Isaac Mayer Wise

 On Education







 Isaac Mayer Wise was as passionate on the need for quality education for the American Jews as he was about any other platform.  He understood that every Hebrew child needed a Jewish education, learning the language, history, tradition, and piety of the people of Israel (Temkin 261).  For this purpose, he established a day school in Albany where he made sure the children received proper training in both religious and secular studies (123, 124).  But his efforts toward excellent Jewish education ranged far beyond that for young children.  From the start, Wise felt that the American Jews were under poor leadership, ignorant of its own religion (Blau 33).  He recognized the seminal problem as deficient ministerial training and began teaching aspiring rabbis one-on-one (Temkin 78, 79).  His ultimate dream, however, was to found an institution of rabbinical training in the United States.  

For this purpose in September of 1854, Wise called together a campaign to create a college with connections to a seminary (Temkin 125).  His efforts materialized with the opening of Zion College in Cincinnati on November 26, 1855.  The college received little continuing support, though, and had to close its doors the following year (Raphael 19).  Wise accounted for the collapse of Zion College, stating that the “’American Jewry was not ripe for such an undertaking’” (Jick 162).  He did not in any way abandon his goal of forming a rabbinical training school but did let the issue remain fairly dormant for a few years.  By 1870, he was ready to assume the task with full force.  It was in this year that he became “chairman of a committee…to work on plans for a seminary” (Temkin 229). 

The American Jewry must have been ready by this point, for not only did the plans for a school succeed, but the seminary became “the most effective instrument in the hands of the reform movement” (Temkin 305).  As mentioned before, Hebrew Union College, as it came to be known, was founded by the UAHC out of their educational ideologies.  At the Union’s 1874 Cleveland meeting, guidelines were laid that would direct the college’s establishment.  It was decided that the institution would contain three departments: preparatory, Hebrew classical, and rabbinical.  Hebrew Union College’s student body would not be limited to either Reformed Jews or ministerial students.  Cincinnati was chosen as its location, and Wise was voted onto the first board of governors (265).  By 1875, this board had appointed Wise the college’s first president, and Bene Israel Temple was selected the site for  Hebrew Union College’s opening in October of that year (269-272).  In the beginning the school was “without teachers, pupils, premises, library, or funds,” and many were skeptical that America could provided an environment for proper rabbinical studies (281).  Hebrew Union College, however, with the help of its first president, survived.  Its first class, consisting of four students, graduated in 1883 (286).  But Wise in his lifetime witnessed the school’s ordination of over sixty rabbis.  During the 25 years that he headed the school, he oversaw its obtaining “its own building, a faculty of nine, and an ever-growing library” (282).  In time Hebrew Union College proved itself a worthy educational center and for many years was the only seminary that trained Reformed rabbis (Raphael 19).


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