The Road Less Traveled: Rabbi Stephen S. Wise’s Civil Rights Leadership

Jill Golub, University of Pennsylvania

In the first half of the twentieth century, a leader arose from the Jewish community in North America who advocated for a fairer world for all. At a time when Jews were dealing with intra-community issues such as massive waves of immigration from Eastern Europe and crowded tenement housing on the Lower East Side, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise saw beyond the confines of his tight knit religious community and charted a different path than most other Jewish leaders. Wise descended from seven generations of rabbis, thus in many ways the rabbinical dimension of his life’s work was seemingly inevitable. Fusing his secular and Jewish background, matching the changing currents of American activism, Wise’s practiced an activism not inconsistent with his religious beliefs; he would sermonize in front of his congregation regarding the political and social ills in society and then act upon those very words, successfully encouraging others to join along. Although Wise’s life work has been written about and documented extensively, few focus on his work with civil rights leaders and organizations, as well as labor unions, strikers and politicians. In doing so, this paper aims to broaden the scope and narrative of civil rights history in America by telling the tale of a visionary who acted on behalf of humanity. Wise’s ability to capitalize on changing times to further progress has left a lasting legacy and indelible mark on the American Jewish community and Americans at large.

Having been born in Budapest, Hungary in 1874 and moved to New York when he was one year old, Wise attended public school from kindergarten through high school and then received his undergraduate and doctorate degrees from Columbia University. Wise’s father, Aaron, a rabbi, instilled in him a sense of Jewish ethics and morals. As the culmination of Wise’s secular education, he earned a PhD in Semitic languages in 1901. While at Columbia, Wise was simultaneously pursuing Jewish studies independently and received a rabbinical degree soon after graduating Columbia.

In addition to his secular and Jewish education, one of Wise’s most influential educational experiences occurred in the summer of 1892, which he spent in the Adirondack Mountains with the philosopher Thomas Davidson. Davidson was devoted to a “rigorous search for truth”[1] and instilled in Wise ideas from the Social Gospel Movement. The Social Gospel Movement promoted the idea that the church should not just be a meeting center, rather be manifested everywhere—in shops, factories, where people worked and labored. Davidson taught Wise that, “knowledge and wisdom are not idols or fetishes to be worshipped, but instruments to be used for the wealth of others.”[2] As a result of this unique mentorship, progressivism became part and parcel of Wise’s philosophy; it complemented the liberal Judaism he practiced as well as his academic experiences.

Wise was an unremitting optimist, an outlook which shaped his teaching and activism but originated as a response to Jewish cries for justice arising in New York City. The early 1900s saw explosive numbers of Jewish immigrants coming to America from Europe and [3]many immigrants initially amazed by the possibilities for advancement in America were also quickly disillusioned by the injustices embedded in society. Immigrants felt this mistreatment when they were underpaid and overworked, as well as in quota systems that excluded Jews from social clubs and colleges. This awareness led many Jews to become politically active. Although attaining victories through grassroots coalitions were difficult due to corrupt government structures like Tammany Hall, socialist, communist and left-leaning Jews persevered. They published newspapers and started groups to protest various forms of injustice such as Der Arbeiter Ring, or the Workmen’s Circle, a group created in 1900 to promote social and economic justice in all facets of society.[4]

Building off this drive for betterment, Wise often expressed worries about the future but also held a steadfast belief that change was possible. In a letter written in 1900 to his fiancée, Louise Waterman, shortly after Wise moved to Oregon and Waterman was still living in New York, Wise wrote to her about the warmth of the Jewish community that had greeted him upon his arrival in Portland. He wrote,

“We feel, and justifiably, that this is an age of materialism. Still there is hope! Does not the gathering of people in large numbers of worship, for worship of something, show that these people, though they understand it not, are not satisfied with their gold and houses. They yearn for something…we must give it…a God of righteousness.”[5]

 

In another letter to Waterman in 1915, Wise wrote, “Yesterday was a hard day and this is torrid and still I must remember all for which I ought to be grateful.”[6] Analyzing every instance when Wise expressed optimism despite setbacks and hardship would be impossible. Simply looking at Wise’s education, both formal and not, is inadequate to understanding the path of his life. Analyzing his inner feelings and thoughts is critical in understanding his choices and activism.

