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Consider “Stephania”—the code word of hope that spread from captive to captive in the Nazi death camps. This symbol of longing for liberation from unutterable atrocities sprang up in tribute to an American rabbi who was known to be working with all his might to rescue victims of Hitler’s reign of horror. When people whine about the insignificance of American religious leaders throughout the past generation, I think of Rabbi Stephen Wise, the inspiration of the silent word, “Stephania.”
That Stephen Wise decided early in his youth to become a rabbi was not unexpected since his father was rabbi of Temple Rodeph Sholom in New York City and his grandfather was Chief Rabbi of Hungary. Born in March 1874, Stephen immigrated to America in 1875, attended public schools, City College of New York, Columbia University, and Oxford University. After his preparation for his active life of scholarship and service, he served first as assistant and soon then as rabbi of the Madison Avenue Synagogue in New York City. Following a spirited public ministry in Portland, Oregon—where he also completed his thesis for a doctorate in philosophy—Stephen declined an invitation to become the rabbi of New York’s “cathedral synagogue,” Temple Emmanu-el and pioneered in forming a new type of synagogue with both a free pulpit and an active division of social service: the Free Synagogue of New York.
How did the rabbi’s relevance to today’s reality express itself? He worked constantly for interfaith activities before the ecumenical movement began. He was a friend of organized labor in the midst of early crucial labor-management disputes. His fighting spirit was revealed in his work as a pioneer Zionist, as a champion of minority civil rights, an exemplar of the Jewish way life as well as an advocate of a creative liberal philosophy and as an undeceived enemy of Nazism.
Rabbi Wise was an event, an American event and a world event. He lives in his ongoing deeds:
- The founder of the first Zionist Federation of New York, 1897
- One of the founders of he National Advancement of Colored People, 1906
- The founder of the Free Synagogue of New York City, 1907
- One of the founders of the American Jewish Congress, 1922
- A founder of the Jewish Institute of Religion, 1922
- President of the World Jewish Congress from its beginning in 1936 until his death.
— Abridged from “The Relevant Reverend” by Rev. Dr. Herbert F. Vetter
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Wise, Stephen Samuel. Challenging Years: The Autobiography of Stephen Wise. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1949.
Rudin, A. James. Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Stephen S. Wise. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2015.