This year, Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion is celebrating one hundred years since the founding of the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR) in 1922 in New York City. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of the most famous rabbis in America at the time, founded the Institute with support from people in his Free Synagogue, to train rabbis for the general rabbinate, not necessarily for a specific denomination. The goal was for these new rabbis to serve either Reform or traditional pulpits as needed. There were many esteemed faculty that were recruited, including Drs. Julius Guttman from Germany, Israel Abrahams, Chaim Tschernowitz, and Abraham W. Binder, as either full-time faculty or guest lecturers.
This fulfilled Wise’s goal of attracting scholars from around the world, in order to represent the entire spectrum of Jewish thought. The Institute wanted to make sure all groups were included so that faculty and students would represent the “Oneness of Israel.” Viewpoints ranged from Orthodoxy on one side, and the more liberal Reform movement on the other, and everything in between. Also important was the recognition of Zionist and non-Zionist positions on that issue. Wise and the Institute supported the Zionist camp, unlike HUC, which at that time which was anti-Zionist or non-Zionist.
The Jewish Institute of Religion also had its own press, which only published twelve books due to funding issues. Arguably the most famous of which is Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, which was based on a series of lectures Scholem gave at the Institute in 1938 (pictured right).
As limited funding was always an issue for the Institute, Rabbi Wise eventually agreed to merge with Hebrew Union College in the late 1940s and the merger was completed in 1950. The history and impact of the Jewish Institute of Religion on American Judaism and Reform Judaism specifically cannot be easily summarized. The legacy of Rabbi Wise has been carried by the joint Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion which together help define the trajectory of Modern American Judaism and Judaism around the world as well.
In our exhibit cases here on the New York campus, we have archival photographs, class schedules, faculty lists from the JIR and biographies and other writings by and about Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. The HUC-JIR Library also holds many other writings, by and about Rabbi Wise and his contributions. Come check them out one day!