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
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
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
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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