Wise, Louise Waterman (1874–1947)

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Wise, Louise Waterman (1874–1947)

American charitable leader and Zionist . Born Louise Waterman on July 17, 1874, in New York City; died of pneumonia on December 10, 1947; daughter of Julius Waterman (an artisan) and Justine (Mayer) Waterman; educated at a finishing school in Comstock, New York; married Stephen Samuel Wise (a rabbi), on November 14, 1900 (died 1949); children: James Waterman Wise (b. 1901) and Justine Wise (b. 1903).

Established the Free Nurses Association for medical assistance to poor mothers (1902); improved school buildings and started an adoption agency for Jewish orphans, previously placed in asylums (1909–16); began championing aid to children in Palestine (1923); completed paintings of social injustices; translated important French writings related to Judaism; created the Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress to heighten public awareness of the threats of Nazism and anti-Semitism; began establishing shelters for Eastern European refugees (1933); provided hostels for Allied military personnel; raised funds for wounded Russian and British civilians and for children evacuated during the Blitz in World War II; attempted to assist Holocaust survivors after the war.

Louise Waterman Wise was born in New York City in 1874, to German-Jewish immigrants Julius and Justine Mayer Waterman . Her father, a skilled artisan, had come to New Haven, Connecticut, from Bayreuth in Bavaria during the 1840s. His brother Sigmund was one of the first professors at Yale University to teach German. Julius started a factory to make hoop skirts and, after achieving some success, sent to Germany for his fiancée, Justine Mayer, who was well educated for a woman of her day. Before Louise's birth, the family moved to New York City where this second daughter and third child of the Watermans was born. Despite being members of Temple Emanu-El, the Watermans did not stress Jewish tradition, and Louise attended an Episcopal Sunday school. During her childhood, she earned the nickname "Quicksilver" due to her high spirits, and she attended a finishing school in Comstock, New York, studying fine arts as well as gaining fluency in French and German.

In 1890, after the unexpected death of her mother, Louise began to read the great literature of a variety of cultures, finding Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings particularly appealing because they advocated rebellion against tradition. She also met the moralist Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture Society. Adler encouraged Louise to lead art classes for the underprivileged and to work in the settlement houses in the slums of New York, despite the protests of her family.

In January 1899, Louise met her future husband, Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise. Although the family considered Wise an inappropriate suitor because of his poverty, Austro-Hungarian roots, and Zionist politics, he and Louise married in 1900 and would remain devoted companions for their 47 years together. Louise gave him constant support through his tumultuous career, and she found in him the Jewish background that had been neglected during her youth. The Wise family lived from 1900 to 1906 in Portland, Oregon, where he was the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel and she organized a social service agency, the Free Nurses Association. Founded in 1902, this agency pioneered free medical care for destitute young mothers. The Wises also had their own children while in Portland; James Waterman Wise, born in 1901, would become a writer, and Justine Wise , born in 1903, would become a lawyer and judge.

The family returned to New York in 1907 when Rabbi Wise established the Free Synagogue and began a lifelong crusade for social justice, honest local governments, the end of child labor, increased understanding between Jews and Christians, and the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Louise sympathized with her husband's ideals and practiced them in her own way by becoming a children's advocate. In 1909, she led efforts to improve classroom ventilation in badly designed New York public school buildings. In the process, she learned that Jewish orphans were routinely sent to asylums because there was no avenue for them to be adopted by Jewish families. Wise subsequently founded the Child Adoption Committee of the Free Synagogue in 1916. Physicians and nurses were asked to provide information on such children, and Wise herself gained legal custody to remove them from the asylums. She accepted applications for adoptions and tried to match each child and adoptive family.

In 1919, the Wises went to Europe where Rabbi Wise participated in the Paris Peace Conference as a delegate attempting to gain minority rights for Eastern European Jews and to foster an international agreement to form a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Wises met Jews who represented all the countries of Europe and heard firsthand descriptions of all manner of suffering. In 1923, Louise traveled to Palestine, learning of Henrietta Szold 's attempts to improve conditions for children there; she supported this work with both words and money.

In the 1920s, with her children grown, Wise resumed her interest in art. She studied painting at the Art Students League in New York and captured on canvas images of injustice, with such titles as "Orphanage," "Sacrifice of Abraham," and "Flight from Belgium." Her paintings were critically acclaimed and exhibited, and a number of museums still house her work. Wise also completed important translations of French books about Judaism, such as The Unknown Sanctuary (1928) by Aimé Pallière, and My Palestine (1933) and Why I am a Jew (1934) by Edmond Fleg.

During the early 1930s, the Wises recognized the danger presented by the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Wise normally avoided public speaking, but this issue drove her to the podium and to create the Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress. The division had wide-ranging aims, one of which was to publicize the horrors associated with fascism and anti-Semitism. Under the division's auspices, in 1933 Wise established the Congress House for Refugees to furnish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe with temporary housing. In 1935 and 1936, two more homes were added, and the three shelters housed 3,000 refugees before World War II. During the war, the houses were converted to Defense Houses at Wise's direction to shelter Allied military personnel of all religions. Wise also traveled across the United States to raise funds to provide medical care for wounded civilians in Russia and Britain and to care for children evacuated from London during the Blitz.

Despite poor health, at the war's end Wise went to Europe with her husband to identify ways and means of aiding Holocaust survivors. Most wanted to migrate to Palestine, but the British government blocked this option. When the British Foreign Office awarded the Order of the British Empire to Wise in July 1946 in acknowledgment of her war relief efforts, she refused the honor in protest of the Palestine immigration issue. She died of pneumonia at her home in New York City in December 1947. The United Nations had, by that time, called for the establishment of Israel; Rabbi Wise saw this come to pass in 1948 before dying himself the following year.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California