Columbians Ahead of Their Time
"How can a rabbi be vital and independent and helpful if he be tethered and muzzled?"

Stephen Wise (1862–1949)
Columbia College, 1892
Jewish Theological Seminary, 1901

Rabbi Stephen Wise, a throaty activist both on and off the bimah, inspired consciousness of Jewish social justice during the most violently anti-Semitic years of the early 20th century. Known for his political sensitivity and commitment to fairness, Wise navigated impossible diplomatic issues with a tactful approach and often demoralizing results.

Wise became a leader in the Jewish community by joining Louis Brandeis in the American Zionist movement, which sought to reestablish the historic land of Israel as the home of the Jewish people. When Brandeis was called to the Supreme Court in 1916, Wise became Chairperson of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs. From this highly contentious post, Wise helped guide President Wilson to second the Balfour Declaration's support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. After Wilson left office, Wise continued to garner support for the Zionist cause through the American Jewish Congress—a democratic body Wise and Leo Motzkin created to fight the spread of Nazism—and through books such as The Great Betrayal (1930). But Wise's passionate activism, some historians feel, did not always serve his people. After Hitler came to power, Wise vociferously attacked the Third Reich's anti-Semitic policies, but the Nazi party claimed this "atrocity propaganda" gave them reason to restrict Jews more severely. When Wise counseled Roosevelt to help Jews escape persecution in Europe, he produced similarly unsatisfying outcomes: Roosevelt did, at Wise's urging, ask Britain to allow Jews to continue their immigration to Palestine, but he tightened U.S. immigration policies for Jews at the same time. And though Wise knew of the Nazi's "final solution" early on, he allowed Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to keep the news secret for months. Toward the end of his life, Wise described his impossible lifework—to soft-sell the U.S. government on protecting the Jews during WWII—with some bitterness: "I have seen and shared deep and terrible sorrow," he wrote. "The tale might be less tragic if the help of men had been less scant and fitful." But despite the disappointments of Wise's politicking, his social activism within the Jewish community—as a beloved, outspoken rabbi who addressed social issues as widespread as civil rights and labor relations—inspired a vital network of Reform synagogues committed to activism.

Wise began his career as a rabbi and social activist while at Columbia; he attended the College, was ordained at the (then new) Jewish Theological Seminary, and earned a Ph.D. in Semitics at Columbia in 1901. The Jewish Theological Seminary, Wise's training institution, now co-hosts homeless shelter programs with the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a place of worship directly inspired by Wise's teaching. The active homeless shelter volunteer network brings together student and synagogue workers in support of social activism.

Read about Stephen Wise in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Find out more about the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue homeless shelter program.

SIPA's Naomi Weinberger leads this two-part e-seminar on Zionism and Palestine.

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