Born in Budapest in 1874 and the grandson of the Chief Rabbi of Eger, Hungary (a town about sixty miles northeast of Budapest), Stephen Wise immigrated to New York as a child. After his ordination as a Reform rabbi, he led a congregation in Portland, Oregon, where his liberal political convictions inspired him to fight for child labor laws and for the demands of striking workers. A charismatic orator, he became a champion for social justice and civil rights and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He later became a strong advocate and vocal supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal”.
Unlike most Reform rabbis and congregants at the time, Wise became a Zionist, committed to the establishment of a Jewish state. He attributed this to his first encounter with Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, at the second Zionist Congress in 1898. During that meeting Wise was elected to the Zionist General Action Committee. In 1914, he served as deputy to Louis Brandeis when Brandeis became head of the American Zionist movement. Both men were instrumental in obtaining President Woodrow Wilson’s support for the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which committed Great Britain to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Wise founded the American Jewish Congress in 1920, became president of the Zionist Organization of America in 1936, and continued to play a key role in the US Jewish community for the rest of his life.
Shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933, Wise became an outspoken opponent of Nazi Germany and attempted to rally US public opinion against it. He organized mass anti-Nazi protests in New York City’s Madison Square Garden and called for an end to the antisemitism of the Third Reich. He joined a movement to boycott German goods. He was instrumental in the creation of the World Jewish Congress, a broad, representative body established in Geneva in 1936 to fight Nazism.
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