Brandeis University and the Jews

Brandeis rose quickly to academic excellence, but the nature of its Jewish character remains ambiguous.

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Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Of all American universities, none played a more significant role in Jewish scholarship than Brandeis University. Its distinguished faculty in­cluded Nahum Glatzer and Alexander Altmann, two of the world's leading authorities on Jewish philosophy. Glatzer, until 1933 when he left Germany, had held the chair of Jewish philosophy and ethics at the University of Frankfurt previously occupied by Martin Buber. Altmann had been a rabbi in Berlin and a lecturer in the city's Orthodox rabbinical seminary before he fled Germany in 1938. In the 1950s, when Glatzer and Altmann joined the Brandeis faculty, the university was less than 10 years old. 

Brandeis University

Usen Castle, the only building original

to the Waltham, Mass., site of

the Brandeis campus.

Image courtesy Brandeis University.

Brandeis's meteoric rise to academic excellence was without parallel in the history of American education. The 107 students who made up Bran­deis's first class in 1948 had enrolled in an institution whose future was cloudy at best. Its campus in Waltham, Massachusetts, had previously housed Middlesex University, a defunct medical college, and its most im­posing building resembled a medieval castle. The university began with a library containing only 1,000 books, mostly out-of-date medical texts. With only $33,000 in the bank, the institution's finan­cial condition appeared precarious.

Opposition to Jewish Universities

The founders of Brandeis, most of whom were from neighboring Bos­ton, seemed to have embarked on a fool's errand. There was no assurance that American Jews in the 1940s would be any friendlier to the idea of a Jewish university than they had been in the 1920s, when Yeshiva University announced plans to establish a liberal arts college.

At that time, the Ameri­can Hebrew, the organ of the German Jewish establishment, described the idea of a Jewish college as a "preposterous proposition... fraught with harmful possibilities." Such a proposal indicated "a lamentable lack of confidence in the justice and fair play of the American people." Fortunately it was "not in any sense representative of the wishes of American Jewry." Judaism did not require "cloistered walls or academic seclusion to retain its integrity." Louis Marshall, the unofficial spokesman for the Jewish estab­lishment, agreed. The establishment of a Jewish college, he predicted, would be "most unfortunate."

Some opponents of Yeshiva College objected to the very idea of a Jewish college, while others opposed its control by Orthodox elements. For the latter, the name Yeshiva University was an oxymoron. Just as the British writer George Bernard Shaw had once described a Catholic university as a contradiction in terms, so they argued that an educational institution under Orthodox auspices would be too sectarian and narrow-minded to be a true university.

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Edward Shapiro is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University.