Felix Adler, a German-American educator and social reformer, founded the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1876 at the age of 24. Born in Germany, Adler moved to New York as a child when his father became the head rabbi at Temple Emanu-el.
Adler attended Columbia University and Heidelberg University. While in Germany, he was influenced by the teachings of Immanuel Kant, especially the idea that morality can be established independent of theology. Returning to New York, he continued to lecture on these concepts, and incorporated the New York Society for Ethical Culture.
The freedom of thought is a sacred right of every individual man, and diversity will continue to increase with the progress, refinement, and differentiation of the human intellect.
Adler’s belief in deed rather than creed led the Society to support many innovative projects. In 1877, the Society sponsored a program through which nurses and doctors visited the homebound sick in poor districts. This service was eventually incorporated into the New York City health system. He was also active in tenement house reform and American foreign policy. In 1878, he founded a tuition-free school for the children of working people. This evolved into the Ethical Culture Fieldston School.
Well known as a lecturer and writer, Adler served as ECFS’ Rector until his death in 1933. He also held the chair of political and social ethics at Columbia University from 1902 to 1933, and served other organizations, such as the National Urban League and the predecessor of the American Civil Liberties Union. 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.