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Isaac Mayer Wise: The Father of American Reform Judaism

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Fall 2005

Isaac Mayer Wise was the dominant force behind the creation of American Reform Judaism. From his arrival in America in 1846 to his death in 1900, the rabbi was devoted to modernizing and Americanizing Judaism. He rejected as outdated many European rituals and derided Jews overly concerned with what he viewed as relatively unimportant aspects of the religion such as dietary laws, calling them adherents to “kitchen Judaism.” His self-confidence and magnetic speaking style won him many admirers and followers, but his prickliness led him into bitter disputes in which he became lifelong enemies with other leading Jewish figures.  

A prolific writer, Wise was editor and primary author of two weekly newspapers, the author of a prayer book, and other volumes of history, fiction and theological texts. His most enduring contributions lie in the institutions he established, which included the major institutions that fostered Reform Judaism — the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Hebrew Union College. Through their creation, Wise advanced his aim of drawing American Jews together around a modern brand of the religion suited for the New World.  

Early Years  

Wise was born in the town of Steingrub in Bohemia on March 20, 1819. Then a part of the Austrian Empire, Steingrub had been home to Wise’s ancestors for at least three generations. Wise’s father, Leo Weiss, was a religious functionary and teacher for the small Jewish community. Unable to support their son, Wise’s parents sent him at age 6 to live with his grandfather in Durmaul. When Wise was 12, his grandfather died, leaving him on his own. Wise attended the Prague Yeshiva and then pursued a secular education. To support himself, he became a tutor in the home of Herman Bloch, and later married his daughter Therese. Following in his father’s footsteps, Wise worked as a teacher from 1843 to 1846 in the Bohemian community of Radnitz.  

In the Bohemia in which Wise grew up, Jews faced many restrictions, including special taxes, a prohibition against owning land, a limitation on the number of marriages, and restrictions on the right of residence. Before leaving Bohemia, Wise had to apply for a passport from Count Furstemberg, who reportedly rejected his request, replying, “Do you think we opened schools for you to take your learning to America?” As a result, Wise had to make his way without any documentation. He left this restrictive society behind in favor of an America in which Jews enjoyed equal treatment, and in which a man as talented as Wise would quickly make his mark.  

New York  

When Wise arrived with his wife and daughter in New York City, like many new arrivals, they received the assistance of others from the same region. He was initially advised to become a peddler, but he was directed to a different course through his friendship with Rabbi Max Lilienthal who encouraged him to become a rabbi, and sent Wise in his place to dedicate a number of synagogues. These trips led to an offer for him to serve as the rabbi at Albany’s Beth El synagogue.  

In his autobiography, Wise described his position in Albany as the head of a modest congregation: “Albany was poor. There were four firms; viz., Schloss, Blattner, Cohen and Sporberg; two grocers, Schmidt and Schwartz and several mechanics. All the other members of the congregation were peddlers. The yearly congregational dues amounted to six dollars, besides shnoder money [offerings]. There were but few families in Albany that had parlors furnished with carpets, cane-seated chairs, etc. The majority lived in two or three rooms. A silk dress was a rarity among the women. The men smoked three-cent cigars, and drank beer at three cents a glass. They played dominoes for an hour in order to decide who was to pay the six, nine, or twelve cents. Yet, despite this, the congregation furnished my house, plainly it is true, but to their satisfaction, and this sufficed for my wife and myself”  

With little nostalgia for the oppressive restrictions and poverty in his homeland, Wise quickly became an American, something that would have a great impact on the way he would view his religion and the success and failure that he would have as a rabbi. Wise expressed these sentiments about his Americanization with reference to his 1850 trip to Washington, in which he met William Henry Seward, President Zachary Taylor, and Daniel Webster. He wrote in his autobiography: “My sojourn in Washington exerted an Americanizing influence on me on this very account. I felt that I was one of the American people, although I had not yet been naturalized, and from that time I said ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our’ quite unconsciously whenever I spoke of American affairs. I felt greatly uplifted and aroused by this intercourse with the great spirits of the country and the kindly reception wherewith I met.”  

