A champion for social justice, civil rights, and the Jewish people, Stephen Wise (1874–1949) was one of the most prominent US Jewish leaders of the 20th century.
Among his many accomplishments, Wise cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1914, founded the American Jewish Congress in 1920, became president of the Zionist Organization of America in 1936, and served as a member of President Roosevelt’s Advisory Commission on Political Refugees from 1938 to 1945.
In 1905, Wise was under consideration to serve as rabbi at Temple Emanu–El in New York City. When he learned that his sermons would be reviewed in advance by the temple’s board of trustees, he withdrew himself from consideration and founded a “free” synagogue where anyone who addresses the congregation can say what he or she wishes.
Leaders of all beliefs have spoken in our sanctuary, including President Woodrow Wilson, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Carl Sagan, Justice Louis Brandeis, and Albert Einstein.
We were the first synagogue to install a female rabbi and are among the first synagogues to open a shelter for the homeless.
Behind this striking history lies the belief that Reform Judaism, rooted in traditional Jewish values, is a vital force in the world, and that worship and study are catalysts for action.