Meet Ira Wise: Our New Director of Lifelong Learning

By Erica Slutsky | Communications Manager

What inspired Ira Wise to become a Jewish Educator? “It really started with being a camper and being a camp counselor at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI – the Union of Reform Judaism summer camp in Wisconsin that started the URJ camp program).” A Chicagoan at heart and lifelong Cubs fan, Wise grew up in the suburbs. He credits Rabbi Mark S. Shapiro for encouraging kids to go to camp, competing with another local Rabbi to see who could get the most congregants to say yes. “They even counted their dogs!” From the way he recounts it, all of Ira’s best friends were made at Religious School, temple, and camp – lifelong relationships that continued through adulthood.

“To me, temple and camp were an extension of each other. Those were my happy places,” he said.

After college, Ira taught religious school and then worked as the Regional Director of [Zionist Youth Movement] Young Judaea in Chicago from 1985-88. During that time, Ira helped relocate the Young Judaea Midwest camp to Wisconsin and even considered becoming a camp director: “What could be better than going to camp every year?” But being on the road 150 days a year recruiting campers and counselors, as his former camp director described the job, did not appeal. He ultimately decided to change course to his other happy place.

“I can bring the kind of joy that I have, the kind of learning that I love, and the kinds of interactions I had with kids at camp into a synagogue,” he realized.

He enrolled in Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) to get a Masters in Jewish Education, spending a year in Jerusalem and two years in Los Angeles. “I graduated in 1991 and I’ve been doing this work ever since,” he said.

Though he “grew up” in the Reform movement, Wise credits his time at Young Judaea with helping him develop a clear point of view as an educator and storyteller. “It allowed me to get a perspective that was a little different from what I grew up with” as a Reform Jew. Instead of seeing different streams of Judaism as the “other,” Wise saw this as a teachable moment. “Let’s figure out what’s more meaningful to us.”

This sense of community helped him refocus his lifelong connection to Israel and Zionism and it became central to his identity and work. He was a student at HUC-JIR during the first year of his marriage, and Israel became the place where the newlyweds “faced everything together, without any of [their] previous friends and family around.” There, he and his wife, Audrey, created a shared identity and community.

“It was all ours,” he recalled. “It was really a wonderful beginning.”

Because of this stability, he said, “I’ve made a sideline of finding ways to get to Israel” for the last twenty-five years. Like his predecessor as Director of Lifelong Learning at Emanu-El, Saul Kaiserman, Ira was a mentor at the Leadership Institute, run by HUC and Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) under the sponsorship of UJA-Federation of New York, which allowed him to attend twice as staff on Israel trips for educators.

He received a fellowship from the Jim Joseph Foundation at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education and the Diaspora at Bar-Ilan Institute in Ramat Gan, which brought him back for another two years. For the last ten years, he has been a flight chaperone for NFTY in Israel, reconnecting with his friends there and meeting with colleagues, searching for opportunities to bring Israel back to his teachers and students. This past June, he and Audrey chaperoned a NFTY group to Tel Aviv.

Ira joins the Department of Lifelong Learning at Emanu-El after twenty-seven years as the Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Conn. His rebranding of B’nai Israel’s school program in that time included redeveloping the curriculum around values and prioritizing experiential learning. For him, the best way to learn isn’t just to read or watch a movie about something, but for kids to create and explore for themselves, to build deeper and richer connections with their teachers and each other.

“Innovation has been essential,” he said.

He sees his role in the Religious School at Emanu-El as an opportunity to continue the work of his predecessors, praising Kaiserman and Jackie Schreiber for their leadership. “The trajectory of Emanu-El has always been upward,” he said, citing the temple’s rich history.

Wise would like to instill these values in his students, even outside of the classroom. After all, the same friends who attended Religious School with him – who “took over the back room” at the local diner after services – still meet up with him decades later whenever they’re in the same city. “Some of my closest connections are people I knew from temple.”

This article was originally published in Volume 93, Issue 3 of the Temple Bulletin, Summer 2022.