Rocky Relations in Albany  

In Wise’s position in Albany he enjoyed a relatively comfortable salary and the social status of a rabbi, but Albany was not to be a peaceful home for Wise. His instinct for reform and modernization led him to have rocky relations with many of his coreligionists. He writes in his autobiography: “An idealist, dreamer, and enthusiast I had shaped all things as they ought to have been. The world appeared to me most excellent, just as I wished it to be. The reforming spirit was innate in me; it was my foremost characteristic. In addition to this, I was an enthusiast on the subjects of America and freedom, and was convinced that every one thought and felt just as I did. Consequently I could begin at once to reform and to improve the world.”  

Wise continues, “I vented my views awkwardly and unreservedly. After I had spoken in public a number of times, and the auditors did not praise me or sing hallelujah, I began to despair, and to entertain seriously the thought of retiring from the pulpit. Whereas, I was too dreamy and too impractical to understand, and to take the world as it was. I imagined that the people did not comprehend the nobler things. I began to grow disheartened after I had delivered a few sermons.”  

Wise proposed a series of ritual modifications, including dispensing with the piyyutim (liturgical poems), qinnoth (lamentations), and s’lichoth (supplications). But he insisted that he was only a reformer “if the people long for it, but then I seek to direct the public mind on the path of the Din [Jewish law]; but I never urge my principles upon another, nor do I commence to start a reform in a Synagogue.” However, Wise’s willingness to reform the services caused him to clash with both the synagogue’s leadership and its members who were accustomed to such ritual since childhood.  

Dissension About Wise  

Albany was not a location where a rabbi with a progressive outlook was likely to flourish. Sefton Temkin, author of “Creating American Reform Judaism: The Life and Times of Isaac Mayer Wise,” writes, “The milieu in which Wise worked was neither urbane nor sophisticated. His flock had inherited a Judaism that had become a matter of rote. They would work through the synagogue service much as a railway engine traveled along the rails: the mechanical processes, and the noises they gave off, would be the same whether passing through hill or dale, town or country. A break in the routine, however, would immediately arrest attention.”  

Wise’s leadership did attract attention and concern, which eventually exploded in September, 1850. A report in the Albany Evening Atlas on September 7, 1850, outlines the dissension within Albany’s Jewish community regarding Wise.  

“During the last two or three days the members of the Hebrew Congregation worshipping in Fulton Street, have been in great excitement. It seems they are not all united in love for Rev. Mr. Wise, their spiritual adviser, and one portion have labored with great zeal to remove him from his pastoral station; while the other portion have been equally zealous in maintaining him in his position.  

“On Thursday, it seems, an election was held to test the question, when, we understand, there were other feelings than those of brotherly love strongly manifested. This morning, the Jewish Sabbath, the congregation assembled very early, when a strife arose between the two sections as to whether the Rev. Mr. Wise should, or should not officiate. It seems that as soon as the attempt was made by Mr. Wise to conduct the ceremonies, a general melee commenced. Argument, persuasion and conciliation were dispensed with, and angry words, threatenings and even blows were resorted to, and several severe assaults were committed.  

“The peace of that portion of the city finally became so alarmingly disturbed, that it became necessary, for the safety of the public, and for the belligerents themselves, to call in the interposition of the police authorities. Sheriff Beardsley repaired promptly to the spot, accompanied by a strong force, and soon cleared the synagogue of both parties, locked the doors and took the keys in his possession. This had the desired effect, and the riot and disturbance then terminated.”  

The dispute resulted in the division of the congregation, with 56 members of Beth El following Wise into a new congregation that would be called Anshe Ameth (men of truth), where 26 others who had not previously been members of a synagogue joined them. On October 11, 1850, the congregation was incorporated with Wise as its rabbi. One sign of the more progressive sentiments in the new synagogue is that men and women sat together in family pews instead of being segregated by gender as they were at Beth El.  

Wise’s Philosophy  

Wise’s beliefs were not complicated. He believed the religion was relatively straightforward and should not be complicated by ancient foreign rituals. Instead, America should influence the religion, and because of the fruits of the New World, particularly liberty, Jews should be optimistic. Wise outlined the central tenets of the religion, and just as above he described the extraneous elements, below, in a January 1851 letter in the “Occident,” Wise wrote about the vital elements.  

