Isaac M. Weiss
Isaac M. Wise, circa 1880
Isaac Mayer Weiss was born on March 29, 1819, in Bohemia. Weiss's parents placed a heavy emphasis on education, and their son studied under his father, his grandfather, and then at various schools in Europe, including the University of Prague and the University of Vienna. His studies focused upon Jewish religious texts, as Wise hoped to become a rabbi. In 1842, a board of rabbis proclaimed Wise knowledgeable enough about Jewish practices and beliefs to become a rabbi. During this period, Jewish people, especially religious leaders, faced persecution for their faith. Hoping to practice his faith freely, Weiss moved to the United States in 1846, arriving in New York on July 23. Upon arriving in America, Weiss changed his name to Wise.
Wise served as a rabbi in Albany, New York, for his first four years in the United States. Many of his followers disagreed with his teachings. Wise hoped to reform the Jewish faith and introduced choral singing in services, replaced the practice of Bah Mitzvah with a confirmation ceremony, and also permitted men and women to sit together during church services. Orthodox Jews grew unhappy with the rabbi who practiced Reform Judaism, and the board of directors of his synagogue dismissed Wise from his position in 1850. Several of his followers helped Wise establish a new synagogue in Albany based upon their rabbi's views.
In 1854, Wise accepted a position as a rabbi with a synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio. Wise remained in Cincinnati for the remainder of his life. He emerged as one of the most important Jews living in the United States during the nineteenth century. He created a common prayer book for followers of Reformed Judaism. In 1873, Wise formed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. This organization initially united thirty-four Reform Jewish congregations together under a national body. In 1875, Wise established Hebrew Union College. This institution was the first Jewish seminary in the United States and trained rabbis in the Reformed Jewish tradition. Wise served as the college's first president as well as a teacher. He also helped establish the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an organization consisting of rabbis from the Reformed Judaic tradition. Wise served as this group's president from 1889 until his death on March 26, 1900.