Wagner, Stanley M.

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WAGNER, STANLEY M. (1932– ), U.S. rabbi, academician, and community leader. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Wagner was educated at Yeshiva University, where he was ordained (1956) and wrote his doctoral dissertation on "Religious Non-Conformity in Ancient Jewish Life" (1964), a study of talmudic terms and categories for deviant religious behavior. After holding pulpits, as well as university teaching positions, in Lexington, Kentucky (1957–61) and Baldwin, New York (1961–70), Wagner served as executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America (Mizrachi – Ha-Poel ha-Mizrachi (1970–72). In 1972, he was appointed rabbi of the Beth HaMedrosh HaGodol (bmh) congregation, the oldest traditional congregation in Denver (founded in 1897), serving there until his retirement in 1997. At the beginning of his tenure, Wagner led the bmh into affiliation with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. At the end of his tenure, another traditional congregation, Beth Joseph, merged with the bmh and was housed in its facility.

In his 25 years in the Denver rabbinate, Wagner played a major role in reinvigorating communal Jewish life in Denver, due to his rabbinic, academic, and inter-religious activism, reflecting his interest in ideological diversity, first evident in his doctoral research. While serving as a congregational rabbi, Wagner also served as professor of Jewish history at the University of Denver (1972–99), where in 1975 he founded and directed the Center for Judaic Studies, which sponsored, in addition to its academic program at the university, courses in Judaica at local Christian seminaries, the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, and Beck Archives of Rocky Mountain Jewish History, a Holocaust Awareness Institute, and community cultural outreach programs. In 1982 he founded the Mizel Museum of Judaica, and served as its director until 2000. Wagner was also the only rabbi to serve as chaplain of the Colorado State Senate (1980–98). He was an outstanding example in the United States during last third of the 20th century of a rabbi as communal leader, institutional builder, and chief executive officer.

Wagner's publications include A Piece of My Mind (1979), and several volumes which he edited, including Great Confrontations in Jewish History (1977), Traditions of the American Jew (1977), and (with Raphael Jospe) Great Schisms in Jewish History (1981). He also served as general editor of a six-volume series on Christian and Jewish Traditions in the 20th Century. After his retirement, Wagner collaborated with Israel Drazin on a multi-volume English translation of and commentary on Targum Onkelos, Understanding the Bible Text: Onkelos on the Pentateuch.

Wagner's commitment to community-wide service, transcending denominational divisions, led him to write a halakhic study validating the "Denver Conversion Program," in which Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis cooperated in a joint educational program preparing candidates for conversion, and delegating authority for conversion to an Orthodox Bet Din which accepted candidates for conversion from all movements, and who were to be recognized, in turn, by the entire community. The program, which led to widespread controversy and was ultimately rejected by many Orthodox authorities (see the discussion in Samuel Freedman, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (2000) and the symposium "The Denver Conversion Experience," in: ccar Yearbookxcvi (1986), 47–58), provided a precedent and paradigm for the official Neeman Commission, charged by the government of Israel with developing an effective mechanism for resolving the difficulties of conversion in the Jewish state.

[Raphael Jospe (2nd ed.)]