Stephen Samuel Wise (1874-1949), American Jewish religious leader and Zionist, played an important role in Jewish communal affairs.
Stephen S. Wise was born on March 17, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, into a family with a long tradition of rabbinic leadership. He was brought to the United States in 1875. After graduating from Columbia University in 1892, he pursued postgraduate studies at Oxford and rabbinical studies in Vienna, where he was ordained by the chief rabbi of Vienna. He received his doctorate from Columbia in 1902. In 1900 he married Louise Waterman. Wise's scholarly work included an English translation (1901) of the Book of Judges for the Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society of America in 1917.
Wise's first ministerial post was Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in New York City (1893-1899). He then became rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Portland, Ore. In 1906 he returned to New York City and founded the Free Synagogue, of which he was spiritual leader until his death. Feeling a need for a seminary in New York to train students for the liberal rabbinate, Wise founded the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1922 and served as its president until it merged with Hebrew Union College in 1948.
Wise's career was marked by a long and distinguished record of service to the American public. In Oregon he had been active in civic affairs and served as commissioner of child labor. In New York City he became active in efforts to improve municipal government and served as a member of the City Affairs Committee. He fought to better the lot of the workingman and was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Active in interfaith activities, he inaugurated, with his close friend Protestant minister John Haynes Holmes, a series of nonsectarian services. Wise participated actively in various presidential campaigns, supporting Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. He was appointed to the President's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees (1940) and to the President's Commission on Higher Education (1946). He numbered among his friends the Supreme Court justices Benjamin Cardozo and Louis Brandeis, both of whom worked with Wise in the Zionist movement.
It was in the area of Jewish communal affairs that Wise made his greatest contributions. He was a lifelong Zionist and devoted much time to the development of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1897 he was among the founders of the Federation of American Zionists. In 1898 he attended the Second Zionist Congress in Basel and met—and was greatly influenced by—Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement. Herzl appointed him American secretary of the Zionist Organization. Wise first visited Palestine in 1913, returning again in 1922 and 1935. In 1914, with Brandeis, he established the Provisional Committee for General Zionist Affairs. In 1918 he was elected to a 2-year term as president of the Zionist Organization of America and served a second term in 1936.
As a leader of the Zionist movement, Wise represented the movement on many historic occasions. He advised Woodrow Wilson with regard to the British government's Balfour Declaration, which supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine (1917). He attended the Paris Peace Conference (1918) and the London Conference of Arabs and Jews (1939). Also, he testified before the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine (1946). When British policy in Palestine during the 1930s and 1940s became increasingly anti-Jewish, Wise fought against it, and as early as 1930 he had written The Great Betrayal, with Jacob de Haas. In 1947 Wise fought for the adoption of the Palestine Partition Plan, which brought about the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
In 1916, together with Brandeis and others, Wise founded the American Jewish Congress, and in 1936 he founded the World Jewish Congress. He served both congresses as president until his death. In the 1930s he played a leading role in mobilizing American opposition to the Nazis and in focusing attention on the Jewish refugee problem created by Nazi persecution. During the 1940s he brought reports on the Nazi efforts to exterminate European Jewry to public attention. Wise died on April 19, 1949.
Further Reading on Stephen Samuel Wise
The main source of information on Wise is his autobiography, Challenging Years (1949). This is supplemented by two collections of his correspondence: Personal Letters, edited by Wise's children, Justine Wise Polier and James Waterman Wise (1956); and Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the People, selected letters edited by the Protestant clergyman Carl Hermann Voss (1969). Voss also wrote an account of Wise's friendship with John Haynes Holmes, Rabbi and Minister (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Shapiro, Robert Donald, A reform rabbi in the progressive era: the early career of Stephen S. Wise, New York: Garland Pub., 1988.
Urofsky, Melvin I., A voice that spoke for justice: the life and times of Stephen S. Wise, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
Voss, Carl Hermann, Rabbi and minister: the friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1980.