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Wise, Stephen Samuel
Born: March 17, 1874
Died: April 19, 1949 in New York, New York, United States
Other Names: Wise, Stephen S.
Nationality: American
Occupation: Rabbi
Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 21. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. p100-103.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Keter Publishing House Ltd.
Full Text: 
Page 100

WISE, STEPHEN SAMUEL

WISE, STEPHEN SAMUEL (1874–1949), U.S. rabbi and Zionist leader. Born in Budapest, Hungary, Wise was taken to the United States at the age of 17 months. From childhood he was determined to become a rabbi like his father, Rabbi Aaron Wise, who, together with Alexander *Kohut and Gustav *Gottheil , rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, helped to prepare him for the rabbinate. He was graduated with honors from Columbia University at the age of 18. Ordained in 1893 by Adolph *Jellinek of Vienna , he became assistant rabbi of New York City's Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, and assumed full responsibility after the death of Rabbi Henry S. Jacobs.

In 1900, shortly before marrying Louise Waterman, Wise became rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon, where for the next six years he pioneered in interfaith cooperation,Page 101  |  Top of Article social service, and civic leadership. His sermons are collected in Beth Israel Pulpit: Sermons (2 vols., (1905–06). He also served as unpaid commissioner of child labor for Oregon.

In 1902 Wise received his Ph.D. degree from Columbia University for his translation and editing of Solomon ibn Gabirol's Improvement of the Moral Qualities. For the Jewish Publication Society he translated the Book of Judges for their English version of the Bible, submitting his work in 1908.

Wise had begun his Zionist career during the late 1890s, helping to articulate the movement's ideology and organize its followers. A founder of the New York Federation of Zionist Societies in 1897, he led in the formation of the nationwide Federation of American Zionists in 1898 and served as honorary secretary until 1904, in close cooperation with Theodor Herzl. He had met Herzl at the Second Zionist Congress in Basle in 1898 and at that time agreed to serve as American secretary of the world Zionist movement. In 1914 he was instrumental in creating the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs and later headed it.

He acted as an important intermediary to President Woodrow *Wilson and Colonel Edward House in 1916–19, when, with Louis D. *Brandeis and Felix *Frankfurter , he helped formulate the text of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. He spoke on behalf of Zionist aspirations in Palestine at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1918–19, where he also pleaded for the cause of the Armenian people. He was vice president of the Zionist Organization of America from 1918 to 1920 and president from 1936 to 1938. On several occasions he served as chairman of the United Palestine Appeal. Though he worked closely with Chaim *Weizmann , David *Ben-Gurion , and Abba Hillel *Silver , he often disagreed with them on specific policies and broke relations with Weizmann in the 1920s and with Silver in the 1940s. His views at times conflicted with those of the Zionist organizations as well. Yet Wise always sought unity for the movement, which did not at that time have the backing of a united Jewry or the sympathy of the non-Jewish community. His Great Betrayal (1930), written with Jacob De Haas, reviews the history of British policy toward Palestine up to the Passfield White Paper in 1930.

To direct American Jews into pro-Zionist channels, lead them to more liberal objectives in the United States, and create a more democratic base in American Jewish life, Wise led in the organization of the American Jewish Congress, first on a provisional basis in 1916–19, then more permanently in 1920; he served as vice president in 1921–25 and as president or honorary president until his death. It was regarded as an alternative to the more established and more quiescent American Jewish Committee, which was dominated by the German-Jewish establishment that had been in the United States for a generation or more. The American Jewish Congress was more activist and more public in its protests.

Wise sounded the first warnings of the dangers of Nazism to the Jewish and non-Jewish world and sought to organize opposition to it and protection for the victims of Hitler. He organized a movement to boycott German goods in 1933, seeing it as appropriate public protest, against the advice of some German Jews in Germany who urged caution and that American Jews not to be provocative. In 1936 he organized the World Jewish Congress and headed it until his death in 1949. As a Zionist leader, president of the American and World Jewish Congresses, and co-chairman of the *American Jewish Conference , he presented the Jewish cause to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. State Department, as well as to the general public, Jewish and non-Jewish. He was the recipient of the all important telegram from Gerhart Riegner that was sent to him in August 1942 via the State Department but never delivered to him. He received it from a second source, Samuel Silverman, a member of the British Parliament, It said:

That there has been and is being considered in Hitler's headquarters a plan to exterminate all Jews from Germany and German controlled areas in Europe after they have been concentrated in the east. The number involved is said to be between three and a half and four million and the object to permanently settle the Jewish question in Europe.

