Felix Adler (1851 – 1933) was a professor of political and social ethics, rationalist, influential lecturer on euthanasia, religious leader and social reformer who founded the Ethical Culture movement. Born in Germany, his family immigrated to the United States when he was 6 years old. He studied at Columbia University and continued his education at Heidelberg University in Germany. There he was strongly influenced by neo-Kantianism, especially the notions that one cannot prove or disprove the existence of a deity or immortality, and that morality can be established independently of theology.
After realizing being a rabbi was not for him, he entered academia, teaching at Cornell University. In 1876
, he gave a lecture on doing away with theology and to unite theists, atheists, agnostics and deists, all in the same religious cause. He began a Sunday lecture series and in February 1877, aided by the president of Temple Emanu-El, Adler incorporated the Society of Ethical Culture. Adler talked about “deed, not creed”; his belief was that good works were the basis of ethical culture.
The group expanded to sending nurses to help the poor, free kindergarten, clothing and food for the children of the working poor. Adler served as rector for the Ethical Culture School until his death in 1933. He also helped establish the National Child Labor Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, was president of the Eastern Board of the American Philosophical Association and he served on the first Executive Board of the National Urban League. In government, he was involved in housing reform and foreign policy.
Throughout his life, he always looked beyond the immediate concerns of family, labor, and race to the long-term challenge of reconstructing institutions, such as schools and government, to promote greater justice in human relations. The school based on his philosophy can still be found on Central Park West in Manhattan. Ethical Culture Fieldston School’ (ECFS), known as just Fieldston, is a private independent school and a member of the Ivy Preparatory School League. The school serves approximately 1700 students with 325 faculty and staff.