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How the Father of American Reform Judaism Built a Movement

How the Father of American Reform Judaism Built a Movement

A conversation with Rabbi David Ellenson, past president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, about the founder of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, on the anniversary of his birthday, March 29, 1819.

ReformJudaism.org: What inspired Isaac Mayer Wise to establish a rabbinic seminary in America?

Rabbi Ellenson: When he arrived from Germany in 1846, only 70 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, not a single national Jewish organization or seminary existed in America. Jewish life was organized around congregations, each existing independently with very few formally trained clergy; in 1855, for example, only seven ordained rabbis served all of North America.

Recognizing that American Judaism could not realize its potential without professional leadership, Wise decided, in the 1850s, to create a rabbinical school. His initial attempt failed because of lack of financial support, but that did not deter him. He tried again two decades later.

Was it Wise's intention to import Reform Judaism from Germany, where it had originated?

He dreamed of creating a distinctly American kind of Judaism that would encompass a multiplicity of Jewish perspectives and practices, an admixture of the old and the new. The name of the prayer book he published in 1857, Minhag America, reveals a great deal about what he envisioned. The name minhag, meaning "custom" or "tradition," had been classically employed to describe Jewish prayer books for different communities, such as minhag Polin (the Polish custom). By placing "America" in the title of his prayer book, Wise was making the case that Jews in the United States had the right to fashion a uniquely American Judaism.

What did Wise do differently in his second, successful, attempt to establish the first Jewish seminary in America?

He created the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) in 1873 for the singular purpose of sustaining this enterprise. In his desire for the college to accommodate the full gamut of American Judaism, he sent invitations to every congregation in America, from the most traditional to the most radical. Thirty-four congregations responded in the affirmative, and in 1875 the Hebrew Union College (now Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) opened its doors in Cincinnati.

Why did Wise choose “union” in the name of these organizations?

The word “union” had a double meaning. First, the Civil War had just been fought to preserve the Union. Second, Wise wished to instill unity among all Jews in the United States, preparing both Orthodox and Reform rabbis to serve the broad spectrum of American Jewry, and combine the best fruits of contemporary scholarship with traditional Jewish learning.

Did Wise achieve his dream of creating a uniquely “American Judaism”?

His plan was foiled at the celebration of HUC's first graduating class in 1883. Many of the guests, including rabbis from every sector of American Judaism and the keynote speaker stormed out in disgust when the food was brought out – shrimp, soft-shell crabs, half-shell clams, and non-kosher meats! Many historians contend that the “Treifa (non-kosher) Banquet,” as this incident came to be called, was a caterer’s error, but it may have been intentional, or, at least, fortuitous. Wise had the opportunity to apologize publicly for this offense to the more traditional, kosher-observant guests, yet he chose not to. Therefore, regardless of who was at fault for the menu, it appears that Wise decided to use the event to send a message that Judaism was not going to be defined by “archaic” dietary prohibitions.

In the 1960s, many HUC-JIR students began experimenting with religious ritual, observing Jewish dietary laws, and wearing kippot (head coverings) and tallitot (prayer shawls). Was this a return to the traditionalism?

Their aim was not to return to tradition for its own sake; rather many students were searching for Jewish meaning and a sense of rootedness, leading to what sociologist Peter Berger has labeled a “heretical imperative” – a world in which people embraced options that would have been unthinkable in a past generation. Today, as well, returning to ritual has allowed Reform Jews to reclaim their ethnic identity and to engage in spiritual quests.

As we move in the direction of trans-denominational partnerships with the other branches of Judaism, we come closer to Wise's vision of an American Judaism than we have since he arrived on these shores.

How do you think Wise would respond today to the institutions he created?

I think he would understand that Judaism is an evolving tradition and that our movement still adheres in spirit to his desire to serve the broadest possible swath of American Jews. Indeed, the framework that emerged out of the vision he put forth has proven genuinely enduring.

Photo courtesy of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, OH.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

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