The telegram spoke explicitly of Zyklon B. It should be noted that the telegram that Wise received, important as it was, was already long out of date. The Final Solution was already operative policy of Germany in all occupied territories. At Wannsee, the list was of 11 million Jews and the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were fully operative, the deportation of the Jews of Warsaw had began more than a month before.

Wise took this information to the State Department, which informed him that they already knew of it but could not confirm it; they requested that he not go public with the information until it could be confirmed. In November they confirmed this information to him and Wise did go public, but the State Department did not confirm it to the press, so Wise's release of this information was unofficial, from a Jewish rather than a governmental source.

Wise led the one meeting that the Jews had with President Roosevelt in 1943, which lasted some half an hour. It began with some banter between the president and Wise, and then a prayer was recited. Wise presented the president with a briefing paper, and the president indicated that he knew what was happening. He asked for concrete suggestions and there were few. The president then spoke for almost all the remaining time and, at the end of the allotted time, the meeting was interrupted by staff and concluded.

History has not been kind to Wise, who tried to lead a divided American Jewish community during the most perilous time in Jewish history. He was known in his day as an activist who had been protesting Nazism at its inception and led Stop Hitler Now rallies in 1943 and onward. Yet he is regarded by the younger generation as a symbol of ineffective and timid Jewish leadership, just when boldness and brilliance were required. He is regarded as too close to President Roosevelt and reluctant to criticize him for fear of woundingPage 102  |  Top of Article him politically. Some, but not all, of the criticism is unfair, as many who write judge him by the power and influence of the Jewish community in the last third of the 20th century and not by the reality of his time.

Beyond his public role lay the commitment to his vocation as a rabbi. Wise first sprang into national prominence in 1906 when, after preaching trial sermons at Congregation Emanu-El in New York City, he rejected overtures to serve as rabbi because his demand for a "free pulpit," not subject to control by a board of trustees, was refused. His famous "Open Letter to the Members of Temple Emanu-El of New York on the Freedom of the Jewish Pulpit" is reprinted in his autobiography, Challenging Years (1949, pp. 86–94), with a discussion of Louis Marshall's denial that the congregation had called Wise to its pulpit (cf. Louis Marshall, Champion of Liberty: Selected Papers and Addresses, vol. 2, 1957, note pp. 831–7). A year later he returned from Oregon to New York and founded the Free Synagogue, based on freedom of pulpit, free pews to all without fixed dues, outspoken criticism of social ills, the application of religion to their solution, and an extensive program of social welfare. His sermons are collected in Free Synagogue Pulpit: Sermons and Addresses (10 vols., 1908–32).

In 1922 he launched the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR), a new kind of seminary which provided training of rabbis from all branches of Judaism, education of Jewish scholars, and preparation of leaders for community service. He served as president until 1948, when JIR merged with *Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Nelson *Glueck assumed the presidency.

A social liberal, Wise was co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909 and the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. He pleaded for clemency and justice on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. He was also active in organizations such as the Child Labor Committee, the Old Age Pension League, the Religion and Labor Foundation, and the League to Enforce Peace. Also, he battled for the rights of workers to organize, and championed the strike against the U.S. Steel Corporation in 1919 and the Passaic textile union strike in 1926. He actively campaigned for Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916, and later supported the candidacies of Alfred E. Smith, Norman Thomas, and (from 1936 on) Franklin D. Roosevelt. With John Haynes Holmes, he headed the City Affairs Committee which exposed corruption in New York City and finally succeeded in forcing the resignation of Mayor James J. Walker in 1932.

