In 1875, Isaac Mayer Wise, a rabbi in Cincinnati, Ohio, established Hebrew Union College. This institution was the first Jewish seminary in the United States and trained rabbis in the Reformed Jewish tradition. Wise served as the college's first president as well as a teacher. He also helped establish the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an organization consisting of rabbis from the Reformed Judaic tradition.
Reform Judaism emerged by the late 1700s in Europe. Historically, Christians and other faiths around the world had persecuted Jews. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, some nations began to relax restrictions on Jews, providing them with more economic, social, and political opportunities. In some cases, to enjoy these new benefits, Jews had to abandon their Jewish beliefs. Some Jews also grew tired of the strict rules and practices of Judaism and began to turn their backs on their faith even if they did not convert to a different religion. As a result of these factors, Judaism split into Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism.
Orthodox Jews believed that Jews must follow traditions that had existed for centuries without question. Reform Jews contended that, by relaxing Judaism's rules, that reluctant Jews would be more likely to remain true to Judaism. In essence, Reform Judaism created a less structured and more democratic branch of the Jewish faith.
Reform Jews encouraged the rabbis to conduct services in the language of the people rather than in Hebrew. They also introduced choral singing into services. They replaced the Bah Mitzvah with a confirmation ceremony and banned circumcision as being a barbaric practice. Reform Judaism also permitted women and men to sit together in the same pews in synagogue. Other traditional Jewish practices also came under attack. Reform Jewish rabbis concluded that their followers should choose for themselves in which religious practices that they would engage. Instead of establishing a strict religious dogma, Reform Jewish rabbis advocated freedom of choice for their parishioners.
Hebrew Union College has dominated Reform Judaism doctrines and philosophies since its founding. The college provides training to men and women in Jewish traditions and beliefs, but it is open to people of all faiths. Its curriculum encourages the students to play an active role in their communities and to promote understanding between people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. The institution has grown from a single campus at Cincinnati to having educational centers in Jerusalem, New York, and Los Angeles in 2003.