American reform rabbi and Zionist leader
1. Stephen Samuel Wise was born in Budapest in 1874 and brought to the United States at the age of 17 months. His maternal grandfather had created the Herend Porcelain Company. When Wise’s father tried to unionize the company, it is said that the grandfather gave the family one-way tickets to New York!
2. Young Stephen was the son and grandson of rabbis, and he wanted to be one as well. He graduated from Columbia at the age of 18 and was ordained the following year, 1893. He went on to serve as rabbi to a number of American congregations, pioneering interfaith cooperation, social service and civic leadership. He and his followers founded the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City in 1907.
3. He was a founder of the New York Federation of Zionist Societies and led in the formation of the national Federation of American Zionists in 1898. He served as secretary of the World Zionist Organization.
4. During the years 1916-19, he acted as intermediary to President Wilson on the Balfour Declaration and other matters and is said to have been instrumental in influencing Wilson to support the Balfour Declaration. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he spoke on behalf of Zionist aspirations.
5. He served as vice-president of the Zionist Organization of America, 1918-20, and as its president, 1936-38. He led in the organization of the American Jewish Congress, 1916-20, served as its vice-president, 1921-25, and as president or honorary president for another 24 years until his death.
6. During the 1920s and 30s, he was a friend of the Soviet Union, and for this he was known by the sobriquet “Red Rabbi.” In response to the rise of Nazism, he encouraged the formation of the World Jewish Congress and headed it until his death. In this role, he presented the Jewish cause to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the State Department and to the general public.
7. He was co-founder of the NAACP and the ACLU and was prominent in other liberal American causes throughout his life.
8. More about his fight against Nazism: In 1933 he urged a Jewish boycott of Germany. In November 1942, he held a press conference in Washington, DC, announcing that the Nazis had a plan to exterminate European Jewry and had already killed two million Jews. He made this statement based on a message from Switzerland that he had received in August 1942. Did the story make any front pages? No.
9. He had his share of disapprobation. He was a close friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt and was criticized for spending too much of his time trying to protect the president’s good name. And he was said to have halted relief packages to Jews in Europe, fearing accusations of providing aid to the enemy.
10. He died in New York City in 1949 at the age of 75.
In Haifa, you’ll find Stephen Wise Street in Ramat Sha’ul, west of Tchernikovsky.
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