Isaac Mayer Wise

Life Story

 

 

 

 

 

Isaac M. Wise was born in Steingrub, Bohemia on March 29, 1819 into an extremely poor family (Philipson and Grossman 2).  His father ran a neighborhood Jewish school in the home, and by age six, the boy was studying the Talmud, the compilation of ancient Rabbinical writings on “Jewish law and lore” (Philipson and Grossman 2, 3; Rosenburg 95).  He was sent at an early age to live and study with his grandfather, but upon the death of the latter, Wise, then 12, began further Jewish studies in Prague (3-6).  Biblical and Talmudic research consumed Wise for most of his educational career.  He studied at various beth hamidrash (“‘[houses] of study’ of rabbinical literature” (Temkin 310)) and yeshibas (Jewish high schools and Talmudic academies (312)) in Prague in anticipation for his exams before the beth din (“court of learned men, usually three in number at least”) who would confer on him his rabbinical title (Philipson and Grossman 6).  While in preparation, however, the Bohemian government passed an edict that “no one could enter upon the rabbinical office thereafter unless he had taken the prescribed courses at the gymnasium (secular high school) and university” (6).  After additional study at the universities of Prague and Vienna, Wise, age 23, passed his exams before the beth din and was given the Morenu (rabbinical title).  

            Isaac Mayer Wise began his career as a rabbi in the town of Radnitz, at a congregation hungry to see “a new light” (Philipson and Grossman 11).  While there, some of his more liberal ideals came to surface.  He “came in to friction with the government because of his democratic and radical expressions” (11).  For example, he gave inadequate respect to the emperor and performed illegal marriages.  Tension developed too between the young man and his superior district rabbi.  Feeling that he would fare better in sharing his interpretation of the Jewish faith elsewhere, Wise decided to flee his homeland with wife and son (11-14). 

            Wise possessed a “passion for America as a land of freedom”.  Upon arrival in the United States, he learned English with great speed and zeal (Glazer 37).  Though he lacked “reputation and credentials,” he was aggressive and possessed skill in organizing and preaching (Jick 122).  He settled in Albany, New York and became rabbi of congregation Beth-El.  Intending to make a name for himself, he befriended Christian clergymen, local businessmen, and political leaders (125, 126).  Before long, his reform ideals had him at odds with certain members of the congregation, including its president.  There even erupted one Sabbath a fist-fight in the pulpit between the two.  On Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) of 1850, things had become so heated that he and his followers left the congregation.  By Yom Kippur (Holy Day of Atonement), 10 days later, they had founded the first Reform synagogue in Albany, Anshe Emeth (Raphael 13).  Wise continued to meet resistance with the conservative aspect and, like so many Americans at the time, took his dreams out west, deciding upon Cincinnati, OH (Glazer 36). 

            Choosing Cincinnati for its “expansive prosperity, …business relations with all parts of the United States, … [and] its position as a meeting-place of merchants,”  Wise desired there to establish Reformed Judaism as the “dominant expression of … Judaism” in America (Temkin 105; Raphael 14).    In this, the “Queen City of the West,”  he led congregation B’nai Jeshurun (Temkin 104, 108).  All around the area he formed congregations and disseminated his reform ideals (Raphael 14), including Louisville, KY.  Speaking out against prejudices and injustices, he fought hard for Jewish rights (Temkin 162).  At the height of his career, in 1866, Wise’s congregation opened a new house of worship, known then as Plum St. Temple and today as Isaac M. Wise Temple (Temkin 190, 191).  It was then that he began to feel that he was “reaping the harvest” for all his efforts (196).  Wise remained in Cincinnati until his death on March 26, 1900.

 

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