Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Kaplan, Cohen and the JC

This I got from Jeffrey Gurock's book "A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community".

R Mordechai Menachem Kaplan (RMMK) graduated the Seminary in 1902, the last year it was Orthodox, along with my great-aunt's then-future brother-in-law, R Israel Goldfarb. Since the Seminary didn't ordain at the time, Kaplan went to Europe to get smicha from R YY Reines, the head of Mizrachi, and a friend of his father. He took a post as "minister" (upgrading to "rabbi" after he got smicha) at KJ on the East Side, later working with the Ramaz (for whom the school was named in 1937) as #2 rabbi. In 1910, Kaplan started writing in his diaries, and I think in some articles, his inklings of pantheism.

Kaplan and my great-grandfather's brother, coat manufacturer and philanthropist (20 years president of the Beth Israel Hospital) Joseph H. Cohen left KJ about 1916 to set up a shul for the growing contingent of West Siders who were shlepping across the park to KJ because there wasn't much else yet. They had this idea of a Jewish Center, a place where Jews would do their recreation in a Jewish context, rather than among non-Jews at the park or the Y, as a way of keeping Jews interested in Judaism (yes they were into Kiruv back then too). RMMK had been involved with an early Kiruv group for years, the Jewish Endeavour Society. Cohen didn't mind Kaplan's writings, as long as he didn't bring them to the pulpit. That synagogue was The Jewish Center on 86th Street in New York.

In 1918 Cohen's brother (my great-grandfather) Louis founded the Brooklyn Jewish Center, the second such "shul with a pool", which, unlike too many Brooklyn synagogues, is still a Jewish institution. It's now the Chabad yeshiva Oholei Torah/Oholei Menachem. The BJC was set up with the idea of having a school, a big Talmud Torah and later a day school, so they didn't have to do too much to convert it.

By 1922, Kaplan couldn't keep his ideas out of the pulpit, and Cohen turned on him. He called a vote of the board to toss him out, lost the vote by a narrow margin, but Kaplan didn't want to stay where he wasn't wanted, and left to set up his own shul up the street, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the Reconstructionist ur-Schule.

In 1927, the Reform financiers who were backing both JTS and RIETS started to wonder why they had to support two Orthodox institutions. They started to work for a merger of the two yeshivot. It came to a vote of boards of the institutions. Joseph H. Cohen was a member of the inner board at RIETS at the time, and he put his foot down - he knew Kaplan, and any institution which employs Kaplan cannot merge with the Yeshiva.

So there you have it. In a small, non-public way, my family made a major impact on the development of Orthodoxy in America.


Nachum said...

By the way, Chabad is planning a big reunion for "alumni" of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Perhaps you'd like to be in touch with them.

Unknown said...

The number to reach for the BJC reunion is
Rabbi Blumes at 718-483-9000

thanbo said...

BTW, does anyone have an email address for R' Rakeffet? He gave a lecture recently on "Mordechai Kaplan and YU" that did not include any of this information. He "speculates" that the YU-JTS merger failed over Kaplan, but he didn't have to speculate - it's all laid out in Gurock & Schachter's book.