A champion for social justice, civil rights, and the Jewish people, Stephen Wise (1874–1949) was one of the most prominent US Jewish leaders of the 20th century.

Among his many accomplishments, Wise cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1914, founded the American Jewish Congress in 1920, became president of the Zionist Organization of America in 1936, and served as a member of President Roosevelt's Advisory Commission on Political Refugees from 1938 to 1945.

In 1905, Wise was under consideration to serve as rabbi at Temple Emanu–El in New York City. When he learned that his sermons would be reviewed in advance by the temple’s board of trustees, he withdrew himself from consideration and founded a "free" synagogue where anyone who addresses the congregation can say what he or she wishes. 

Leaders of all beliefs have spoken in our sanctuary, including President Woodrow Wilson, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Carl Sagan, Justice Louis Brandeis, and Albert Einstein. 

We were the first synagogue to install a female rabbi and the first New York synagogue to open an on-site homeless shelter.

Behind this striking history lies the belief that Reform Judaism, rooted in traditional Jewish values, is a vital force in the world, and that worship and study are catalysts for action.


Rabbi Stephen Wise was under active consideration for the pulpit at Temple Emanu–El in New York City. When Wise learned that his sermons would be reviewed in advance by the temple’s board of trustees, he withdrew himself from consideration.

October 1907
More than 100 of Wise’s followers meet to establish a "free" synagogue and religious school.

December 1907
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue establishes a social service department, the first of its kind.

Stephen Wise founds the Jewish Institute of Religion to provide advanced education leading to ordination for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews.

Construction of the present synagogue building begins.

Rabbi Stephen Wise dies at age 75.

Edward Klein becomes Rabbi. Rabbi Klein served as senior rabbi of the Free Synagogue from 1949 to 1981, when he became rabbi emeritus. Across those decades, his voice resounded on issues ranging from civil rights to the war in Vietnam, from nuclear testing to urban redevelopment.

Synagogue is dedicated.

Sally Priesand, the first woman to be ordained a rabbi, is installed as Associate Rabbi.

Rabbi Balfour Brickner brings his vision of liberal Judaism to Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

The Men’s Shelter is created.

Rabbi Ira S. Youdovin takes the pulpit.

Senior Rabbi Gary M. Bretton–Granatoor was the fifth person to hold that office in the congregation’s nine–decade history.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is named Senior Rabbi following his tenure as executive director of ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America), where he served for 12 years. 

Cantor Dan Singer joins the congregation.

The Next Step Men’s Shelter celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch celebrates 10 years at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

From the Archive: Rabbi Wise and the Free Synagogue Choir

The tracks below, from a vinyl record recorded in the 1940s, features the voices of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Free Synagogue Choir, conducted by A.W. Binder. It is an historical recording that offers a valuable perspective of what classical Reform services were once like at the Free Synagogue over a half century ago.

Prayers and Songs for the Sabbath

The Candle Lighting Service

Call To Prayer - Come Let Us Sing

Psalm 23

The Faith of Israel