Outlining the four central principles of Judaism, Wise wrote, “1. There is but one God, who is the Creator, Preserver, and Ruler of the Universe; an absolute, pure, and eternal Spirit; the primitive life Power, Intellect and Love; who has revealed himself in the Bible, in all nature, and in all history. 2. Man is the image of God, and is therefore endowed not only with all the superior capacities which are the necessary qualifications of an image of the most High, and bound in duty to develop them to the utmost extent; but he is also immortal in this respect, in quality of his being made in the image of his Creator. 3. Man is accountable to God for all his deeds, for which he is punished here and hereafter. 4. God has chosen the people of Israel to promulgate through them these divine and sublime truths to mankind at large.” Anything beyond these basic principles Wise rejected as “anti-Jewish and foreign to our system.”  

In another piece in the “Occident,” Wise explained his Talmudic philosophy along the same lines. He was not content to merely outline his beliefs, but as he would so often do in the future, he took the opportunity to harshly criticize those who disagreed with him, in this case stricter adherents to the Talmud. “Where the Talmud imposes upon us doctrines or the observances of ceremonies, which are foreign to the Bible, and which infested us for many centuries with the spirit of intolerance, and of separation; which degraded religion into a compendium of blind and insignificant rites; which depressed the youthful spirit of Judaism, and drove thousands from our community; or where the Talmud comes in conflict with the demands of our age, which if listened to, will bring destruction and ruin in its train; there I am fearless on the side of reform; and if thousands of learned or not learned doctors say, ‘The Talmud is divine,’ I must a thousand times pity them, for that they lack the moral courage to speak the truth.” Wise wrote this article in a moment of frustration, and his later activities would show that he wanted a reevaluation of some parts of the Talmud, not a wholesale dismissal, as one might gather from this passage.  

Religion Must Modernize  

Jews in America should worship in a way befitting Americans, according to Wise. Writing in the “Asmonean” on February 4, 1853, Wise made it clear that he believed the religion must modernize, particularly in light of the freedom in America. “The Israelite has reentered on the stage of active life; the political, scientific, commercial, social and active life has re-opened its gates to receive the sons of Israel; and they have flocked in by millions. There is again a conflict between life and religion: the world has powerfully progressed, but the customs of the Israelites are unaltered for many centuries. Does not the reflecting Israelite daily perceive the conflict between the necessities of life and the institutes with which his religion is surrounded? Are we not aware that the people reconcile this disparity as well as they can? That they do it without a firm and leading principle, and so they invade, they must invade the province of religion itself; forgetful that Judaism requires sacrifices, and will not give way to the demands of life. Judaism is a living active system of immutable principles; it has changed its exterior forms with varying ages without the least disadvantage; it can, it will undergo such other adaptations to times and circumstances without being in the least impaired.”  

Although Wise spoke German well, there was no doubt in his mind that the future of American Judaism lay in English because only in English could the religion be part of the larger American society. In the “Israelite” on May 6, 1870, he wrote: “About ten men, certainly no more have revolutionized the opinions of this country concerning our religion and our coreligionists. Those few men who spend their days and nights mastering the English language and requiring a correct knowledge of the spirit and institutions of this country and this people, have done the work. Those who. . . by means of the press spread their speeches and sermons before the community at large; those few men have done the work, it can not be denied, and they have done it under steady combat against their so-called orthodox coreligionists and in perpetual conflict with their Germanizing cousins, always attacked or ignored by those whose cause they plead and whose battles they fought.”  

Universalist Outlook  

Wise did not believe that Judaism was for a narrow sect, instead favoring a universalist outlook. He authored a book titled “Judaism: Its Doctrines and Duties” that was intended as a confirmation textbook, in which he outlined this approach. Wise writes that he “reads the Bible from its own standpoint, and proves that it contains the complete and rational system of religion for all generations and countries.” He continues, “Judaism is the religion of the future generations, as it was the teacher of the past ones.”  

Wise believed that Judaism’s teachings would become the “common property of the American people.” In “American Judaism: A History,” Jonathan Sarna writes, Wise “pointed out that on a whole range of issues—Providence, the Supreme Being, justice, wisdom, universal goodness, the immortality of the soul, the sanctity of virtue, the perfectibility of the human race, the Fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of man— Jews, liberal Christians, and rationalists all basically agreed.”  

By 1870, Wise was pleased with the position of Judaism in America, believing that it was having an influence on the development of the nation. He wrote in the ‘Israelite’ on May 6, 1870, “It is no longer a fossil, a mummy or a specimen of curiosity in some museum. It is a living reality, known, appreciated and respected. It lives and enlivens. It exercises a telling influence on the development of the religious idea in this country.”  