Like his Christian counterparts and friends, Walter Rauschenbusch, Josiah Strong, and Washington Gladde, Wise was a forthright, forceful, and influential preacher of social concerns. His opinions and attitudes are expressed in his Child Versus Parent (1922); As I See It (1944), a collection of his articles for the journal Opinion, which he edited from 1936 to 1949; Personal Letters of Stephen S. Wise (1956, ed. by J.W. Polier and J.W. Wise); Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the PeopleSelected Letters (1969, ed. by CH Voss). The complete collection of Wise's papers, donated by his daughter Justine to Brandeis University, have been fully catalogued by the American Jewish Historical Society.

[Carl Hermann Voss]

His wife, LOUISE WATERMAN WISE (d. 1947), was a communal worker, artist, and translator. In her youth she came under the influence of Felix *Adler , founder of the Ethical Culture movement, and was imbued by him with a passion for social justice. During her husband's rabbinate in Portland, Oregon, she founded that city's Visiting Nurse Association. In New York she established, in 1914, the Free Synagogue's Child Adoption Committee. She presided over this first Jewish agency of its kind, and by the time of her death, when it was taken over by New York's Federation of Philanthropies, more than 3,500 Jewish children had been placed in private homes. In 1933 she organized and became the first president of the Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress. As refugees from Germany began to come in greater numbers, she established Congress Houses which provided temporary homes for thousands of refugees. Mrs. Wise's translations of Aimé Pallière's Unknown Sanctuary and Edmond Fleg's Why I Am a Jew, My Palestine, and The Land of Promise helped to popularize these works for English readers. Her paintings of portraits, landscapes, and moving representations of persecuted Jews were widely exhibited. Their son JAMES WATERMAN WISE (1901–1983) held various positions as an organization executive, including director of the Stuyvesant Neighborhood House in New York City, and national secretary of Avukah, the U.S. students' Zionist Federation which he helped to found in 1925. He was editor of Opinion, a special correspondent for New York dailies, and a popular radio commentator. His published works include Liberalizing Liberal Judaism (1924); Jews Are Like That (under the pseudonym Analyticus, 1928); Legend of Louise, a brief biography of his mother (1949); and A Jew Revisits Germany (1950). In the early 1950s he moved to Geneva where, as an art connoisseur, he engaged in the purchase of paintings for private collectors and museums in the U.S.

[Morton Mayer Berman]

Rabbi Wise's daughter, JUSTINE WISE POLIER (1903–1987), attorney and jurist, was born in Portland, Oregon. Admitted to the New York bar in 1928, she subsequently became the first woman referee in the Workmen's Compensation Division of the New York State Department of Labor (1929–34). She subsequently served as a justice in the Domestic Relations Court of New York City from 1935 to 1962. Justine Polier served as a special adviser to Eleanor Roosevelt in the Office of Civilian Defense in 1941 and 1942. From 1962 on she was a judge in the New York State Family Court.

Her Jewish and civic activities included service as president of Louise Wise Services (from 1941), the Wiltwyck School for Boys (from 1960), and the national women's division of the American Jewish Congress (1948–1956); chairman of the national executive committee of the women's division of the American Jewish Congress (1956–1960); member of the executivePage 103  |  Top of Article of the World Jewish Congress (from 1956); member of the White House Planning Conference on Civil Rights (1965); and as New York delegate to the White House Conference on Children (1960). Among her works on child welfare, psychiatry, and the law are Everyone's Children, Nobody's Child (1941); Back to What Woodshed? (1956); View from the Bench: the Juvenile Court (1964); and The Rule of Law and the Role of Psychiatry (1968).

[Carl Hermann Voss]

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

CH Voss, Rabbi and Minister: The Friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes (1964); idem, in: AJA, 21 (1969), 3–19; J.W. Wise, Legend of Louise: The Life Story of Mrs. Stephen S. Wise (1949). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (1985); H. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue (1970); H. Feingold, Bearing Witness (1995).

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Berman, Morton Mayer, and Carl Hermann Voss. "Wise, Stephen Samuel." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 21, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 100-103. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2587520991%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dnew27191%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3Dfaf7de9e. Accessed 18 Oct. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2587520991

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  • Polier, Justine Wise,
    • 21: 102-103
  • Wise, Louise Waterman,
    • 21: 102
  • Wise, Stephen Samuel,
    • 21: 100-103