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March 17: Rabbi Stephen S. Wise

March 16, 2016

s_wiseReform rabbi and Zionist leader Stephen S. Wise was born in Budapest on this date in 1874. He came to New York as an infant when his rabbi father took the pulpit at Congregation Beyt Israel Anshei Emes in Brooklyn and then Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Wise earned a Ph.D at Columbia before pursuing rabbinical studies; he launched his rabbinical career in Oregon in 1900. Active in many social causes of the Progressive Era, he established New York’s Free Synagogue in 1907 and helped turn Reform Judaism towards dedicated social action work. Unlike most Reform Jews, he was also an early supporter of Zionism and worked closely with Theodor Herzl until Herzl’s death in 1904. Wise was a co-founder of the NAACP in 1909; a co-founder of the American Jewish Congress in 1918; and a founder of the Reform seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion, in 1922. He was perhaps most influential as an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and as an early opponent of Nazism, against which he helped to organize an American boycott in 1933. Wise urged Roosevelt to support unrestricted Jewish emigration to Palestine and to admit more Jewish refugees into the United States -- but his “attempts to unify the American Jewish community ultimately failed,” according to the online encyclopedia of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “as conservative Jews opposed his anti-German militancy, his Zionism, his vocal liberalism, and his support for the ‘New Deal’.” In general, Wise has been criticized by historians for his overly cautious approach to rescue of European Jews and his skepticism towards news of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” It is “ironic that Wise, who, despite his privileged background, was considered a radical earlier in his career,” came to be “considered too much of an establishment moderate, too weak, and too close to Roosevelt.”

“The time for prudence and caution is past. We must speak up like men. How can we ask our Christian friends to lift their voices in protest against the wrongs suffered by Jews if we keep silent? What is happening in Germany today may happen tomorrow in any other land on earth unless it is challenged and rebuked. It is not the German Jews who are being attacked. It is the Jews”