Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise was a leader in the Zionist movement and a social reformer who created the bridge between the old established American Jewish community and the eastern European immigrants who came here at the beginning of the 20th century. Wise was born March 17, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, the eldest son of Sabine and Rabbi Aaron Weiss. His family came to the United States when he was an infant. His father became the religious leader of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in New York City, and the family decided to change its name to Wise.
Stephen Wise was educated in New York City and entered City College at the age of 15. His Jewish education was provided by his father and later he studied under other rabbis, including the chief rabbi of Vienna, Adolph Jellinek. In 1893, Stephen Wise was ordained a rabbi. He married Louise Waterman in New York City in 1900 and they had two children, James and Justine. He worked as an assistant rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun while attending Columbia University, where he received his doctorate in 1901. He became interested in social causes and supported a Brooklyn transit strike, fought against prostitution and gambling, and supported reform candidates.
Wise found himself in the national spotlight when he refused an offer to become the rabbi of the prestigious Temple Emanu-El in New York City because the congregation denied his demand for a free pulpit. A year later, in 1907, Wise founded the Free Synagogue in New York City, where there were no restrictions of any kind on the pulpit. He served there for 43 years.
Wise was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. He also became involved in mediation and arbitration of labor disputes. In 1911, he was greatly affected by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, in which 146 women lost their lives. He fought against sweatshops and unsafe factories.
Wise became interested in Zionism, and in 1897, he and others founded the Federation of American Zionists. He traveled abroad to attend Zionist conferences and pledged to Theodor Herzl that he would devote his life to Zionism. In 1918, Wise was elected president of the newly formed Zionist Organization of America. In 1925, he was chosen to become president of the American Jewish Congress, a position that he held until his death in 1949.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Wise organized Jews and non- Jews against Nazi Germany. Wise held a rally at Madison Square Garden, at which he called for a boycott of German goods. The fight against Hitler led to the formation of the World Jewish Congress.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 18 October 2006