Although he led a new congregation in Albany (Anshe Ameth), he did not remain in the city for long. In 1854, Wise left Albany for Cincinnati, where he would lead Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. At that time, Cincinnati was rapidly growing, and in 1860 it was the third largest city in the country. Congregation B’nai Jeshurun was well established and offered the ambitious Wise more opportunities. Learning from his contentious years in Albany, Wise sought to avoid controversies within his congregation so that it would be a secure base from which to pursue his wider ambitions. Writing in his autobiography, Wise states, “1 was very moderate, considerate, and argumentative (as far as externalities were concerned) in the pulpit ... I had to address every Saturday a very mixed audience. My hearers comprised, not only the members of the three other congregations of Cincinnati, but also the inhabitants of near and distant towns, because business brought many merchants of the West and South to Cincinnati at that time. I was therefore compelled to speak carefully and tactfully if I wished to succeed, and I was determined to succeed.”  

Prior to his arrival, the Cincinnati congregation had no record of Reform, and Wise attempted to control his firebrand personality so as to slowly and smoothly introduce his Reform ideals. He commented in his memoir, “I recognized that all things would turn out right if I would be content to make haste slowly.”  

Sarna writes that Wise indeed did have moderate aims when he moved to Cincinnati. “He had no intention of creating a separate movement or denomination within Judaism; his goal was to shape what he called American Judaism, a legitimate heir to the Judaism practiced by different waves of Jewish immigrants. He believed, in other words, that his moderate brand of Reform Judaism — the ‘forms, formulas, customs, and observances’ that he modernized — would in time be recognized as the rite or minhag, of all American Jews, displacing the many diverse European rites then practiced by different synagogues. ... Jewish unity, indeed, served as a leitmotif of his rabbinate — it was far more important to him than consistency. Pragmatic, flexible, and politically savvy, he looked to forge an American Judaism that was harmonious and strong.”  

Publishing the “Israelite”  

Shortly after arriving in Cincinnati, Wise began publishing the newspaper the “Israelite,” with its first edition appearing on July 15, 1854. The newspaper had an enormous impact in boosting Wise’s role as a Jewish leader of national standing. Temkin writes, “It would be hard to overemphasize the role played by the ‘Israelite’ in establishing Wise as a leader of American Jewry. It carried his voice throughout the land, and made some people fear his censure and others curry his favor. It brought him callers and information from all parts, and, as in those days many railways provided free passes for newspaper editors, it gave him the means of undertaking the many journeys to distant congregations which did so much to enhance his influence among the communities of the South and the West.”  

In the newspaper’s first few months, Wise used it to call for the Jews of Cincinnati to establish a college with a theological seminary. The establishment of such an institution had been a long-standing dream for Wise, and though he would ultimately achieve his aim, this call in September 1854 would prove to be just one of several false starts for the college.  

Abandoning Reform?  

Wise had mixed loyalties when it came to the Reform movement. Although he was a strong proponent of modernizing and Americanizing the religion, he also believed in the paramount importance of unifying American Jewry. These two goals occasionally came into conflict, and at times, Wise was prepared to soften his reform stance to avoid alienating some more conservative rabbis. However, by staking out this middle ground, Wise ended up alienating some Reform rabbis.  

Wise vigorously denied the charge that he was abandoning his Reform ideals in favor of the unity of American Jews. In his typically caustic style, Wise wrote in the “Israelite” on December 21, 1855: “Is it right or wrong that Israel should be united in this country to build up institutions for the prosperity of Israel? Please answer. Is it right or wrong, that we should be one body in this country, in order to lay a firm foundation for the prosperity of Judaism on this American soil? Please reply. Is it right or wrong, that we should meet on a platform which every Israelite can acknowledge, and which leaves free scope for further reforms and improvements, according to the demands of all ages? Please, let us hear your objections. Is it right or wrong, that the Cleveland Conference refused to depart from the historical basis of Judaism, pointed out by three thousand years of history? Please, give us some of your wisdom. Is it right or wrong, we ask in the name of common sense, that men uttered freely and boldly their own sentiments on religion? There was no hypocrite in Cleveland; they are men who understand the demands of the age and the doctrines of Judaism; men, whose learning and sincerity have been tried often enough to be known and appreciated. The opposition waste in vain their words and their paper. Truth will triumph.”  

