History of The SAJ

Photo of Mordecai M. Kaplan, SAJ Founder

The SAJ was founded in 1922 by Dr. Mordecai M. Kaplan with a single — and singular — purpose: to reconcile traditional Judaism and modern life.

Kaplan, a noted theologian, served for six decades on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A revolutionary leader and thinker, Kaplan evolved a viewpoint that ultimately became the basis for the Reconstructionist movement. Under Kaplan, the SAJ became the leading synagogue of that movement. Many date the establishment of Reconstructionism from the publication of Kaplan’s 1945 prayerbook — developed and first used at the SAJ.

Kaplan reminded us that over time and in new places, the Jewish tradition has always changed — and that faced with the pressures and demands of modernity, of the need to come to terms with the world of science and reason, Judaism needs to continue to change in order to remain relevant, vibrant, and meaningful to a new generation of Jews.

He felt strongly that such traditional concepts as the resurrection of the dead and the chosenness of the Jewish people were difficult to accept, or simply not meaningful for our times. Therefore, he famously proposed changes in traditional ritual and practice. He enabled us to “reconstruct” Judaism for our time and place — just as Jews had always done throughout our history, he argued. Kaplan's thought has been summarized by some with the well-known aphorism “Tradition has a vote, not a veto.”

The SAJ is the living heart of Kaplan’s great idea, the place where the congregation works to reconcile the meaningful core of tradition with the realities of modern intellectual and spiritual life. The world’s first bat mitzvah — of Rabbi Kaplan’s daughter, Judith — was celebrated at the SAJ in 1922. Other innovations followed, some of which — including many of Kaplan's liturgical innovations — have had a lasting impact on both the SAJ and Jewish practice throughout America and the world.

The spirit of open debate and discussion that informed the SAJ during Kaplan’s long tenure continues today. Under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, we engage in open Torah discussion (a participatory discussion rather than a sermon is the centerpiece of our Shabbat morning service), read and debate the meaning of texts, take new approaches to liturgy, and welcome a diversity of viewpoints that continually enrich our Jewish experience.