Stephen Samuel Wise and the Jews of America

Stephen S. Wise and son (1918). Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Stephen S. Wise and son (1918). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

A presentation on the life and work of Stephen Samuel Wise (1874-1949), an important American communal leader. The lecture will take a broader focus, looking at the history of Jewish settlement in the United States during the 19th century and the major issues facing this immigrant community through the middle of the twentieth century.  The lecture was held at Young Israel of Bal Harbour.


Notes from the Presentation:

Stephen Samuel Wise

Henry Abramson

Touro College South

Young Israel of Bal harbour

Stephen Silver Wise

Born Budapest 1874

Reform Rabbi

Major Jewish Activist

American Zionist

Controversial leadership during Holocaust

Died 1949

Haredi to Neolog

Long line of Rabbis

Grandfather Joseph Hirsch Weisz ultra-Orthodox

Father Aaron also ultra-Orthodox, immigrates to USA and becomes founding member of Jewish Theological Seminary

Stephen Samuel Wise prominent Reform leader, founder of Jewish Institute of Religion (later merges with Hebrew Union College)

The Denominational Spectrum

Immigration to the USA

Father Aaron Rabbi, social liberal

Attempts to unionize workers in father-in-law’s porcelain factory

Father-in-law buys him one-way ticket to New York

German vs Eastern European immigration

Earliest Jewish immigrants: Sefardic Jews

German Jews mid-19th century

Massive wave of Eastern European Jewry after 1881


Ordination 1893 (Adolph Jellinek of Vienna)

Columbia PhD, 1901

Dissertation: translation of Shlomo ibn Gabriol

American mid-century model of “Scholar-Rabbi”


Married Louise Waterman, 1900, took position at Temple in Portland, Oregon

Disciple of Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture movement

Translator, author, social activist

Son author, art specialist (wrote biography of mother)

Daughter author, judge, advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt

The Free pulpit

1906 turned down offer to lead Congregation Emanu-el over issue of a “free pulpit”

Returns to Oregon but comes back to NYC one year later, founds The Free Synagogue

Free pulpit, free seats

American Liberalism

Co-founder of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, 1909)

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, 1920)

Promoted labor causes, attacked corruption

forced resignation of New York mayor James Walker (1932)

Founded and led American Jewish Congress (more activist than American Jewish Committee)

American Zionism

Classical Reform position on Zionism

Founded New York Federation of Zionist Societies (1897)

Worked closely with Herzl

American secretary in World Zionist Congress in Basle (1898)

Involved in drafting text of the Balfour declaration

Ethnic Voting Patterns, 2008

Jewish Denominational Voting Patterns (2008)

International Politics

Close to President Wilson

Represented Zionism at Versailles Peace Conference


Multiple volumes of memoirs, speeches, sermons

Leadership During the Holocaust


How much pressure to put on Roosevelt, State Department?

Advocated strong anti-Nazi policy since 1930s, but criticized for tepid response during war

The Riegner Telegram

August 1942

Telegram addressed to Wise, but intercepted at State Department

Confirmed existence of the “Final Solution”

Wise received it from British parliament


Met with Roosevelt in 1943

30 minutes, mainly Roosevelt talking

Should Wise have invoked his fiery rhetoric and public persona?


Defining American Jewish liberalism for a century

Defining American Jewish Zionism

5 thoughts on “Stephen Samuel Wise and the Jews of America

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  1. Dear Dr. Abramson, I am not exaggerating : your Stephen Samuel Wise lesson is so full of fascinating info, thanks! (and I LOVED your Tomer Devorah #1 & 2, “The Insulted King”, for us to stop abusing HaShem’s energy He gives us while committing sins, excellent Sir.)

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