Isaac Mayer Wise
(1819 - 1900)
Isaac Mayer Wise was America's outstanding Jew and
leading rabbi during the 19th Century. His major achievements were the
establishment of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873, the
Hebrew Union College in 1875, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis
Wise was the oldest son of Regina and Leo Weiss, and was
born on March 29, 1819, in Steingrub, Bohemia (currently a part of
Czechoslovakia). He was a brilliant student, and at the age of nine, his
father, a teacher, had taught him all he knew about the Bible and the
Talmud. He then went to study with his grandfather, a physician, who died
three years later. Weiss continued his studies in the Talmud and the Bible
at various schools. He completed his formal education by attending the
University of Prague and the University of Vienna for three years.
At the age of 23, in 1842, he appeared before a Beth Din
- or a rabbinical court - of three well-known rabbis: Solomon Judah
Rappaport, Samuel Freund, and Ephraim Loeb Teweles, who together conferred
on him the title of rabbi. Two years later, he married Therese Bloch, who
gave birth to ten children by him.
Wise found that being a rabbi in Bohemia brought him
problems with the government, because of the restrictions still in force
against the Jews. He decided to come to America because of its religious
freedom, arriving in New York on July 23, 1846. At this time, he decided to
change his name to Wise from its original German spelling, Weiss.
Wise became the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Albany,
N.Y. He was there four years, initiating new reforms in the religious
services. He introduced choral singing, confirmation to replace Bar
Mitzvah, and the seating of men and women together in pews for
His changes resulted in much disapproval. In 1850, on
the morning of the beginning of Rosh
Hashanah that evening, Wise was dismissed at a rump meeting of the
board of directors. The next day havoc broke loose between his followers
and those who opposed him. Soon after, a group broke away from Beth El and,
with Rabbi Wise, established a new Reform synagogue called Anshe Emet -
"men of truth."
In 1854, Wise went to Cincinnati, Ohio, to become rabbi
of Beth K.K. B'nai Yeshurun, a Reform congregation. (Since 1931, the temple has been known as the Isaac M. Wise Temple.) He stayed there the rest of his
life. it was from there that he tried creating a national organization of
congregations. He found this a difficult task, as the Orthodox rabbis were at odds with the Reform
movement. Nevertheless, despite his setbacks, Wise continued to
advocate a union of congregations, a common prayer book, and a college to
educate and train American rabbis.
Parts of his dreams came true when, in 1873, delegates
from 34 Reform congregations met in Cincinnati and organized the Union of
American Hebrew Congregations. Two years later, in July 1875, the Union
established the Hebrew Union College, the first Jewish seminary in the
United States. Wise became its president and teacher.
Wise was also an organizer and mover in the
establishment of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in 1889.
Elected its president, he served until he died. This conference adopted the
Union Prayer Book that would be used by all Reform congregations.
Isaac Mayer Wise died on March 26, 1900. He was a
pioneer Reform rabbi who tried to unite American Jewry, as well as a mover
in establishing the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Hebrew Union
College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
See also Isaac Mayer
Wise from the Judaic Treasures of
the Library of Congress
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of
American heroism included in Jewish
Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish
Heroism, © 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.
Heroes and Heroines in America