History - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism.

HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, leaders in Jewish education, and Jewish nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate degree programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise renowned library, archive, and museum collections, biblical archaeology excavations, and academic publications. HUC-JIR invites the community to an array of cultural and educational programs that illuminate Jewish identity, history, and contemporary creativity, and foster interfaith and multiethnic understanding.

When Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, came to America in 1846, he encountered a frontier Jewry of 40,000 people. There was but one ordained officiating rabbi in all of America; most Jewish clergy were German "free lancers," officiating in the German language and lacking any real understanding of American life.

Hebrew Union College's first building in Cincinnati

Hebrew Union College's first building in Cincinnati

Wise understood the urgent need for rabbinical training and standards for those who would provide progressive, enlightened, and modern spiritual leadership for the American pulpit. At a time when Christian denominational colleges were springing up by the score, Wise was certain that an institution of higher Jewish learning would guarantee Jewish survival in America.

The first graduating class of Hebrew Union College, 1883

The first graduating class of Hebrew Union College, 1883

And so, in 1873, with an American Jewish population exceeding 150,000, Wise was the catalyst for the creation of the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly Union of American Hebrew Congregations), with its twenty-eight congregational founding members, in order to support the establishment of a "Hebrew Theological Institute." In 1875, the Hebrew Union College was launched in Cincinnati the first permanent Jewish institution of higher learning in the New World.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and his faculty at the Jewish Institute of Religion, 1927

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and his faculty at the Jewish Institute of Religion, 1927

The liberal and pluralistic ethos of Wise's seminary was amplified through its merger in 1950 with the Jewish Institute of Religion. Founded in 1922 in New York by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the renowned advocate of social justice and human rights, the Jewish Institute of Religion was conceived as an institution serving all streams of Judaism.

A third center was opened in Los Angeles in 1954 to serve the growing Jewish community on the West Coast. A fourth branch was established in Jerusalem in 1963 to serve as a post-doctoral school of archaeological and biblical studies. Since 1970, it has grown to serve as the center for the College-Institute's Year-in-Israel Program, Israel Rabbinical Program, and as the academic center and headquarters for the Progressive Movement in Israel.

Rabbi Sally F. Priesand, the first woman to become a rabbi in America, 1972

Rabbi Sally F. Priesand, the first woman to become a rabbi in America, 1972

As a path-breaking institution, HUC-JIR has led the way in Jewish higher eduation, advancing gender equality and LGBTQI rights in Jewish leadership:

  • 1875: established the first permanent rabbinical seminary in North America
  • 1947: inaugurated the first interfaith school of graduate studies located in a Jewish seminary
  • 1948: founded the first cantorial school in North America
  • 1963: created our campus in Jerusalem, in recognition of the importance of Israel for the training of Jewish leaders
  • 1969: launched the graduate program in Jewish communal service (Jewish nonprofit management today)
  • 1970: started requiring rabbinical students (and later education and cantorial students) to study in Israel as part of their academic journey
  • 1972: ordained the first woman rabbi in America, Rabbi Sally F. Priesand
  • 1975: ordained the first woman cantor in America, Cantor Barbara J. Ostfeld
  • 1990: established the first Clinical Pastoral Education Program in a Jewish seminary
  • 1992: ordained the first woman rabbi in the State of Israel, Rabbi Naamah Kelman
  • 2006: ordained the first transgender rabbi
  • 2009: ordained the first African-American rabbi
  • 2017: ordained the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi

Today, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is an international seminary and university of graduate studies offering a wide variety of academic and professional programs. In addition to its Rabbinical School, the College-Institute includes the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, Pines School of Graduate Studies, School of Education, Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, and Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology.