Brandeis University and the Jews

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

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 The university began with a library containing only 1,000 books, mostly out-of-date medical texts.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.

Most American Jews believed that Jewish collegians should not volun­tarily isolate themselves from the rest of society by attending a Jewish university. This would impede their social and economic mobility and acculturation. Also, American Jews feared that the voluntary segregation of Jews in a Jewish university implied the acceptance of the inevitability of anti-Semitism in academia. From their perspective, it would be far better to destroy the anti-Semitic barriers preventing Jewish scholars from finding employment and Jewish students from attending elite institutions than to establish parallel institutions.

An Act of Faith

The establishment of Brandeis after the war was an act of faith by its founders in the willingness of wealthy Jews to support a university under Jewish auspices and in the school’s ability to attract students. Brandeis was founded at a difficult time for fund-raising. The first demands on Jewish philanthropy in the aftermath of World War II were refugee resettlement and support of the struggling Jewish community in Palestine. A Jewish university appeared to be a costly luxury. Also, there was no assurance that Jews, much less gentiles, would be attracted to an institution describing itself as nonsectarian but Jewish-sponsored.

READ: Amid Chinese Influx, Brandeis Considers Its Jewish Identity

Despite these potential problems, Brandeis’s early supporters proceeded with their plans. They justified it on the traditional grounds of providing an alternative for those Jews who had been rejected by other institutions because of anti-Semitism. Albert Einstein, an early friend of the Brandeis idea, contended that “under present circumstances, many of our gifted youth see themselves denied the cultural and professional education they are longing for.” This rationale, with its pessimistic assumptions regarding anti-Semitism in America, came at a time when anti-Semitism was actually declining in academia and elsewhere. Brandeis required a more positive justification if it was to get off the drawing board.

Brandeis’s founders thus argued that the university would enable America’s Jews to repay the country for the freedom and economic opportunity had provided them. According to Abram L. Sachar, the university’s first president and guiding light during its first quarter of a century, Brandeis was to be “a corporate gift of Jews to higher education.” Brandeis’s founders were bolstered by their confidence in the reconciliation of Jewishness and Americanness….

Jewish Character

From its beginning, Brandeis’s Jewish character was shrouded in ambiguity. While admission to the university was open to all on a nondiscriminatory basis, a policy in which the university took pride, its founders assumed that a significant part of the student body would always be Jewish. (This was a correct assumption: at least two-thirds of Brandeis’s undergraduates during its first four decades were Jewish.)

The nature of Brandeis’s Jewish identity was much talked about during its early years. Jews were naturally confused by a university describing itself as both Jewish and nonsectarian, particularly when they were being asked to send their children and dollars to Waltham. How could a university claiming to be Jewish not profess some specific form of Judaism or Jewish culture?

Thus traditionalists strongly protested when Brandeis held its commencement on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. The Jewish Forum, the voice of modern American Orthodoxy, editorialized that, despite its awarding of an honorary degree to Eleanor Roosevelt, Brandeis was “Neither Jewish, Nor American.” Its “contempt for the most sacred institution in Jewish life,” the magazine wrote, was an affront to God and religious Jews. The magazine suggested that Jews, instead of aiding Brandeis because they wrongly assumed they were contributing to a worthy Jewish and American cause, “might be truer to their intentions by transferring their support to the only truly Jewish and simultaneously truly American university in existence–Yeshiva University.”

Culinary Controversy

Although future Brandeis commencements were not held on Saturday, the obscurity of Brandeis’s Jewish identity remained. It became a bone of contention during the 1987-88 school year when the school’s administration suggested that the cuisine in the two main student dining rooms be “inter­nationalized” by serving pork and shellfish. This proposal stemmed from the university’s effort to raise itself into the ranks of the nation’s most prestigious institutions. This, it believed, required attracting a more diverse student body, which, in turn, depended on diluting Brandeis’s image as a Jewish institution.

The two main dining rooms had never been kosher, except for part of one which was reserved for Brandeis students who kept kosher. The eating of non-kosher beef and the mixing of meat and dairy dishes is as great a violation of Jewish law as the consumption of pork, crabs, and scallops. Nevertheless, the suggestion to serve pork and shellfish assumed great symbolic importance both inside and outside the Brandeis community, and it was vigorously denounced by some who did not keep kosher themselves. They assumed the administration’s proposal was merely the entering wedge of a campaign by Evelyn Handler, the university’s president, to dilute Brandeis’s Jewish character. This charge appeared credible, since the menu change occurred at about the same time as the Hebrew word emet (truth) was dropped from the university’s logo and a change in the school’s cal­endar replaced all references to Jewish holidays with the wording “no university exercises.”

Critics of the administration saw no reason why Brandeis should water down its Jewish identity. If Notre Dame had been able to raise its academic stature while maintaining its ties to the Catholic church, why must Brandeis weaken its ties to the Jewish community to attract a more representative student body? Gentiles would come to Brandeis not because it served pork and shellfish, but because it was a quality institution. What was wrong with having Jews and Gentiles studying together in an identifiably Jewish insti­tution? These critics believed the administration’s actions reflected an as­similationist mentality that ran counter to Brandeis’s historic claim that it stood for the symbiosis of the best in American and Jewish identities….

Because of the publicity and the opposition from alumni and prospective donors, the university partially backed down. Pork chops and shrimp were not served in the dining room where kosher food was offered. “Emet” was returned to the university’s logo, and Jewish holidays were specifically mentioned as such on the university calendar. In 1990, Handler resigned as Brandeis’s president, a move brought on in part by the backlash resulting from the maladroit attempts to change the university’s image.

Brandeis returned to the status quo prior to the “trefa (nonkosher) war.”

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