Rabbi Stephen S. Wise passes away in a New York hospital at the age of 75 on April 19, 1949, twelve days after undergoing surgery for stomach cancer. Born in Hungary in 1874, Wise moves to the United States with his family when he is a toddler. His father Aaron is a rabbi and Stephen sets his mind to following in his footsteps. Wise graduates from Columbia University at 18 years of age and gets ordained as a rabbi in Vienna, Austria by Rabbi Adolf Jellinek, considered one of the most prolific and gifted Jewish orators of modern Judaism.
Wise is one of the founders of the New York Federation of Zionist Societies in 1897 and soon after helps to create the Federation of Zionist Societies in 1898. His early work on behalf of Zionism connects him to Theodor Herzl whom he meets when he attends the Second Zionist Congress in Basle. Wise agrees to serve as Secretary for the American chapter of the World Zionist Movement through 1906 and later becomes its Vice President from 1918 to 1920 and President from 1936 to 1938. In 1920, he founds the American Jewish Congress.
Wise champions social issues from his pulpit and in his communities. In 1900 Wise begins a six year term as Rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon where he is involved in interfaith work, social service support, and civic leadership.
When Wise is being considered for the pulpit at Temple Emanu–El in New York City, he learns that the temple’s board of trustees requires that his sermons be reviewed before he delivers them. He immediately withdraws his candidacy and in October 1907 he and over 100 followers establish a synagogue and religious school, named The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
Due to his many leadership positions in the American Jewish and Zionist communities, Wise gains the ear of many influential leaders. On matters of Palestine, he advises President Woodrow Wilson and the President’s foreign affairs advisor Colonel Edward House, helping to get the President to endorse the Balfour Declaration in 1919.
Desiring to create a post-graduate Jewish institute that would welcome a more diverse student body than the existing rabbinic seminaries, Wise is the primary founder of the Jewish Institute for Religion (JIR) in 1922. The school accepts Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews as well as Zionists and non-Zionists. In addition to requiring students to study Bible and Talmud, JIR requires classes in contemporary education, practical rabbinics, social justice and Modern Hebrew.
During World War II, he works tirelessly to try and influence the Roosevelt administration to do more for the Jews of Europe. Sending numerous letters to the President, he receives only a vague reply, “”This government has moved and continues to move, so far as the burden of the war permits, to help the victims of the Nazi doctrines of racial, religious and political oppression.”
In addition to his efforts on behalf of American Jewry and Zionism, Wise is an ardent supporter or many social causes as well, including being among the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920.
The photo shows Louis Brandeis (center), flanked by Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise (right) and Nathan Straus, co-owner of Macy’s. Photo Source: Library of Congress