Date of Degree


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Degree Name





Robert M. Seltzer

Subject Categories

Jewish Studies | Religion | United States History


Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism, Seminary education, Stephen S. Wise


This study explores how Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and supporters from the Free Synagogue and elsewhere sought to reorient American liberal Judaism by establishing the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR) in the early 1920s. They believed the leaders of the Reform movement at that time were reluctant to relinquish an outmoded approach that had lost relevance in light of a new demographic reality whereby over a million Eastern European Jews now living in New York were becoming the dominant presence in American Jewish life. The JIR founders attributed this to Reform's having become insular, unresponsive to pressing social issues, overly concerned with respectability, and spiritually lifeless. Wise and his circle advanced a vision for liberal Judaism they considered to be more modern and American, more liberal and more deeply Jewish.

While they attempted to advance their vision for liberal Judaism on many fronts, they believed that critical to the task was creating a New York-based scholarly center capable of training a new kind of rabbi. This work describes the key individuals in addition to Wise who created the Institute, the international scholars who formed the first faculty, and the debates that ensued and obstacles encountered as the institution took shape.

From the outset, the founders determined that JIR would differ from existing schools in significant ways. For example, prioritizing the "oneness of Israel," JIR would include faculty and students representing a broad spectrum of belief, from Orthodox to non-Orthodox, and Zionist to non-Zionist. All students would enter with a bachelor's degree, and in addition to studying traditional fields like Bible, history and Talmud, they would study modern Hebrew, social service and contemporary trends in Jewish education. In addition, through fieldwork, students would utilize the metropolitan area as a laboratory for learning how to serve American Jewry as inspiring, socially-engaged rabbis.

With these and other innovations, Wise and the founders believed JIR would point twentieth-century liberal Judaism in new directions. Though they did not succeed in all they set out to achieve, many aspects of the reorientation of American Jewish religious life they pursued remain with us today.