Stephen Samuel Wise was born in Budapest in 1874, but as a child emigrated to New York, where he received his Jewish and secular education. He was ordained as a rabbi in the new Jewish Theological Seminary and went on to become a Reform rabbi. However, unlike most Reform rabbis and congregants at that time, Wise was a Zionist. He attended the Second Zionist Congress in 1898 and was elected to the General Actions Committee. However, his disappointment with the movement's attitude to the North American Jewish scene led him to withdraw from active involvement.
In 1914, when Louis Brandeis headed the American Zionist movement, Wise became his key lieutenant. Two years later, he became Chairperson of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs and was instrumental in influencing President Woodrow Wilson to support the Balfour Declaration.
In 1925, Wise became Chairperson of the United Israel Appeal whilst he continued his efforts to win the Reform movement around to a proZionist stance. With the rise to power of the Hitler regime, Wise took the position that public opinion in the United States and elsewhere should be rallied against the Nazis. He, along with Leo Motzkin, encouraged the establishment of the World Jewish Congress to create a broader representative body to fight Nazism. He used his influence with President Franklin Roosevelt both in this area as well as on the EretzIsrael question.
During the war years, Wise was elected cochairperson of the American Zionist Emergency Council, but due to differences with Abba Hillel-Silver and the growing militancy of the Zionist movement, Wise found himself increasingly isolated. He was, appointed special representative of the Jewish Agency to the United Nations Conference in San Francisco in 1945 and testified before the AngloAmerican Commission in 1946. At the 22nd Zionist Congress, Wise supported his old ally Chaim Weizmann, but he, too, was in decline.
Stephen Wise died in New York on April 19, 1949.