The Life, Work and Lasting Impact of R. Isaac Mayer Wise (Bio & Video)

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the Hebrew Union College and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), was born in Steingrub, Bohemia on March 20, 1819. Isaac Mayer Wise received a traditional Jewish education. He came to America in 1846 and soon began serving as rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Albany, New York. While in Albany, Wise implemented reforms such as an abbreviated service, mixed gender choir, and a weekly sermon. After a much-publicized break with the congregational leadership, Wise and some of his Albany constituents established a new temple, Congregation Anshe Emeth, where he insisted on a then radical innovation: freedom of the pulpit. It was at Anshe Emeth that the first appearance of “family” pews – mixed gender seating – in American Reform occurs. 

In 1854, Wise was invited to become the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (known today as Isaac M. Wise Temple) in Cincinnati. He insisted on receiving a lifetime appointment as a condition for accepting the post in what, at that time, was the largest city west of the Allegheny Mountains and one of the largest Jewish communities in America. Wise flourished in Cincinnati, remaining there until his death in 1900.

For fifty-four years, Wise was a charismatic leader on the pulpit, delivering fiery sermons and sharing his reforming spirit with congregants and those he encountered. As publisher of The Israelite, which he established in 1854, and contributor to numerous publications, Wise became a national voice who advocated for unification of the burgeoning American Jewish community. He commented with authority on public events and advocated for social causes.

Isaac M. Wise recognized the unique character of the growing American Jewish community. Even prior to his arrival in Cincinnati, Wise argued for the creation of a seminary that would train students to serve in pulpits for a united American Jewry. Over time, Wise came to believe that he could succeed in funding a Jewish theological school by establishing a congregational union that would provide an annual source of dependable income. In the Summer of 1873, 28 congregational leaders met in Cincinnati to establish the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), whose mission was to establish a “Hebrew Theological Institute.” Wise’s long sought-after ambition came to fruition in the Fall of 1875, when Hebrew Union College (HUC) held its opening exercises at Plum Street Temple, and its first classes, with nine young students, in the basement of Bene Israel’s Mound Street Temple (known today as Rockdale Temple). In 1880, HUC purchased a private mansion on West Sixth Street located near the Reform temples. The building was dedicated in April 1881 and served HUC until the move to its current location on Clifton Avenue in 1912.

The number of HUC’s faculty, students, and alumni, along with the institution’s own resources, had grown as well. HUC’s library, established at the College’s founding, increased greatly in size by the end of the nineteenth century. At the time of Wise’s death, the faculty consisted of nine eminent scholars, two of whom were graduates of HUC, 64 alumni in the field, and a total of 73 students attending classes.

Isaac Mayer Wise was, without question, one of the most significant and influential American Jewish leaders during the last half of the nineteenth century. His creative and ambitious hand touched virtually every aspect of Jewish communal life. His accomplishments were many: he published his own prayer book, Minhag Amerika (1857); established the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889); and was a prolific writer, penning numerous books, articles, editorials, and fiction. Wise was a visionary, organizer, and unifier.

Timeline of Relevant Events:

1825: Isaac M. Wise  moved to Durmaul. Here he attended a Jewish “trivial school” and received personal instruction from his grandfather until 1831.

1831: Isaac M. Wise arrived in Prague. 

1834: Isaac Mayer Wise left Prague for the Yeshiva in the Braun area of Bohemia, where he remained for 12 months before returning to Prague.

1835: Isaac M. Wise began rabbinical training in Goltsch-Jenikau, Bohemia, under Rabbi Aaron Kornfeld, at a relatively progressive yeshiva in Europe. Two years later, the Austrian government issued a decree requiring all students to achieve a university education prior to becoming a rabbi. Thus, Wise broadened his education by attending universities in Prague, Vienna and Hungary. 

1843: Wise took his first pulpit position in Radnitz, Bohemia. He quickly became dissatisfied with his life as a rabbi in Bohemia, part of the Austrian Empire. The discriminatory Austrian government restricted freedoms for Jews. One such restriction limited the number of Jewish families that were allowed to live in a town. It required Jews to receive authorization to form a household and have children. Wise rebelled against this practice by officiating at unauthorized weddings.  Another reason for his displeasure were the cumbersome rules of the rabbinical authorities, which he disdained by performing rabbinical functions without informing the district rabbi. His frustrations led to his resolve to immigrate to America.   

