Mazel Tov, Wise Temple!

Originally published by The American Israelite in February 2017

On February 26, 1842, a small group of German-Jewish immigrants here in Cincinnati officially became a congregation. Eleven years later, they elected a man as their spiritual leader who would not only set their future course, but also that of Reform Judaism as the world now knows it: Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

To recognize its 175 years as a congregation, and 150 years of Plum Street Temple, Wise Temple is hosting a series of events designed to honor its past, embrace its future, and celebrate today. This includes the creation of a commemorative Plum Street Temple photo book, two organ concerts featuring world-renowned musicians, a special Shabbat service held in the fashion of the 19th century, and the chance for members to scribe a letter in one of two Torah scrolls.

“With these celebrations, there is an opportunity for every one of us to create an extraordinary Jewish memory,” said Wise Temple’s Senior Rabbi Lewis Kamrass.

The first such chance takes place Sunday, February 26, when Craig Cramer, professor of organ at the University of Notre Dame, plays Plum Street Temple’s historic Rockwern organ. (A second concert, featuring Plum Street Temple organist Michael Unger, happens Sunday, April 23. Both events are open to the public, and are preceded by tours of the Temple, led by Rabbi Kamrass.) On Sunday, June 4, Dr. Gary Zola, Wise Temple member and executive director of the American Jewish Archives, will lead a bus tour of Cincinnati’s historical Jewish landmarks, and on Friday, June 9, Wise Temple will take a step back in time with a special 19th-century Shabbat service that harkens to the days of Rabbi Wise in music, dress, and ambiance. Celebrations culminate with two separate dedications of the Torah scrolls written by Wise Temple congregants – the first, with a festive street fair at Wise Center on August 27, and a second during S’lichot services at Plum Street Temple on September 16. RSVP is requested for some of these events; learn more at

Festivities held since the anniversary celebrations first kicked off in October have invigorated the congregation, said Kari Fagin, Wise Temple’s director of member engagement. As examples, she points to how over 100 members have come forward to serve as event facilitators, planners, marketers, and more, and upwards of 1,000 have scribed a letter in the two Torahs. “When congregants bring their time and talents to the sacred work of the Temple, they often find a higher level of meaning and fulfillment, which I’ve definitely observed in our anniversary volunteers,” she remarked.

Dianne Benmayor couldn’t agree more. A Wise Temple member for 17 years, Benmayor assists lead volunteer Randi Chaiken with the coordination and training of those who sign up to lend a hand on scribing days, whether it be as a greeter, photographer, or tissue distributer. “I love that I’ve gotten to meet so many of my fellow congregants, who before I just said a quick ‘hello’ to,” said Benmayor. Plus, with each day, she gets to relive her own scribing experience, which took place in October. “There is a transformation that takes place from when people first walk in the door to when they leave,” she said. “You get a sense of a deeper connection.”

Over 2 million people across North America now identify as Reform Jews, according to the Union for Reform Judaism (which Rabbi Wise founded as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873). While Rabbi Wise was often a controversial figure, there is little room for argument that he played a huge role in bringing the Reform movement to the forefront. In addition to such innovations as the use of organ music during services and introducing one of the first American Jewish publications – this very paper – Rabbi Wise also took steps that would extend far beyond Cincinnati’s nearly 80 square miles. He wrote the first siddur edited for American worshipers, Minhag America, in 1873; established Hebrew Union College in 1875, which now has campuses in New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem in addition to Cincinnati; and, in 1889, founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis, now headquartered in New York and which currently bids itself as the oldest and largest rabbinic organization in North America.

“I’d like to think that if Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise came to our congregation today, he would feel a deep sense of fulfillment,” said Rabbi Kamrass. “As with his founding vision, we continue to change with the times, to respond to new needs, and to shape a vibrant Jewish life for today and for tomorrow.”