“Minhag America”  

One of the ways Wise exercised his influence on the development of American Judaism was through a prayer book that he hoped would both advance his Reform ideology and help unify American Jewry around a common liturgy. “Minhag America: The Daily Prayers, Part I, Revised and Compiled by the Committee of the Cleveland Conference” appeared in October 1857 and was immediately used by his congregation.  

Describing “Minhag America” as the most important of Wise’s many books, Temkin writes, “History and theology interested a limited few; the market for Jewish literature was thin; but a prayer-book was a minimum necessity. Aided by Wise’s promotion, ‘Minhag America’ attained a certain vogue and therefore came into the hands of a larger number of people. It was a practical embodiment of his quest for unity among the Jews of America.” Among the modernizing elements in “Minhag America” were moves toward greater equality for women, including Wise’s judgment that a minyan consists of ten adults — male or female.  

Commenting on the prayer book, Wise stated that he and his colleagues “adhered anxiously to tradition; they had no desire to found a new religion or to institute a new cult. They wished to recast the old and traditional prayers reverently, so that they might be brought into accord with the religious consciousness of the time and the democratic principles of the new fatherland.” Wise believed that with so many newly arrived immigrants, the Jewish community in America would still be tied to Europe unless there was an active effort to integrate them to America, and one way would be to have a truly American prayer book. In the “Israelite” on June 21, 1867, he wrote: “Whenever one hundred congregations shall be liturgically united under the ‘Minhag America,’ . . . the basis to a lasting union of the American Israel is laid out, upon which all the superstructures of the synod, the college, the seminary, &c., will easily be reared.”  

Wise’s Legacy  

These structures would be Wise’s legacy to American Jews. His calls for union behind a modern, American form of Judaism failed to unite all American congregations, but did succeed in creating the central institutions of the Reform movement. Wise, through his preaching, writing, and most importantly institution building was an indispensable element in making Judaism an American religion, rather than a European religion in America.  

Wise, a prolific writer, left historians a valuable record of his beliefs on issues in Judaism as well as the most pressing political issues of the day. His writings also offer an insight into his character as we see his combative responses to critical interlocutors, as well as retrospectives about his early years in Bohemia.  

The bulk of Wise’s writing can be found in his weekly English-language “Israelite,” which he began in 1854, and which he soon followed with the 1855 launch of “Die Deborah,” a German-language supplement to the “Israelite.” “Die Deborah” was nominally a women’s section of the “Israelite,” but also served as another important vehicle for Wise as it allowed him to express himself in his native language and reach a wider audience. The “Israelite” continues to be published today under the name “American Israelite.” (Wise changed the name in 1874.) The “American Israelite’s” masthead boasts: “The Oldest English Jewish Weekly in America.”  

Wise published many books, primarily volumes of history and theology, as well as his valuable memoir “Reminiscences.” In some cases the books were signs that his ambition outstripped the public’s interest as the volumes turned out to be money-losing ventures that attracted few readers. In other cases they served as valuable vehicles to spread his ideas and beliefs.  

Wise did not limit his production to nonfiction, publishing a number of novels, which first appeared in serial form in the “Israelite.” Humility was never among Wise’s virtues, and one piece of evidence was his pseudonym, “The American Jewish Novelist,” under which the novels appeared. He published “Hillel and Herod: A Historical Romance of the time of Herod I” in 1859. A year later he produced “The First of the Maccabees.” This volume proved to enjoy lasting interest, being republished in Jerusalem in a French translation over 30 years later.  

As publisher of two weekly papers, Wise had a weighty responsibility in terms of literary production. All evidence indicates that Wise tremendously enjoyed the ability to magnify his voice through these vehicles. Not infrequently, Wise used these papers and his caustic editorials to score points in petty disputes that he had with other rabbis.  

Civil War  

The most significant political event of Wise’s lifetime was the American Civil War. He did not expect the Union to dissolve, but once it did, he was very concerned, and critical of both sides. When South Carolina seceded, Wise wrote an editorial in the “Israelite”: “The fanatics in both sections of the country succeeded in destroying the most admirable fabric of government. Under the pretext of progress and liberty, state rights and personal freedom they have made the beginning of destroying the proud structure of liberty to which all good men looked with hope and satisfaction.” Before war broke out, Wise was not optimistic about the resolution, warning in the “Israelite” on December 28, 1860, “Force will not hold together this Union; it was cemented by liberty and can stand only by the affections of the people.”  

