Stephen Samuel Wise was an American Reform rabbi and Zionist leader.
Wise was born in Budapest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the son and grandson of rabbis. His grandfather, Joseph Hirsch Weiss, was Chief Rabbi of a small town near Budapest. His father, Aaron Wise, earned a PhD and ordination in Europe, and emigrated to the United States to serve as rabbi of Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes in Brooklyn, New York. Wise's maternal grandfather, Móric Fischer de Farkasházy, created the Herend Porcelain Company. When Wise's father Aaron Wise sought to unionize the company, Moric gave the family one-way tickets to New York.
Wise immigrated to New York as an infant with his family. His father became rabbi of Rodeph Sholom, a Manhattan Conservative congregation of wealthy German Jews.
Wise studied at the College of the City of New York, Columbia College (B.A. 1892), and Columbia University (PhD 1901), and later pursued rabbinical studies under rabbis Richard J. H. Gottheil, Kohut, Gersoni, Joffe, and Margolis. In 1933, Wise received an L.H.D. from Bates College.
In 1893, he was appointed assistant to Rabbi Henry S. Jacobs of the Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, New York City, and later in the same year, minister to the same congregation. In 1900, he launched his career as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon; typical of the activists of the Progressive Era, he attacked "many of the social and political ills of contemporary America." In 1906, concerning another rabbinical appointment, Wise made a major break with the established Reform movement over the "question whether the pulpit shall be free or whether the pulpit shall not be free, and, by reason of its loss of freedom, reft of its power for good"; in 1907 he established his Free Synagogue, starting the "free Synagogue" movement.
Rabbi Wise was an early supporter of Zionism, and his support for, and commitment to Political Zionism was very atypical of Reform Judaism, which was historically and decidedly non-Zionist since the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885. He was a founder of the New York Federation of Zionist Societies in 1897, which led in the formation of the national Federation of American Zionists (FAZ), a forerunner of the Zionist Organization of America. At the Second Zionist Congress (Basel, 1898), he was a delegate and secretary for the English language. Wise served as honorary secretary of FAZ, in close cooperation with Theodor Herzl until the latter's death in 1904.
Wise, joining U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and others laid the groundwork for a democratically elected nationwide organization of 'ardently Zionist' Jews, 'to represent Jews as a group and not as individuals'. In 1918, following national elections, this Jewish community convened the first American Jewish Congress in Philadelphia's historic Independence Hall.
In 1902 Wise officiated as first vice-president of the Oregon State Conference of Charities and Correction. In 1903 he was appointed Commissioner of Child Labor for the State of Oregon, and founded the Peoples' Forum of Oregon. These activities initiated a lifelong commitment to social justice, stemming from his embrace of a Jewish equivalent of the Social Gospel movement in Christianity.
In 1914 Wise co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In A History of Jews in America historian Howard Sachar wrote, "In 1914, Professor Emeritus Joel Spingarn of Columbia University became chairman of the NAACP and recruited for its board such Jewish leaders as Jacob Schiff, Jacob Billikopf, and Rabbi Stephen Wise." Other Jewish co-founders included Julius Rosenwald, Lillian Wald, and Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch.
Doctor Stephen S. Wise, Rabbi of the Free Synagogue, and his son worked as laborers in the shipbuilding yards of the Luder Marine Construction Company, Stamford, CT during World War I
In 1922 Wise founded the Jewish Institute of Religion, an educational center in New York City to train rabbis in Reform Judaism. It was merged into the Hebrew Union College a year after his death. In 1922 Wise was one of the founding trustees of the Palestine Endowment Funds, Inc., along with Julian Mack.
When the Federation of American Zionists (FAZ) was originally established, Wise was appointed the position secretary. After the organization transformed into the Zionist Organization of America, Rabbi Wise fulfilled positions as both president and vice president during his lifetime.
Wise was a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who turned to Wise for advice on issues concerning the Jewish community in the United States. In addition, Wise had also acted a liaison to previous President Wilson.
At the 1924 Democratic National Convention, he was a delegate from New York; at the opening of the sixth session on June 28, 1924, he offered the invocation.
In 1925 Wise became chairman of Keren Hayesod, while continuing efforts to bring the Reform movement around to a pro-Zionist stance. With the rise to power of Adolf Hitler's regime, Wise took the position that public opinion in the United States and elsewhere should be rallied against the Nazis. He used his influence with President Roosevelt both in this area as well as on the Zionist question.
In 1933 while acting as honorary president of the American Jewish Congress, Wise led efforts for a Jewish Boycott of Germany. He stated "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". Urged by Wise to protest to the German government, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull issued a mild statement to the American ambassador to Berlin complaining that "unfortunate incidents have indeed occurred and the whole world joins in regretting them."
Wise, along with Leo Motzkin and Nahum Goldmann, encouraged the creation in August 1936 of the World Jewish Congress in order to create a broader representative body to fight Nazism. Wise served as founding president of the World Jewish Congress president until his death in 1949. He was succeeded by his friend Nahum Goldmann.
On November 24, 1942, after being informed by U.S. Under-secretary of State Sumner Welles, Wise held a press conference in Washington, D.C. and announced that the Nazis had a plan for the extermination of all European Jews, and had already killed 2 million; it didn't make front page news. The information was based on the Riegner Telegram, a message sent to Wise in August 1942 by Gerhart M Riegner, then representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, informing the Allies about the so-called "Final Solution of the Jewish question", the German plan to exterminate the European Jews, for the first time.
Wise was an ardent opponent of plans to create a Jewish community in Suriname. In a letter to Keren Hayesod emissary Ida Silverman he wrote, "I personally believe, that Steinberg needs to be lynched or hanged and quartered, if that would make his lamented demise more certain." Isaac Nachman Steinberg being the co-founder of the Freeland League, a territorialist organization that was leading negotiations with the Surinamese government.
During the war years, Wise was elected co-chair of the American Zionist Emergency Council, a forerunner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Wise died on April 19, 1949, in New York City, aged 75. He is interred in an unmarked mausoleum in Westchester Hills Cemetery located in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, which he founded in 1907 and served as Rabbi until his death, is named after him, as is Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, which was founded by Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin in 1964. A street is named after him in Jerusalem next to the Israel Museum.