Louise Waterman Wise
1874 – 1947
Philanthropist and charity worker Louise Waterman Wise was likely the first American Jewish Woman to be awarded the Order of the British Empire, the equivalent of a knighthood. She was, without doubt, the first to decline the honor. How an ardent Zionist and outspoken critic of Britain’s “ruthless conduct” with respect to Jewish settlement in Palestine could, nevertheless, perform such outstanding service to the British people as to merit official praise, is just one aspect of the “legend of Louise.”
Were it not for the fact that she was married to America’s most renowned rabbinic leader, Wise would be remembered today as one of the most prominent women in the history of Jewish America. For although most historians view her as simply the wife of Stephen S. Wise, her influence as a tireless advocate for the care and protection of children, the development of communal health care, refugee resettlement, and the establishment of the State of Israel was unparalleled. The introduction to the classic biographical collection Notable American Women clearly states that women (except for the wives of American presidents) were not included merely on the basis of their husbands’ credentials. Significantly, the entry on Wise appears prominently in the pages of that book. And though the writer called her a “Jewish Eleanor Roosevelt,” unintentionally diminishing her accomplishments, it was a comparison that Wise herself would have appreciated, since she considered her position as the wife of Stephen S. Wise to be her most valued role in life.
Born on July 17, 1874, in New York City, Louise Waterman was the daughter of Julius and Justine (Meyer) Waterman, wealthy aristocrats of German Jewish origin. Her mother was a woman of considerable education and refinement. Her father, a respected and successful businessman, valued education and the arts, though he himself was largely self-taught.
Louise was the youngest of three children, and her high spirits and boundless enthusiasm soon earned her the family nickname “Quicksilver.” She was educated at the exclusive Comstock Finishing School and attended an Episcopalian Sunday school for a time, despite her parents’ nominal membership at New York’s Temple Emanu-El. In the 1890s, she met Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture Society, and through him began her charitable work, teaching art at settlement houses in New York’s slums.
Her parents did not approve of her charitable work, fearing her association with undesirable people. Their fears were confirmed when, in 1899, she met and fell in love with a young rabbi named Stephen Samuel Wise. To say that her parents disapproved of her wish to marry him would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. Stephen Wise’s Hungarian heritage was considered a “serious impediment,” his relative lack of wealth made him unsuitable, his choice of profession was a “major catastrophe,” and his radical politics were scandalous. Finally, his Zionism was literally more than the Watermans could bear. Since their family’s reputation was at stake, they sent Louise on an extended vacation in Europe, in the hope that she would meet a more appropriate mate. But the young couple’s struggle and separation only served to cement their relationship. Despite all objections, they were married the following year.
They spent the next six years in Portland, Oregon, where Stephen Wise had accepted a position as the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel. In Portland, Louise Wise established the Free Nurses’ Association and bore two children. James (b. 1901) became a writer and his mother’s principal biographer; Justine Wise Polier (b. 1903) became a lawyer and, later, a judge of a domestic relations court. In 1907, the family returned to New York, where Stephen Wise established his Free Synagogue and rose to national prominence as an outstanding rabbi and political leader in American Jewish life.
Louise Wise continued her charitable work, taking on in 1916 the ambitious project of helping Jewish orphans. She learned that Jewish children left to the care of the state were routinely placed in asylums, since no agency existed to care for them. She therefore established the Child Adoption Agency of the Free Synagogue. The agency was a massive undertaking, which involved searching for literally thousands of Jewish orphans, gaining custody of them, and then placing them in Jewish homes all across the country.
During the 1920s, Wise studied painting and translated several French works on religion and Zionism into English. Her paintings show considerable talent, even though she never had enough time to truly develop her craft. Her eloquent translation of Edmond Fleg’s “Why I am a Jew” is now a fixture of the Haggada and the prayer books of Reform Judaism.
In 1931, she began working on behalf of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe, through the women’s division of the American Jewish Congress. The women’s division provided information, refugee housing, and, later, hostels for Allied soldiers during World War II. Congress House was the first home welcoming untold thousands of refugees escaping Nazi persecution. Wise and her committed corps of volunteers greeted these immigrants as honored guests and long-lost kin, personally caring for their needs until appropriate housing and support could be found for them.
When the United States entered the war and the flood of Nazi refugees was cut off, Congress House became Defense House, a hostel accommodating more than a quarter of a million servicemen from nearly every nation of the Allied armies. Soldiers and sailors of all faiths were lovingly cared for by Wise’s volunteers, drawing the praise and support of many, including Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady was astonished by the thousands of women who attended the women’s division annual luncheon at which she had been invited to speak.
Wise was an ardent Zionist for all of her adult life. She traveled many times to what was then British Mandate Palestine. She worked closely with Henrietta Szold in founding Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization. With Hadassah, Wise worked to provide health care and support for the many immigrants to Palestine. She accompanied her husband to Palestine, lending her own strong voice to the negotiations that would result in both the Balfour Declaration after World War I and the United Nations call for the establishment of an independent Jewish state after World War II. Though she did not live to see that dream fulfilled, she did witness its birthing pains.
Louise Waterman Wise died on December 10, 1947, of pneumonia at her home in New York City.
AJYB 24:215, 50:525; BEOAJ; EJ, s.v. “Wise, Stephen S.”; NAW; Obituary. NYTimes, December 11, 1947, 33:1; Rapport, Joe Rooks. “Notable American Jewish Women: A Computer Aided Study in Collective Biography.” Rabbinic thesis, Hebrew Union College (1984); UJE; Wise, James Waterman. Legend of Louise (1949); Wise, Stephen S. Challenging Years: The Autobiography of Stephen Wise (1949), and Servant of the People (1969); WWIAJ (1926, 1928, 1938); WWWIA 2.