A January 4, 1861 editorial shows that he placed more blame with the abolitionists: “The year 1861 must witness either the end of the Republican Party or the dissolution of the Union. The Republicans know this very well and talk quite freely of the final and perpetual separation of the North and South. All their maneuvers are intended to that point. They want neither war nor coercion nor compromises. Separation is their final object. They maintain their object of Abolitionism can be best achieved by the separation of the South from the North.”  

Wise did not regard slavery as the primary motivation for war on either side, instead seeing it as an issue of states rights, comparing abolitionists with those who would restrict access to liquor or establish Christianity as the national religion. Wise also charged the abolitionists with being hypocrites because while Massachusetts was a center for abolitionism, it was also a center of anti-immigrant sentiment.  

Wise denied favoring slavery, but did say that the institution should be allowed to continue, though not extended to the West. He makes this position clear in a December 1859 article in “Die Deborah,” “We are no apologists for slavery. We have always declared our view candidly that by constitutional means it should be kept far from the territories of the great West. But we have no constitutional right to snatch from the South its slaves through revolution and abolitionist agitation.”  

Wise’s position on slavery was a moderate one for his time, and this moderation fits with Wise’s positions on most topics. Jacob R. Marcus writes in “The Americanization of Isaac Mayer Wise,” “Wise was essentially a middle of the road man, not only in religion, but also in politics. The only exception was where politics touched Jewish emancipation and liberty. Then he was an implacable extremist and demanded immediate change.”  


While Wise was very focused on the Jewish community, he was also interested in extending his influence by getting involved with mainstream politics. He had been cultivating political leaders ever since he arrived in America, visiting Washington D.C. twice with the purpose of getting to know leading figures in the federal government. In 1863 Wise directly entered politics with his short-lived candidacy for the state senate.  

Wise was nominated for state senate in 1863, and in the Democratic County Convention, he received 280 votes out of a possible 312. Cincinnati’s “Daily Enquirer” reported on September 6, 1863: “Dr. Wise is a gentleman of learning and accomplishments — is well known as an estimable Hebrew rabbi of this city. He would make an excellent Senator.” However, Wise pulled out of the race after his congregation put pressure on him, fearing he would not be able to complete his other duties.  

Changes in Cincinnati  

Wise’s foray into politics was circumscribed by the many other activities that already occupied him, which included his continuing efforts to unify American Jewry, construct a theological seminary, shepherd his own congregation, and write prolifically. In 1861, Wise moved to a farm nine miles from Cincinnati, where he would write for hour after hour and still be prepared to travel to and from the city.  

Wise reported the bucolic beauty of his new setting to the readers of the “Israelite”: “Arrived upon the top of the hill the grandest scenery imagination can depict bursts into sight. For ten miles in all directions except the north the landscape stretches away under our feet. There lay open to the eye all the hills and valleys over to Kentucky, including the western part of Cincinnati. On the other side, Glendale, Carthage, Springrove, Clifton and the villas between present themselves to view, and the houses look like gems set upon the dark carpet of groves and parks. It is a birdseye perspective which one has no opportunity to see again for hundreds and probably for thousands of miles. On the hill the atmosphere is entirely different from the city. The air is pure, light, much more transparent, therefore also the blue of the skies is different and resembles fully the Italian sky. The hill is studded with fine wells, pure water, rich gardens, fine residences and a healthy people.”  

Shortly after Wise moved, his congregation moved as well. In 1866, the congregation dedicated its new Moorish style temple. The temple seated over 2,000 worshippers, and the consecration ceremony included many plaudits for Wise. The synagogue’s president reviewed the congregation’s 27-year history and then made it clear that Wise had had a dramatic impact on the congregation. “The real history of the progress of our congregation dates from the time when our esteemed rabbi, Rev. Dr. Wise, was chosen as our spiritual guide, for to him we are indebted for the position which we now occupy in the community and among our sister congregations. It was he who commenced fearlessly, and in opposition to all existing obstacles and prejudices, to remove the superficial practices in our service, and he slowly but surely created order and system out of chaos. His excellent teachings found a willing ear in his congregation. He not only managed to retain in our midst peace, harmony and concord, of which this congregation has always been characterized, but he extended the same wholesome influence over the majority of the congregations in the West, who are co-operating with us in the onward march of progress, enlightenment, and true religion.”  