Upon entering the work force, Wise became quickly disillusioned with the movement’s rigid structure. Wise wanted to be able to speak freely from his pulpit, however, in reform synagogues, boards of trustees and directors were empowered to tell rabbis about what they could and could not sermonize. Thus, in 1907, after a disagreement with the trustees of Portland’s Temple Emanu-El regarding the purpose and freedoms of rabbinic leadership, Wise decided to leave and establish the Free Synagogue in New York City. Wise wrote to New York-based journalist Oswald Garrison Villard in January 1906, “I made the sole stipulation that the pulpit be free and that I be not muzzled…because I felt and feel that one of the chief reasons for the endangerment, if not the loss, of the moral supremacy of the churches is due to the widespread and largely justifiable belief that the pulpit is not free…”[7]

Immediately upon arriving in New York, Wise easily established his synagogue and created a forum where open-minded Jews could come together to understand the pressing issues facing other minorities. One of the ways Wise accomplished this was through his creation of a unique educational program at the Free Synagogue in which he[8] organized Sunday lectures beginning in October 1907 on topics such as “Some Social Problems of Our Age,” “Industrial Peace” and “Utilization of the Immigrant,” and invited other leading and passionate educators and activists including Jenkin Lloyd James, a Chicago minister,  Miss Maude Miner, probation officer of the Night Court, Edward A. Ross, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin and author of Sin and Society and John Dewey, an esteemed philosopher and education reformer.[9] These were all leaders preaching to change static social conventions and values.

Aside from organizing prominent guest lecturers, Wise also provided his own sermons which at times were so controversial as to irk congregants such as a sermon titled “Jesus and the Jews,” which elicited frustration from the congregants who did not want rabbis discussing Christianity from the pulpit.[10]

However, most of Wise’s speeches were less controversial but were nonetheless captivating and moving. On March 29, 1918, Wise delivered one of his most famous speeches over the radio called “What are we Fighting for?”[11] on the importance of fighting in order to preserve the safety of the human race and democracy. He said,

“Remember this is not a war—it is the war. It is the contest of the ages, which we and our allies together can make the last human holocaust, if we be mighty in war and even mightier in the generosities and magnanimities of peace…It is not too late to save the world, to make and keep the world free, to rebuild an order of life that shall be just and righteous altogether.”[12]

 

Another instance where Wise’s sermon was groundbreaking, though not surprising given his ideology, was his eulogy of Booker T. Washington in 1915. The Free Synagogue is believed to be the only synagogue that eulogized Washington, emblematic of Wise’s consistent devotion to the struggles of African Americans attempting to achieve greater equality and justice in America. Wise took it upon himself to facilitate moments of education through his teachings as well as his work to connect congregants to intellectual leaders.

The universality of Wise’s vision for the world was often ill-received; in a 1911 speech he gave to the Chamber of Commerce in New York, after which he was never asked to speak to the Chamber again, he said:

“the conscience of the nation is not real unless the nation safeguards the working men…the conscience of the nation is not vital unless we protect women and children in industry…the aim of democracy is not to be the production of efficient, machine-like men in industry.”[13]

 

Wise was criticizing the lax child labor laws, in front of the very people who did not want to see these laws amended. However, Wise was not silenced just because bureaucrats did not approve of his views; he had the support of countless laborers and progressive-minded individuals. Thus, his activism persisted throughout his entire life despite frequent setbacks and criticism from important policy makers.

Wise died in 1949 and has subsequently left an indelible mark on bottom-up activism and the future of Jewish leadership. Numerous major civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, issued statements eulogizing Wise’s life and tireless work. Civil rights leader Thurgood Marshall wrote, “It was not only his courage and his espousal of unpopular causes which endeared him to us, but the living warmth with which he embraced all who came his way.” Walter White, the secretary for the NAACP at the time, expressed similar sentiments on behalf of the organization. He wrote, “There are no words to express adequately our grief at Stephen’s death. Forty years ago he joined a small group of fifty-three Americans in founding the NAACP and throughout its history he worked courageously and indefatigably to make it the organization is it today.”[14] White recounts that Wise made his last public announcement at the Manhattan Center denouncing the lynching of Robert Mallard in Georgia.[15] Additionally, upon his passing, Albert Einstein wrote to Wise’s children saying, “He always knew how to help and how to arouse people’s consciences wherever it was necessary…For it is due to the few of his stature that one does not completely despair of man. His deep, moral influence will continue although he is no longer among us.”[16] Even though Wise had such famous and influential acquaintances who held him in such high regard, he never strayed from helping the most marginalized, least influential people.

