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Adler, Cyruslocked

(13 September 1863–07 April 1940)
  • Ira Robinson

Adler, Cyrus (13 September 1863–07 April 1940), academic administrator and Jewish communal leader, was born in Van Buren, Arkansas, to Samuel Adler, a merchant and planter, and Sarah Sulzberger. At an early age Adler’s family moved to Philadelphia and then to New York, where his father died in 1867. The family returned to Philadelphia, where his mother’s brother, David Sulzberger, became head of the household and was a great influence on Adler’s upbringing. As a boy, Adler received an intensive education in Judaic subjects from a consortium of Philadelphia rabbis, headed by Sabato Morais, who was influential in his intellectual and religious development. Adler attended the University of Pennsylvania, from which he received an A.B. in 1883 and an A.M. in 1886. He then pursued doctoral studies in Semitics at Johns Hopkins University and received his Ph.D. in 1887, becoming the first American-trained Ph.D. in his field.

He remained at Johns Hopkins as instructor (1887) and later associate (1890) in Semitics. His efforts to obtain a professorship, however, did not succeed, and he joined the staff of the United States National Museum, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1888 as assistant curator of the department of oriental antiquities. A year later he helped found the departments of historic archaeology and religious ceremonial institutions and organized exhibitions in these fields at the United States National Museum and at expositions in Cincinnati (1889), Chicago (1893), Atlanta (1895), and St. Louis (1904). In 1890 he was appointed special commissioner of the World’s Columbian Exposition by President Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901) and visited Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa to promote these countries’ participation. In 1892 he was appointed librarian of the Smithsonian and became assistant secretary in 1905. His greatest achievement at the Smithsonian was his leadership role as U.S. representative to the London conference in 1898, which established the International Catalogue of Scientific Literature. His compromise proposal created a coalition and broke the deadlock that threatened to stymie the conference. Another of his achievements at the Smithsonian was his discovery of the “Jefferson Bible,” Thomas Jefferson’s edition and rearrangement of the New Testament. Adler’s publication of this document in 1904 created great public interest.

Starting in the 1880s, Adler took a leadership role in several initiatives within the American Jewish community. He helped found the Jewish Publication Society of America in 1888 and later chaired its publications committee. He chaired the committee of scholars that produced the society’s translation of the Hebrew Bible in 1917. He was one of the principal founders of the American Jewish Historical Society (1892) and served as its president from 1898 to 1921. Recognizing the need for accurate information on American Jewry, he conceived and edited the American Jewish Year Book in its first years (1899–1905). In 1901 Adler joined the editorial board of the Jewish Encyclopedia and was instrumental in ensuring the success of that project. He was also prominent in the reorganization of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City and served as president of its board of trustees from 1902 to 1905. In 1906 Adler was a cofounder of the American Jewish Committee, an organization that sought to represent American Jewry, and became its president from 1929 to 1940. Adler married Racie Friedenwald in 1905; they had one child.

In 1908 Adler became president of Dropsie College in Philadelphia, a nonsectarian institution devoted to advanced Judaic and Semitic scholarship. Shortly thereafter, in 1910, he also became coeditor, with Solomon Schechter, of the new series of the Jewish Quarterly Review. Upon Schechter’s death in 1915, Adler became sole editor of the journal and also succeeded Schechter as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, while retaining his presidency of Dropsie. He served as acting president of the seminary until 1924, when he became president. He remained president of both institutions to his death. He was also influential in the United Synagogue of America, the congregational organization of Conservative Judaism, serving as its president from 1913 to 1917. Active in the intellectual life of America, Adler was chosen as president of the American Oriental Society in 1923 and was elected vice president of the American Philosophical Society in 1938. Within Philadelphia, Adler served on the board of education from 1921 to 1925, was president of the board of trustees of the Free Library of Philadelphia from 1925 to 1939, and presided over the Philadelphia Kehilla, or Jewish communal organization, from 1911 to 1915.

During the First World War Adler served as a leader of the American Jewish Committee in its struggle with the Zionist American Jewish Congress movement over the way in which American Jewry was to be represented. He helped found both the Jewish Welfare Board, which was designed to support Jewish servicepeople, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which sent aid to Jews overseas who were adversely affected by war conditions. In 1919 he attended the Versailles Peace Conference as representative of the American Jewish Committee and worked, together with Louis Marshall (1856–1929), for the adoption of minority rights sections in the treaties that established the new states of Eastern Europe. Although Adler was an early opponent of political Zionism, he favored cooperation with the Zionists in the building of the Jewish National Home in Palestine that was envisaged in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. He participated in negotiations that culminated in the establishment of an enlarged Jewish Agency for Palestine in 1929, serving as president of its council and chairing its administrative committee from 1930 to 1931. In this role, he addressed a lengthy Memorandum on the Western Wall (1930) to the League of Nations, which defended Jewish rights of worship at the wall. He also served as a member of the board of governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In the 1930s Adler was confronted with the economic effects of the depression on the institutions he led, the Nazi assault on German Jewry, and the worsening Arab-Jewish strife in Palestine. To the best of his ability he supported the movement of Jewish refugees from Europe and sought American governmental support for a beleaguered German Jewry. While opposing a Jewish state in Palestine, he also worked to strengthen the Jewish community in Palestine as a haven for Jewish refugees. Adler died at his home in Philadelphia.

Unifying Adler’s varied activities was his conviction that active participation in the political and intellectual life of America was entirely compatible with strict adherence to the beliefs and practices of traditional Judaism. He thus opposed Reform Judaism’s claim to represent the only truly “American” Judaism. This commitment led him to attempt to serve as a representative of American Jewry as well as a representative of Americanism to a Jewish community then largely made up of recent immigrants and their children.


Major collections of Adler’s papers can be found in the archives of the American Jewish Committee, New York City; American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati; American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, Mass.; Annenberg Research Institute, Philadelphia; Jewish Theological Seminary, New York City; and Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. His autobiography, I Have Considered the Days (1941), and Abraham Neuman, “Cyrus Adler, a Sketch,” American Jewish Year Book (1940–1941), are the only full accounts of his life. A selection of his letters appears in Ira Robinson, ed., Cyrus Adler: Selected Letters (2 vols., 1985). Several articles devoted to Adler’s career were published in American Jewish History 78 (1989): 351–98. An annotated bibliography of Adler’s publications was compiled by E. D. Coleman and Joseph Reider in Adler’s Lectures, Selected Papers, Addresses (1933). An obituary is in the New York Times, 8 Apr. 1940.