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Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise Birthday, 1819

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

On This Day in Jewish History: March 29, 1819


On this day, 1815, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise was born. On this day, 1815, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise was born in Steingrub, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). He became a leading organizer behind the rise of Reform Judaism in the United States and he was central to the founding of three major Reform institutions that still exist today: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today the Union for Reform Judaism), the Hebrew Union College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Wise immigrated to Albany, New York in 1846 after serving two years as a rabbi in Radince, Bohemia. When Wise arrived in the U.S., the Jewish population was around 40,000 but there were still no rabbis educated in the United States. One of Wise’s central missions was to institutionalize an expression of Reform Judaism that also embodied American ideals of freedom and liberty. Wise served as a rabbi in Albany for 8 years, where he began initiating changes to traditional rituals and practices. At Congregation Beth El, he introduced family pews, mixed-sex choral singing, and the replacement of bar mitzvah with confirmation. However, these changes were not welcomed by all and Wise was dismissed from Beth El in 1850 as a result. With a breakaway group from Beth El, Wise set up a new Reform congregation, Anshe Emet. In 1854, he accepted a post at B’nai Yeshurun, a Reform congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he remained until his death. Wise continued introducing change to ritual and practice, ending the second day holiday observance (with the exception of Rosh Hashanah) and allowing for prayer without a head covering. Wise wrote theological texts, historical volumes, a prayer book, and Jewish historical fiction. In July 1854, he founded “The Israelite,” an English language weekly newspaper which he hoped would be a competing voice with the traditional Judaism of Isaac Leeser’s “The Occident.” Wise’s ideas were met with consistent opposition, but he carried on nonetheless. He fought to adapt Reform Judaism to modern American life and argued for centralizing Reform institutions in The Israelite and in rabbinical conferences. Consequently, Wise was passionate about the need for a standardized Reform prayer book, collating and publishing one himself in 1857. The Union Prayer Book replaced his Minhag America (American Usage) in 1894 and serves as a result of his persistence. Wise’s determination to unify Reform Judaism led to the founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873. Consisting of a group of synagogues from the Midwest and South, it eventually became a confederation of American and Canadian Reform congregations. Out of this grew the Hebrew Union College, which was the first American rabbinical seminary in the U.S. was also a key organizer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889), Reform Judaism’s legislative body, and he served as prescient until his death. Wise shaped the evolution of Reform Judaism in the latter half of the 19th century. Though he was unsuccessful in his larger goal to unite all American Jews, his efforts did bring a significant degree of unanimity to Reform Judaism, the impact of which is still felt today. He died March 26, 1900.

Sources

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isaac-Mayer-Wise https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.77.243 https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/isaac-mayer-wise https://lifeofthesynagogue.library.cofc.edu/?page_id=300 https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/godinamerica/people/isaac-mayer-wise.html

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