1846: Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York. His first pulpit in the United States was at Congregation Beth El in Albany, New York, where he remained from 1846 to 1850. Here he found many allies in his attempts to reform Judaism, while at the same time drawing the battle lines against medieval orthodoxy through his fiery sermons. Some of Wise’s reforms in Albany included introducing a mixed choir, deleting certain prayers from the service and preaching a weekly sermon. He also insisted that his congregants observe Shabbat, opened a school to educate Jewish children, limited the selling of mitzvot, and introduced family seating and decorum into services.

Soon the congregation split into two camps: orthodox and reform. This enmity culminated with the unfortunate fistfight incident. Wise, following the terms of his contract, attempted to deliver a sermon on Rosh Hashanah against the president’s will. Before Wise could begin his sermon he was stopped by a punch to his face from the president. The punch led to a general melee and concluded with Wise and his allies forming a new congregation in Albany, Congregation Anshe Emet.

1848: Wise’s first public reference to a Hebrew college and a union of congregations appears in the Occident. It takes him over 25 more years and extraordinary perseverance to achieve this dreams.

1852: Isaac Mayer Wise becomes the second Jew in the United States to open a legislative body with prayer when he officiates as chaplain in the New York State Senate.

1854: Isaac M. Wise moved to Cincinnati to fulfill a life-time pulpit position at B’nai Yeshurun. When Wise received an invitation to become the rabbi of B’nai Yeshurun in Cincinnati, he realized that he desired the “broad, healthful and youthful West” to cultivate his vision. After negotiating a favorable contract that included a lifetime appointment, he accepted the offer and moved with his family to Cincinnati. Cincinnati at the time was a progressive and burgeoning city, with little prejudice against Jews. The Jewish community was the oldest west of the Allegheny mountains, but it was the newly arrived and energetic German Jews who formed B’nai Yesuhrun. This congregation’s continued support and acceptance of Wise over the years were what enabled him to pursue his dreams and achieve his many accomplishments.

Summer 1854: Wise inaugurates The Israelite, an English language Jewish journal, to “…build up a Judaism suited to the age and breathing the atmosphere of American freedom…”

1855: Isaac Mayer Wise launches Die Deborah, a German language supplement to The Israelite, in July 1855.

October 17-24, 1855: Isaac Mayer Wise presides over a conference of rabbis and congregational delegates in Cleveland.

1857: Minhag Amerika, a prayerbook partially authored by Isaac Mayer Wise and intended to be used by all congregations in the United States, is published.

1873: Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founds the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) in Cincinnati, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). The UAHC later allocates funding to the creation of the Hebrew Union College. It is organized at a meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio in July 1873, with an original membership of 27 synagogues.

Convinced that a union of congregations was needed to support a Jewish theological institution, Wise sets the stones to found the UAHC. He saw the union as an instrument for Jewish defense, and most importantly, the development of a common worship mode and harmonious relationships between all parties.  

1875: The Opening Exercises of Hebrew Union College are held at Bene Yeshurun Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. The centerpiece of Isaac M. Wise’s  vision for the future of American Judaism was the education of future rabbis. Since America did not have its own school to train rabbis, all Jewish rabbis and educators were imported from Germany. In Wise’s words: “In twenty years an American Jew will speak English only as a rule. We will have no English preachers. England educates none. America educates none. No preachers will be equivalent to no synagogues and no temples. In twenty years you will need none.” 

Wise also deeply appreciated the liberty and equality that America offered, and understood that such freedoms evoke a new essence of Judaism. He was determined to liberate Jews from their old narrow religion and elevate them to the level of equal and independent citizens. Again in his own words: “We ought to be American Israelites, i.e. Americans as men and citizens, and Israelites in our religion…Let us educate our ministers here in our own college, and we will soon have American ministers, American congregations, and an American Union of Israelites for religious and charitable institutions. Let us have American trained leaders, and they will educate us for American citizens.”

The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives has produced a 10-minute video illuminating the life, work and lasting impact of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise—the pioneering architect of American Reform Judaism. It was created in commemoration of the bicentennial of Rabbi Wise’s birth. This program can be used to teach teens, young adult and adult learners throughout the country about Rabbi Wise—a visionary who hoped his work would be “remembered for a century”. How about TWO centuries and still going strong?! Enjoy…
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