Wechsler, Judah

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WECHSLER, JUDAH (1832–1907) U.S. Reform rabbi, journalist, interfaith and civil rights activist. Wechsler was born in Bavaria and studied at the yeshivah of Würzburg, where he was ordained an Orthodox rabbi. Arriving in the United States in 1857, he served the Jewish community of Portsmouth, Ohio, as *ḥazzan and *shoḥet, before becoming rabbi of the Reform Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana (1861–64). A pioneer in conducting interfaith services, he was the first rabbi to preach in the city's Methodist church. When the congregation was having financial difficulties, Wechsler took the pulpit of a congregation in Richmond, Virginia (1864–67), returning to Indianapolis in 1867. In 1869, he served a congregation in Columbus, Ohio, moving to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1872, and then to Temple Mt. Zion in St. Paul, Minnesota (1882–92). His final pulpit was in Meridian, Mississippi (1892–97); in retirement, he moved back to Indianapolis, where he remained until his death.

In St. Paul, Wechsler – who was a member of the *Central Conference of American Rabbis from its founding in 1889 – strove to bring his temple into the *Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the mainstream of Reform Judaism. He also became the patron of a utopian-style colony in Painted Woods, South Dakota, populated by immigrants fleeing czarist Russia. The colony grew to nearly 250 people; but when it ultimately failed, Wechsler moved on to another tremendous challenge in Meridian, Mississippi, where he took a courageous stand on behalf of improving the education and status of African-Americans. He was so instrumental in the building of a high school for blacks that the school bears his name.

In 1884, Wechsler traveled to the West Coast and chronicled his visits to Jewish communities in Portland and San Francisco. He was a regular contributor to the *American Israelite and the Jewish Messenger, and his articles were frequently translated into Hebrew for publication in the European Jewish press.


K.M. Olitzky, L.J. Sussman, M.H. Stern, Reform Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Source-book (1993).

[Bezalel Gordon (2nd ed.)]