“What is happening in Germany today may happen tomorrow in any other land on earth unless it is challenged and rebuked.”
Stephen Samuel Wise
Stephen Wise was a rabbi rooted deeply in Jewish faith and politics. He was passionate about Jewish affairs and survival, but his passions also broadened to working class people and the poor and victims of discrimination of any race, class or religion.
Wise came from a family of rabbis. Born in Budapest, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his family moved to New York when he was an infant. The family name Weiss was Anglicized to Wise. He studied for the rabbinate serving as rabbi in Oregon and New York. He was invited to be the rabbi at the prestigious Temple Emanu-El but turned the offer down when the congregation would not give him a “free pulpit” where he could speak as he was led by his conscience and understanding of the Jewish faith. So, in 1907 he founded the Free Synagogue in New York City where there were no restrictions of any kind placed on the pulpit. He stayed at the Free Synagogue for 43 years.
Wise plunged into many social causes. He supported ordinary workers in their labor struggles, such as the Brooklyn transit strike. The terrible fire at the Triangle Shirt Factory in 1911 that killed 146 women deeply shook Rabbi Wise, and he joined in the fight against sweatshops and for safe working conditions. He participated in many labor-management disputes, offering his services as a mediator.
These struggles for social justice brought Rabbi Wise into partnership with people of other religions, especially Christians acting for reform out of the “social gospel” movement. He engaged in many interfaith activities as well as activities in the public sector that involved alliances with people of different social groups. Out of his concern for justice, in 1906 Wise was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) that became one of the most storied U.S. civil rights organizations. He was a key organizer of the American Jewish Congress in 1918 that mobilized Jewish leaders to work for equal rights of all Americans regardless of race, religion or national origin.
Wise was a leader within Reformed Judaism, educating rabbis through the founding of the Jewish Institute of Religion, which later became Hebrew Union College. He was an early leader in the Zionist movement, participating in the formation of the Federation of American Zionists. As Adolph Hitler
came to power in Germany, Wise became concerned with the persecution of the Jews. He worked to mobilize public opinion in the U.S. against the Nazis and became an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt about Jewish issues. Rabbi Wise and Leo Motzkin led in founding the World Jewish Congress to take
on the issues of rising Nazism and sought a boycott of Nazi Germany. Wise insisted that Jews become their own advocates and not just criticize the Christians for allowing the rise of Hitler: “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.”