At a Turning Point in History: SAJ at 100 Years

Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
3 min readJan 30, 2022

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Saturday, January 29, 2022

When Dr. Mordecai Kaplan began the SAJ 100 years ago, the Jewish community and the world were at a turning point. In the Jewish community, he saw, on the one hand, a refusal among traditionalists to integrate new understandings of science and the world into their midst and on the other hand, a growing abandonment of Judaism altogether by those who wanted to be fully American. In the world, there had just been a global pandemic and the first world war; American society had been experiencing a new revolution of fighting for women’s rights and suffrage, labor rights, and economic equality.

At that very particular moment in history, Kaplan responded by articulating a vision for a Judaism in which you did not have to blindly follow traditions or affirm ideas you didn’t believe in in order to be Jewish, and taught that one could be fully Jewish and fully American, with those identities informing and supporting one another. Kaplan saw the inequalities- within and outside the Jewish community — and made the radical (still radical!) claim that the hierarchy Jews lived by for millenia — being the chosen people — was a principle we should no longer abide by. Kaplan asserted that ethics and religion cannot be separated, and he expanded Judaism to include women fully in ritual, setting off a revolution of egalitarianism in Jewish life.

Today, 100 years later, we also gather at a turning point in the Jewish world and the world at large. The majority of Jewish families and younger Jews today do not feel obligated to be part of or support synagogues or traditional Jewish institutions like the generations before. And a new understanding of community has emerged, heightened by the pandemic, that today one’s “Jewish home” can be anywhere that is accessed from a computer or phone. These are radical changes in the organization of Jewish life.

And it is a turning point in the larger world. Rampant inequality. Global climate change. Existential threats to our democracy. Anti-Semitism alive and well, and feeling very close to home two weeks after Colleyville.

In this watershed moment, this is how we at SAJ are responding:

We are creating and building a spiritual community where individuals can find the healing and wholeness they need to face the struggles and challenges in their lives and in the world. It is a community that knows that joy is not a luxury or a privilege — it is essential for the journey and sustaining us in the work. A community that people want to join, not out of obligation but out of inspiration.

We are building a world that values thinking and questioning in a world where that is too often not the case.

We are building a world of compassion, in which Loving our Neighbor is an active practice. While we recognize that while anti-semitism is undeniable, we also know we are not alone; our safety is found in solidarity.

We are creating a world where diversity is our strength and all are invited to contribute to the ongoing revelation of Torah.

We are building a world that affirms the dignity of each person and inspires us to bend the arc towards justice.

As we step into the next 100 years, let us commit to channeling the hutzpah (verve), insight, and gusto of our founders to meet the needs of this moment and the next century with creativity and out-of-the box thinking. Let us ask big questions and have courage to try new things.

Let us commit to building our community in such a way that will sustain us and uplift us as individuals, that will advance this institution but more importantly the entire Jewish people, and that will make the world a better place for kol yoshrei tevel, for all who dwell on earth.

וִיהִ֤י ׀ נֹ֤עַם אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֭דֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָ֥ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דֵ֗ינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ׃

May the pleasantness of Divine service always be in our hearts.

May the work of our hands be upheld and blessed;

may the work of our hands be sustained and manifested.