicia, which offered children of the city’s slums a taste of country life, was founded by the Down-Town Ethical Society. Members of the Society staffed clubs, libraries, gymnasiums, job training programs, a kindergarten, a mothers’ club, educational classes, and two employment bureaus, which evolved into independent organizations like The Hudson Guild, Henry Street Settlement and the Neighborhood Guild.
Society members also contributed in the area of individual rights. Although women had been excluded initially from membership in the Society and relegated to a Ladies Auxiliary, in 1903 the Society hired a woman, Anna Garlin Spencer, as Associate Leader.
While still under the leadership of Dr. Adler, the Society provided several prominent Americans with a platform to speak out about civil rights, including Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson. Johnson, writer, activist and one of the founders of the Harlem Renaissance, was a member of the New York Society for fifteen years. In 1909, Leaders of the Society for Ethical Culture signed a petition calling for the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dr. Adler also served on the first Executive Committee of the National Urban League, beginning in 1910.
Also in 1910, the Society, which had been meeting in Carnegie Hall, erected a meeting house at 64th Street and Central Park West, next to the School which had broken ground in 1902. The building was designed by noted architect Robert D. Kohn (who later served as the Society’s president). This landmark building features hand‐carved oak paneling and extraordinary stained glass windows. It is a distinctive example of Art Nouveau architecture.
Time and again, Adler and those who followed him, showed the capacity to recognize the most urgent social issues of the time and to lead others to take up the challenges these posed. When he died in 1933, he left behind a Society of committed members and Leaders. Leader John Lovejoy Elliott, who served until his death in 1942, helped to found the National Civil Liberties Bureau, forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In the 1940s, Society Leaders Jerome Nathanson and Algernon D. Black struck a balance between social activism and intellectual pursuits. Black worked actively against discrimination in housing, chaired the Civilian Police Review Board, and participated in the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. In 1944, he founded the Encampment for Citizenship, a summer program for young adults with the purpose of encouraging political activism and volunteerism that sought to educate its participants about civic responsibility, participation in government, and tolerance of diversity. Eleanor Roosevelt was an early supporter of the program.
In fact, the former First Lady was a long time friend and supporter of the Society and its work. On April 26, 1949 she addressed a Special Meeting of the Membership of NYSEC. Reflecting on the Society’s many achievements, she said:
“I think that you have probably contributed more than any other group in the City to better conditions in homes, better conditions between various race groups within the City, and I think that is a very great achievement.”
In 1959, the Society’s Women’s Conference was a major participant in developing the Planned Parenthood Clinic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The Society’s Social Service Board sponsored numerous community service activities, including a tutorial program begun in 1965, which led to Public School Partnerships. An ongoing year‐round program for older members was begun in the 1970s.
In more recent years our Social Service Board helped organize a Homeless Artists and Writers Workshop and began co‐sponsoring a homeless shelter in the meeting house. The SSB also founded the Supervised Visitation Project which allows parents who have been separated from their children to visit with them in a safe and supportive environment.
Over the past twenty years, the Society has worked on issues like repeal of the death penalty with New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws with the Correctional Association and Drop the Rock and partnering with The Innocence Project to raise money for DNA testing of wrongfully accused prisoners.
Currently we host hundreds of community programs a year with advocacy, social justice and education still at the forefront of our work. We hold forums on key social issues, and discussions on ethics and philosophy. We partner with organizations like The Nation Institute, Demos, Amnesty International and the ACLU to co‐sponsor events that serve the public good. Issues of war, social policy, and human rights have been discussed here by notable guests including Al Gore, Paul Krugman, Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Toni Morrison and others.
To this day the New York Society for Ethical Culture remains guided by our founding principles of social justice for all and the advancement of all through ethical action. We continue to be grounded in the ideals that all human beings have worth and that it is our responsibility to make the world a better place.
Felix Adler, Our Founder
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.