History of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue
In 1905, Stephen S. 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 the first New York synagogue to open an on-site homeless shelter.
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.
A champion for social justice, civil rights, and the Jewish people, our namesake Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949) was one of the most prominent U.S. Jewish leaders of the 20th century.
Among his many accomplishments, Wise co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, 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.
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise was under active consideration for the pulpit at Temple Emanu–El in New York City. When Wise learned that his sermons would be reviewed in advance by the temple’s board of trustees, he withdrew himself from consideration. In a 1906 letter to Emanu-El’s trustees, he stated that the demands placed on him raised the “question whether the pulpit shall be free or whether the pulpit shall not be free, and, by reason of its loss of freedom, reft of its power for good.” Within months of this letter, Rabbi Wise started work toward a “free synagogue” holding services at the Hudson Theater on West 44th Street and on the Lower East Side.
The first of a series of meetings looking to the completion of the plans of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise for the founding of a “free synagogue” is held at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street. “Dr. Wise’s address was followed with the closest attention, and when he finished there was a slight ripple of applause, which he promptly silenced,” reported The New York Times.
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and more than 100 of his followers establish a “free” synagogue and religious school.
The Free Synagogue establishes a social service department, the first of its kind.
The Free Synagogue’s 500 members celebrated Rosh Hashanah at Carnegie Hall, and a number of brownstones were purchased on West 68th Street in 1911 as the site of a permanent home for the synagogue.
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise founds the Jewish Institute of Religion to provide advanced education leading to ordination for Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews.
Recognizing the community’s need for a conveniently located cemetery, the synagogue created Westchester Hills.
Construction of the present synagogue building begins.
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise dies at age 75.
Edward Klein becomes senior rabbi of The Free Synagogue, serving from 1949 to 1981, when he became rabbi emeritus. Across those decades, he was a leading voice on issues ranging from civil rights to the war in Vietnam, from nuclear testing to urban redevelopment.
The synagogue is dedicated and renamed Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
Sally Priesand, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi, is installed as associate rabbi.
Rabbi Balfour Brickner brings his vision of liberal Judaism to Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
Rabbi Helene Ferris was installed as associate rabbi. During her 10-year tenure, she pioneered numerous educational programs and social justice initiatives.
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue becomes the first synagogue in New York City to open an on-site homeless shelter. A few months earlier, New York Mayor Ed Koch had given a speech here asking faith-based communities to get involved in the issue of homelessness.
Rabbi Ira S. Youdovin takes the pulpit.
Senior Rabbi Gary M. Bretton–Granatoor is the fifth person to hold that office in the congregation’s nine-decade history.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is named senior rabbi following his tenure as executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, where he served for 12 years.
Cantor Dan Singer joins the congregation.
The Next Step Men’s Shelter celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch celebrates 15 years at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.