The Life of the Synagogue

Isaac Mayer Wise

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise
Photograph by Isaac Benjamin, Cincinnati, Ohio

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819–1900) was instrumental in the development of American Reform Judaism. He emigrated from Steingrub, Bohemia (today part of the Czech Republic), in 1846, and began his career as rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Albany, New York. Though he remained there for only four years, he introduced several revolutionary changes, such as mixed-sex seating, the replacement of the bar mitzvah by confirmation, and the inclusion of choral singing. His reforms were not unanimously endorsed, and, in 1850, he was dismissed from his position. He and his supporters then founded a Reform synagogue called Anshe Emeth.

In 1854, Wise moved to the boomtown of Cincinnati, Ohio, to become rabbi of K.K. B’nai Yeshurun, a growing Reform congregation. He kept this position for the rest of his life and used it as the platform for his national ambitions. Wise continued to change liturgy and practice, abolishing the second day of holiday observance (except in the case of Rosh Hashanah) and allowing prayer without a head covering. For decades, he advocated a union of Reform congregations and development of a theological seminary. He achieved both through the founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, today known as the Union for Reform Judaism, in 1873, and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1875.

Wise was a prolific author and speaker. He wrote a prayer book, theological texts, multiple volumes of history, and even Jewish historical fiction. On July 15, 1854, he founded the weekly newspaper The Israelite, competing with the older voice of traditional Judaism, Isaac Leeser’s The Occident. Though Wise’s ideas often met with opposition, he steadily pursued his vision of a modernized Judaism, shaping American Reform Judaism as it evolved through the second half of the 19th century.