Meet The Great Organizer

Image: Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, a slide shown at the 2019 Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Cincinnati, OH, March 2019.

In 1889, Rabbi Isaac M. Wise decided that America’s rabbis needed to organize. He founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical association of which I am a member. The year the rabbis of the CCAR are celebrating the 150th years of existence.

Sometimes people wonder why Cincinnati became the headquarters for HUC and the CCAR. Why not New York, or at least Los Angeles or Chicago? All are bigger cities. The answer is actually pretty simple: this is where Rabbi Wise was living, as rabbi for the Lodge Street Synagogue, and then later for the Plum Street Synagogue. He was truly the Great Organizer: he founded not only the first rabbinical school on the continent, but also a rabbinical association and the organization of synagogues that would support his school, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.

The entire body of American rabbis did not stay under one umbrella for long. Some rabbis had already set up the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, feeling that Rabbi Wise was teaching far too liberal a stance at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. By 1901, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) began as an alumni association of JTS, and in 1923 the modern orthodox rabbis on the continent formed the Rabbinical Council of America.

Rabbi Wise originally envisioned American Judaism as a unified expression of rabbinic Judaism. His vision was both too bold and, as it turned out, too limited: American Judaism is far too diverse to be contained under one roof, and I for one think that is a healthy thing.

For a more complete biography of Rabbi Wise, check out the article about him at the American Jewish Archives.

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