On the weekend of January 24–26, 2020, Dr. Gary P. Zola received the prestigious Isaac Mayer Wise Lifetime Achievement Award from the Reform Jewish community of Denver. For over two decades, Dr. Zola has served as the Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, and is also the Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor of the American Jewish Experience & Reform Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati.
The award, created in 1983 by Denver’s Temple Emanuel and Temple Sinai, honors those who have made significant spiritual, academic and social contributions to Reform Judaism and the ideals of modern, progressive and pluralistic Judaism around the world. Past awardees have included Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus (1984), who founded the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati; Mr. Albert Vorspan (1985), director of Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action for nearly 40 years; Rabbi Alexander Schindler (1988), president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Rabbi David N. Saperstein (1990), director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Rabbi Dr. Alfred Gottschalk (1991), president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The award is named for Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who is considered to be the architect of American Reform Judaism, having founded the three great organizations of American Reform Judaism in Cincinnati, Ohio: the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873); the Hebrew Union College (1875); and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889).
During the Erev Shabbat service, Dr. Zola gave the keynote address and was presented with the Isaac Mayer Wise Award. On Sunday morning, Temple Sinai featured Dr. Zola as he shared insights from his work documenting, teaching, and preserving American Jewish history.
“I am deeply and profoundly honored to receive the Isaac Mayer Wise Award – particularly as Reform Judaism is marking the bicentennial anniversary of Wise’s birth (1819-2019),” said Zola. “Words cannot adequately convey my sense of gratitude to Rabbi Joseph Black '87 and Rabbi Rick Rheins '89 (Temple Sinai) and the Reform Jewish community of Denver for this kind and very generous recognition.” Zola’s keynote address—which focused on Isaac Mayer Wise’s impact on American Judaism—is entitled, "'They Will Think of Me for a Century': The Living Legacy of Isaac Mayer Wise.”
Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., President of HUC-JIR, noted: “Dr. Gary P. Zola is a preeminent historian of the American Jewish experience and of the Reform Movement. His leadership of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives ensures the preservation of precious documents that tell the story of Jewish life and leadership in the Western Hemisphere. His teaching, scholarship, and publications sustain and transmit our Jewish history for generations to come.”
Dr. Zola served the nation as a member of the Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad from 2011-2019. He was also the only rabbi and American Jewish historian to be appointed to the national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s Advisory Council, spearheading Lincoln observances leading up to the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth — February 12, 2009. Additionally, Zola served as the national chair of the Commission for Commemorating the 350 Years of American Jewish History,which was organized to help our nation mark the 350th anniversary of Jewish communal life in North America (1654-2004).
Upon hearing of Dr. Zola’s selection as the 2020 recipient of the distinguished award, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) observed that, “Rabbi Zola lives and builds upon the legacy of Rabbi Wise every day in his work. As a scholar and spiritual leader, he has had a lasting impact not just on American Reform Judaism, but on people of faith and students of history around Ohio and across the country. He understands the unique role that Cincinnati has played in the development of American Judaism, and all the ways the Jewish faith has shaped our country and been a force for progressive change.”
Dr. Zola is a widely published scholarly and contemporary author—with numerous articles appearing in many scholarly and national media publications. He is the author of We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, A Documentary History (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), and he has co-edited with Marc Dollinger a volume titled, American Jewish History: A Source Reader (Brandeis University Press, 2014). He also serves as editor of The Marcus Center’s award-winning, semi-annual publication, The American Jewish Archives Journal.
Senator Rob Portman (R-OH)—responding to the news that Denver’s Reform Jewish community would be honoring Dr. Zola—noted that, “Several years ago, at my invitation, my friend Gary Zola, opened the U.S. Congress with a powerful prayer in celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. Throughout his life, Dr. Zola has contributed in meaningful ways to Reform Judaism as a Rabbi, a scholar, and as a teacher. His published writings, community involvement, advocacy, and many other contributions speak volumes about his commitment to Reform Judaism and will have a lasting impact for generations to come.”
The weekend reunited Dr. Zola and Rabbi Black, who met in 1970 when Dr. Zola served as Rabbi Black’s camp counselor at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. “Rabbi Gary Zola is one of the preeminent scholars of American Jewish History,” said Black. “Ever since taking the reins of the American Jewish Archives from its retired founder, Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, Rabbi Zola has worked tirelessly to innovate, inspire and increase the funding, program, and reputation of the Archives. He has brought it to new heights of success. What better way to celebrate Rabbi Wise’s legacy than by honoring one of the key guardians of that legacy?”
Rabbi Black served as an intern with Rabbi Zola when he was in Rabbinical School and Rabbi Zola was serving as national Director of Admissions for HUC-JIR. Rabbi Black’s 10th anniversary celebration will honor his love of Torah and learning by focusing on Torah (study, knowledge), Avodah (observance), and G'milut Hasadim (acts of love and kindness)— which represent the building blocks leading to the repair of the world.