Movement for Union  

Wise believed that union was the only way to set a clear direction for Judaism. He wanted to unite American Jewry behind his vision of a moderate Judaism that combined ritual reforms and traditional elements. In an August 8, 1873, article in the “Israelite,” Wise wrote, “We will not lay down our pen until there shall stand firmly the Union of the American Hebrew Congregations; until we shall have the Hebrew classical and rabbinical college on American soil. If we exercise any influence on the American Hebrews, and wherever we do or will exercise any, it will be used fully and vigorously in favor of ‘Union’ and ‘College.’ If we have any friends in this country, we will unceasingly entreat them to come forward liberally and generously in aid of ‘Union’ and ‘College.’”  

When Wise called for a synagogal union in September 1873, only 27 congregations answered, but he was undeterred. Wise knew that 27 congregations would not form a truly national organization, and he quickly set out to gather more support. In October he went to Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Detroit. Subsequent trips took him to Chicago, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. In 1874, the group changed its rules so that synagogues from outside the south and the west could join, and therefore, Wise set out on a recruitment mission. In May, he scored a significant victory, convincing the Washington Hebrew Congregation to join.  

In 1874, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) held its first meeting in Cleveland. In addition to dealing with congregational issues and finding ways to develop a national structure, the UAHC set its first major goal as creating a rabbinical school, which was to be the fulfillment of Wise’s long-standing dream.  

Hebrew Union College  

For twenty years Wise had been striving to build a rabbinical school, with a number of efforts that quickly flagged, including when in 1855 he established Zion College, which lasted for just a year. At the UAHC’s 1874 meeting, congregational representatives voted unanimously for the Hebrew Union College to be established with Wise as its president.  

In response to the formal appointment the following year, Wise published a confident treatise in the “American Israelite”: “We deem it our duty to speak a few words for the President elected, and may say, that he considers it the highest honor which could have been conferred on him. Neither a seat in the Senate of the United States, nor the office of the Chief Justice, appears to him as responsible and honorable a position, as the presidency of the Hebrew Union College, where the finest opportunity offers to contribute largely to the education of the young people of our country; to lay a solid foundation to the future greatness of American Judaism; and to promulgate Hebrew learning, to raise high the moral and intellectual standard of Judaism. ... It will be his object of life and happiness, to afford the opportunity to the young Israelites of our country, to acquire an academical and enlightened education, to take the treasures of Israel’s rich literature, and to go forth into their various avocations enlightened, competent and upright men, apostles of truth and practical humanity.”  

Initially, Hebrew Union College was a very modest enterprise, meeting in the basement of the Mound Street Temple, with only 14 pupils. In Sefton D. Temkin’s book “Creating American Reform Judaism: The Life and Times of Isaac Mayer Wise,” he writes: “Textbooks had to be improvised because those available were in German, which the pupils did not understand. The library was not too large to be locked in a tin box at nights, a precaution taken not against thieves but against mice. Faculty? The president had the assistance of one underpaid teacher, which is testimony to the resources at the college’s disposal. ... Out of these inauspicious beginnings something permanent arose. The college ordained more than sixty rabbis in Wise’s lifetime, and he left it with its own building, a faculty of nine, and an ever-growing library. There was no aspect of the development of Hebrew Union College which he did not make part of his life, and no possibility of advancing its cause to which he did not harness his energies.” These efforts included fundraising and encouraging students to enroll, even without the necessary tuition, which Wise is reported to have paid out of his own pocket for some students.  

Looking Back  

In an April 9, 1886, article in the “American Israelite,” Wise was able to proudly look back on the first ten years of Hebrew Union College: “Never has such a permanent establishment been erected and grown in America in such a short time as has the rabbinical college in Cincinnati. When the idea occurred to found it everyone laughed mockingly, and they did not really believe that American-born children, who then did not know Judaism and who had no apparent desire to learn matters relating to Judaism and Hebrew literature, could understand Mishnah and Gamorrah, Midrash and Philosophy. All thought it to be an impossible matter. ‘Where is the American who would want to be a rabbi?’ was heard from all the Jews. ‘The Torah has been forgotten in Israel, it has fallen and shall not rise again,’ they were thinking. People with widely varying opinions determined our policy, and therefore the student body consists of both Orthodox and Reform students. Nonetheless, we began. Don’t ask how or with what! With one teacher I toiled daily in a dark room under a synagogue. I taught like an elementary school teacher who starts the alphabet. I knocked on the doors of the rich to ask for some copies of the Pentateuch and old prayerbooks in order to have a text for ‘The Sayings of the Fathers’ and ‘Psalms’. Now, thank God, we have a treasury of books, which amounts to some ten thousand volumes and a beautiful and splendid building which is the finest of all rabbinical seminaries in the world.”  

In June 1883, Hebrew Union College graduated its first four rabbis, meaning Wise’s protégés were set to spread his teachings to their own congregations. Wise served as president until his death in 1900, and was then followed by a number of distinguished Reform rabbis: Kaufmann Kohler (1903-1921), Julian Morgenstern (1921-1947), Nelson Glueck (1947-1971), Alfred Gottschalk (1971-1996), Sheldon Zimmerman (1996-2000), and David Ellenson (2001-present).  

Attitude Toward Zionism  

Wise’s belief that America had provided a home for European Jews was also clear as Zionism began to gather strength at the end of the 19th Century. At the 1897 Central Conference of American Rabbis, Wise criticized the advocacy for a Jewish state, saying, “We are perfectly satisfied with our political and social position ... We want freedom, equality, justice and equity to reign and govern the community in which we live. This we possess in such fullness, that no state whatever could improve upon it. That new Messianic movement over the ocean does not concern us at all. But the same expatriated, persecuted and outrageously wronged people came in large numbers also to us, still imbued with their home ideas, ideals and beliefs ... and compromised in the eyes of the public the whole of American Judaism as the fantastic dupes of a thoughtless Utopia which is to us a fata morgana, a momentary inebriation of morbid minds, a prostitution of Israel’s holy cause to a madman’s dance of unsound politicians.”  

A Life of Accomplishment  

Even Wise’s critics were unable to deny his self-confidence and magnetism that propelled him to successfully build a religious movement. In March 1879, the New York “Jewish Messenger,” a weekly generally opposed to Wise, published a description of a service held in Wise’s temple: “A tall man, whom we had not previously noticed, slowly arose from his seat on the platform, and with slow, almost unsteady gait, ascended the pulpit. A tall, lean man, with stooping shoulders, and walking as if he were suffering physical pain. His full black dress coat sat loosely around him — it was not an impressive figure. A lofty forehead, a pair of brilliant blue eyes, were the only marks of beauty on his otherwise uninteresting countenance. Nervously, his hand grasped the pulpit, as if his body needed support in the mental exercise that was to follow. The text was given out in a low, undetermined voice. But as soon as the first words fell from the preacher’s lips, his hand forsook its hold, his stooping shoulders raised, his eyes became still more brilliant, his form became erect, his nostrils elated, and a mighty man stood before my astonished eyes! His whole face lit up with the electricity of mental exercise, and as the words rushed from his mouth in a mighty current, I recognized Isaac M. Wise. It was a masterly effort, though not a new one. Perhaps in that moment, when he discoursed upon ‘Prophecy,’ the good doctor was not aware that years before he had laid down the same principles in the third chapter of his ‘Origin of Christianity.’ But his old principles, dressed in fresh thought, and presented in sturdy, solid English, fell delightfully from the lips of the man who had revolutionized Western Judaism during the last two decades. And there was not a soul amongst the vast audience who for three quarters of an hour did not follow the lecturer with the closest attention. It is no surprise to me now that Dr. Wise is the idol of thousands.”  

Americanization of Jewish Life  

Wise spent his waning years in a mood of accomplishment, but he never stopped working even in his last days. On March 24, 1900, he preached at the synagogue and taught at the college. When he rose at the end of the class, he suffered a stroke and died two days later.  

Wise’s most significant contribution has been the Americanization of Jewish life in America: the insistence that Jews throw off the weight of European rituals and attitudes, and instead embrace an American religion adapted to the mores and values of the New World. It was from these basic values that Wise grounded his career as one of the most important American rabbis for half a century. A founder of American Reform Judaism, Wise was also the driving force behind the Reform movement’s most important bodies, including its theological seminary and synagogal association. •  

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