An in-depth look at Brandeis’ religious identity—Part 1: The History

This year, The Hoot’s Features section began an examination of religion at Brandeis University. As Brandeis students, we have often heard that Brandeis is a nonsectarian institution with its roots in the Jewish community. What was does this really mean? How big of a role does religion play in Brandeis history, social life and identity? We compiled these questions and more to conduct interviews with leaders of Brandeis religious clubs, Chaplains, professors and administrators and polled students both religious and not.

Our exploration of Brandeis’ Jewish identity will be released in an online series on www.brandeishoot.com throughout the summer. To begin, we delve into Brandeis’ history—how we were founded, how we have evolved and how religion has played a role in shaping the university as it is today.

Since even before its founding in 1948, Brandeis University has had ties to the American Jewish community, though its identity has evolved in many ways over the past 70 years.

In 1923, Rabbi Louis I. Newman wrote a book titled “A Jewish University in America,” a historical account of the long-held dream to establish a Jewish institution of higher learning. Newman wrote that the idea of an American Jewish university did not come from a specific individual, but the idea had circulated in the American Jewish community for centuries.

In 1945, many of the most prestigious universities, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia, had quotas on the amount of Jewish students admitted. During the time period from the late 1910s to post World War II, Ivy League universities and other selective colleges imposed admissions quotas to ensure they only accepted a limited number of Jewish students. Columbia University imposed a 20 percent quota, Harvard a 10 to 15 percent quota and Yale a 10 percent quota. Because of this, a group of community leaders began to explore the idea of a new American university, founded on Jewish principles but nonsectarian and open to students and faculty from all backgrounds. At the helm of the idea was Rabbi Israel Goldstein, the spiritual head of B’nai Jeshurun congregation in New York and the president of the Zionist Organization of America and the Synagogue of America. Goldstein had contacts in many circles who could help make the new institution a reality.

Middlesex University, a medical and veterinary school in Waltham where Brandeis now stands, was facing major financial problems in the early 1940s. In 1945 the Dean of Humanities at Middlesex, Joseph Cheskis, wrote to C. Ruggles Smith, president at the time, to consider establishing a nonsectarian university in Middlesex’s place, said Silvan S. Schweber in his book, “Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius.” Cheskis referred Smith to Joseph Schlossberg, secretary-treasurer of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, who then referred Smith to Goldstein, as Goldstein had explored the possibility of a nonsectarian university since the 1930s.

Goldstein, who knew the university needed the support of the Jewish community as a whole, called on Albert Einstein, who was teaching at Princeton. Einstein was an early supporter of the new university, but he withdrew his support after disputes with Goldstein and the Board of Trustees.

Recognizing that replacing the name “Middlesex” would be integral to the university’s success, Goldstein recommended the new school be named after Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice and a celebrated figure within the Jewish community who had died in 1941. Serving as an associate justice on the Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, Brandeis became famous for his contributions to the “right to privacy” concept and free speech law. He was a leader in the Progressive movement and was wholly dedicated to service and advocating for the public in court. Goldstein’s suggestion was met with nearly unanimous support.

Abram L. Sachar, retired director of the Hillel foundation, served as the first Brandeis president. In his inaugural address, Sachar laid out his vision for the school as a place where the students “will be taught that brilliance is no substitute for content, that manners and amenities and social poise cannot take the place of …the deep and earnest striving for truth,” as quoted in “From The Beginning: A Picture History of the first four decades of Brandeis University.”

As Brandeis continued to grow, Sachar announced in 1953 that Brandeis would begin construction of a Jewish chapel, but did not yet have the funds to build a Protestant and Catholic chapel as well. Students protested the decision and said the university should not begin any construction until they were prepared to complete all three chapels. Tour guides explain to groups visiting campus how the structures were engineered so no building’s shadow overlaps with another.

During Sachar’s 20 year presidency, the university quickly rose to academic acclaim, won Phi Beta Kappa accreditation just 13 years after its founding and became an internationally recognized research university.

The university saw changes with the election of Evelyn E. Handler as university president in 1983. After a period where the university was struggling to court donors, Handler and a committee of students and trustees explored ways to lessen the university’s Jewish character, such as relaxing dietary restrictions in the dining halls to include pork and shellfish, according to Marvin Fox’s essay, “Jewishness and Judaism at Brandeis University.”

Handler, wanting to appeal to a wide variety of non-Jewish students, also removed the Hebrew word “emet” (truth) from the Brandeis seal, but donors threatened to revoke funding, and after Handler’s resignation in 1991, both the original seal and cafeteria menus were reinstated.

In 1994, Jehuda Reinharz was elected as university president. During his nearly 17 years at Brandeis, Reinharz emphasized Brandeis’ ties to the American Jewish community, following the controversies surrounding Handler’s presidency. “Tempering our Jewish identity did not work. I have defined our mission very clearly and without embarrassment as having four pillars: Jewish sponsorship, total non-sectarianism, a commitment to social justice and excellence,” Reinharz said, according to a 1998 “New York Times” article.

The “Times” article, titled “Brandeis at 50 is still searching, still Jewish and still not Harvard,” criticized Brandeis’ approach to its religious identity, arguing that while the founders of Brandeis envisioned the university as becoming a “Harvard of the Jews,” once universities lifted admissions quotas, more Jewish students began attending other elite universities, leaving Brandeis with a lack of identity.

Ronald D. Liebowitz was elected as the university’s ninth president in 2016. Dedicated to a period of transparency and accountability, he stated in his inaugural address that “we should be able to develop an environment that actively promotes all of the core components of our founding identity: Jewish, openness, world-class research and the liberal arts.” Liebowitz said that the community should feel comfortable saying without apology that Brandeis is a Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university.

The Brandeis website lists 16 spiritual or religious groups on campus. Just under half of Brandeis’ currently enrolled students identify as Jewish. In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Liebowitz emphasized that Brandeis was never intended as a space only for Jewish students. He said Brandeis must embrace and foster diversity while “never [losing] its roots.”

For our next segment on Brandeis’ religious identity, visit www.brandeishoot.com for updates.

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