Wise’s legacy has only grown in his passing. Today, schools and synagogues across the nation are named after Wise, in an effort to memorialize as well as perpetuate the legacy of an unforgettable man. In fact, the Jewish Institute of Religion, which Wise established in 1922 to continue the vision of religious liberalism Wise pioneered, merged into Hebrew Union College in 1949, right after Wise’s passing.[17]  The Free Synagogue also still exists in New York, and the Stephen S. Wise Synagogue was established in 1964 in Los Angeles. Wise’s once controversial expansion of the role of a rabbi into secular society has created a legacy of Jewish activism and participation in all arenas of socio-political life. His words and teachings have been passed down to future generations of progressive, open-minded Jews.

From the very beginning of his career, Wise forged his own path. He did not look back at prior pulpit rabbis to guide his career. Rather, he headed in a different direction, down a road that was not afraid to challenge authority, challenge religious norms and challenge inequality in all of its brutal forms. Until his dying breath, Wise fought for others, Jewish or gentile, black or white, woman or man. In an article written about him in The New York Times in 1949, he is quoted saying, “…after a long life I still believe in one world and one humanity with freedom under law, with justice and peace for all peoples and races and faiths.”[18] Wise came of age at a time when progressive ideas were popular, shifting people’s perceptions of right and wrong. But Wise in particular is noteworthy in his continued optimism in the face of despair, in the tirelessness of his activism and in the scope of his inter-community involvement. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Wise lived just long enough to see the creation of the State of Israel. Although his involvement in the Zionist movement was not a major focus of this paper, Wise longed dearly for a Jewish State, even before the Zionist movement became a pervasive, accepted idea among the Jewish community. Wise’s optimism regarding the future of civil rights in America post-World War II may likely be attributed to him witnessing the formation of Israel. Wise watched a marginalized and persecuted minority secure their own nation, imbuing in him a sense of hope about the future of marginalized Americans. Even if tangible progress was still far off in America, Wise could dream.

In The Color of America has Changed, Mark Brilliant writes that people need to rethink the civil rights era as “not only ‘long’ but also ‘wide’—wide geographically, wide demographically, and most importantly, wide substantively in terms of the range of ‘race problems’ and responses to them.”[19] Wise is a case study in this attempt to have a broader understanding of civil rights history and the innovative ways of engaging diverse communities. Wise allows us to understand what it means to create connections across different movements, mobilizing people to engage in grassroots activism. In fact, one of Wise’s heroes, Theodor Herzl, wrote, “Whoever wishes to prove right in thirty years’ time must need be thought crazy during the first fortnight.”[20] Wise cited this very quote in a letter to Louise in 1927. What Wise saw in Herzl, we now see in him.

Wise’s devotion to others, despite others’ opinions, makes people remember him in the same fashion as he did Herzl—as a remarkably progressive and inspiring Jewish leader. In his final letter to his children, from April 1949, Wise wrote, “Into the Hand of God I commend my spirit. May he continue to vouchsafe me His grace and mercy.”[21]

 

 

Bibliography

The Board of Inspectors of Child Labor of the State of Oregon. The First Biennial Report. Salem, J.R. Whitney, State Printer, 1927. From the State of Oregon (May 1, 2015).

 

“The Birth of a Nation (1915).” The Birth of a Nation (1915). Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.filmsite.org/birt.html.

 

“Boom and Bust.” BBC News. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/higher/history/usa/boombust/revision/1/.

 

Brilliant, Mark. The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

 

“Child Labor Reform.” Social Welfare History Project. January 19, 2011. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/programs/child-labor-reform-an-introduction/.

 

“Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training.” The New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://archives.nypl.org/controlaccess/11609?term=Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training.

 

“DISCUSS PASSAIC STRIKE IN NEW YORK.” The Vassar Miscellany News, May 5, 1926.

 

“DRASTIC CUT IN WAGES CAUSES STRIKE AMONG PASSAIC MILL WORKERS | News | The Harvard Crimson.” DRASTIC CUT IN WAGES CAUSES STRIKE AMONG PASSAIC MILL WORKERS | News | The Harvard Crimson. March 19, 1926. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1926/3/19/drastic-cut-in-wages-causes-strike/.

 

Dreier, Peter, and Donald Cohen. “The Fire Last Time.” New Republic. March 12, 2011. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/85134/wisconsin-unions-walker-triangle-shirtwaist-fire.

 

“Dr. S. S. Wise Dead; Leader in Zionism.” The New York Times, April 20, 1949.

 

“DR. S. S. WISE AT 75 STILL WORKS HARD; On Eve of Birthday He Reviews Gains of His Decades of Jewish Leadership.” The New York Times, March 17, 1949.

 

“From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America.” Library of Congress. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/haventohome/haven-century.html.

 

Green, William. William Green to Stephen S. Wise, September 29, 1926. Letter. From American Jewish Historical Society, The Stephen Wise Papers (accessed March 15, 2015).

 

“La Guardia Is Dead; City Pays Homage To 3-Time Mayor.” September 21, 1947. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1211.html.

 

Massart, Mordechai Ben, “A Rabbi in the Progressive Era: Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Ph.D. and the Rise of Social Jewish Progressivism in Portland, Or, 1900-1906” (2010). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 729.

 

“NAACP: 100 Years of History.” NAACP: 100 Years of History. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://www.naacp.org/pages/naacp-history.

 

“Our History.” The Workmen’s Circle. Accessed May 1, 2015. https://circle.org/who-we-are/our-history/.

 

“Passaic Textile Strike Bulletins Part 1.” Textile Strike Bulletin. March 5, 1926. Accessed May 3, 2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/weisbord/BulletinsOne.htm.

 

Randolph, A. Philip. A. Philip Randolph to Stephen Wise, May 4, 1948. Letter. From American Jewish Historical Society, Stephen Wise Papers (accessed March 15, 2015).

 

Robins, William. “Oregon History Project.” Oregon History Project. January 1, 2002. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/narratives/subtopic.cfm?subtopic_ID=41.

 

“Spartacus Educational.” Spartacus Educational. September 1, 1997. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/USAholmesJH.htm.

 

“Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” History.com. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/triangle-shirtwaist-fire.

 

Urofsky, Melvin I. A Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1982.

 

Voss, Carl Hermann. Rabbi and Minister: The Friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing, 1964.

 

White, Walter. Walter White to Justine Wise Polier, April 20, 1949. Letter. From NAACP Papers. http://hv.proquest.com/pdfs/001459/001459_006_0001/001459_006_0001_From_1_to_95.pdf (accessed May 1, 2015).

 

Wise, Stephen S. The Personal Letters of Stephen Wise. Edited by Justine Wise Polier. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1956.

Wise, Stephen S. “What Are We Fighting For?.” Speech, New York, NY, March 29, 1918.

 

Wise, Stephen S. Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the People. Edited by Carl Hermann Voss. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969.

 

Wise, Stephen S. Words of Wise Founder of the Stephen Wise Fee Synagogue, 1907. New York: Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 1975.

 

[1] Urofsky, A Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise, 8.

[2] Ibid., 9

[3] “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America.” Library of Congress. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/haventohome/haven-century.html.

[4] “Our History.” The Workmen’s Circle. Accessed May 1, 2015. https://circle.org/who-we-are/our-history/.

[5] Urofsky, A Voice that Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise, 32.

Note: No date other than a year specified in this letter (or any letter that only has a year listed).

[6] Ibid., 150

[7] Wise, Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the People, 34.

[8] Voss, Carl Hermann. Rabbi and Minister: The Friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes, 99.

[9] Voss, Carl Hermann. Rabbi and Minister: The Friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes, 99.

[10] “Dr. S. S. Wise Dead; Leader in Zionism.” The New York Times, April 20, 1949.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wise, Stephen S. “What Are We Fighting For?.” Speech, New York, NY, March 29, 1918.

[13] Wise, Stephen S. Words of Wise Founder of the Stephen Wise Fee Synagogue, 1907. New York: Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 1975.

[14] White, Walter. Walter White to Justine Wise Polier, April 20, 1949. Letter. From NAACP Papers. http://hv.proquest.com/pdfs/001459/001459_006_0001/001459_006_0001_From_1_to_95.pdf (accessed May 1, 2015).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Wise, Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the People, 297.

[17] Massart, Mordechai Ben, “A Rabbi in the Progressive Era: Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Ph.D. and the Rise of Social Jewish Progressivism in Portland, Or, 1900-1906” (2010). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 729.

[18] “DR. S. S. WISE AT 75 STILL WORKS HARD; On Eve of Birthday He Reviews Gains of His Decades of Jewish Leadership.” The New York Times, March 17, 1949.

[19] Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed, 14.

[20] Wise, The Personal Letters of Stephen Wise. 211.

[21] Wise, Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the People, 296.