Outgoing Brandeis President Has Strengthened School's Jewish Identity

By Jacob Berkman (JTA)

Published September 29, 2009.
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Jehuda Reinharz took many by surprise last week when he abruptly announced that he would be stepping down as president of Brandeis University at the end of this academic year.

But Reinharz and several others close to Brandeis predict that his departure will not undo the school’s 14-year effort to rebuild its Jewish identity that has occurred under his watch.

Brandeis’ ethnic character has been a matter of discussion since it was founded in 1948 by a small group of Jewish intellectual elites in response to Jewish quotas at Ivy League colleges. The suburban Boston school rankled many prominent Jewish thinkers early on by holding its first commencement on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

But the debate over the university’s Jewishness reached its boiling point during the late 1980, when Brandeis engaged in an open campaign to downplay its Jewish identity in a bid to draw more non-Jewish students.

Its president at the time, Evelyn Handler, made several decisions aimed at diversifying the campus that irked members of the Jewish community.

During the 1987-88 academic year, Handler attempted to place pork and shellfish on the menus of all of the school’s cafeterias, which set off a maelstrom even though the university was not kosher. The school for a time also removed the Hebrew word for truth, emet, from its seal. It was later returned, but the flap ended up costing millions of dollars from donors and potential donors.

Reinharz was hired as president in 1994, five years after Handler’s tenure ended – and proved to be the Handler antithesis. A Haifa-born scholar who received his doctorate in modern Jewish history from Brandeis in 1972, Reinharz had worked his way up the Brandeis ladder from professor and was charged with restoring the institution financially and Jewishly.

“It was confused,” Reinharz told JTA shortly after his announcement, when asked about the Brandeis he inherited. “There was a lot of uncertainty. We had a previous administration that was not clear about what it wanted. When you try to run an institution and try to make it appealing to everyone … you are bound to fail. You need to have a clear identity.”

Reinharz said his mission was to create a university that had value to a general and diverse student body as well as to the Jewish people.

Under his watch, Brandeis became the country’s pre-eminent non-Orthodox center for Jewish study and research, as he built the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Mandel Center for Jewish Education, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute. And he quietly undid some of Handler’s decisions.

Reinharz also rebuilt the university’s department of Near Eastern Judaic Studies, which was “really a shambles,” said Jonathan Sarna, an expert in American Jewish history and the director of Brandeis’ Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. “By the time one reached 2009, most stories of any bearing on Jewish life has a Brandeis professor commenting.”

The moves paid off in terms of fund raising.

The Waltham school’s endowment grew from $194 million in 1994 to $559 million in 2009. Reinharz raised $470 million in capital campaign funds and another $843 million over the past seven years for academic and financial aid needs.

Reinharz was able to re-engage donors such as Steve Grossman, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had refused to become involved with the school during Handler’s presidency because they did not like the Jewish direction it had taken.

But Grossman, who at Reinharz’s request served as the chairman of the university’s board of trustees from 1999 to 2001, was among those who criticized Reinharz for closing the school’s Rose Art Museum and sell off its art in the face of the recession.

Despite the controversy, Grossman said, Reinharz’s legacy will be his ability to restore Brandeis’ Jewish character while maintaining it as a top-notch secular institution with a diverse faculty and student body.

The Middle East became a hot-button issue in 2006-07. Reinharz took heat from some factions in the Jewish community for allowing former President Jimmy Carter to speak on the campus in 2007 as he was promoting his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” The year before, some members of the faculty and student body had lambasted the Brandeis leader for shutting down an exhibit of art by Palestinian refugees.

Reinharz told JTA that both incidents were necessary parts of the academic process and, in the end, healthy for the school.

With his departure, some are wondering what direction the university will take.

Faculty members are openly discussing whether the school’s next president should be as Jewishly inclined as Reinharz – or even Jewish, according to Sarna.

Both Sarna and Grossman say it’s possible but unlikely that the school would hire a non-Jew, but neither believes the school’s Jewish future is at stake – especially because while the school’s students and faculty are diverse, its donor base is still primarily Jewish and no one wants to see a return to the Handler fund-raising woes.

Reinharz, 65, says he is “not at all” concerned that the school’s board of trustees might return to the days of trying to water down the university’s Jewish identity.

“I think that the board today is a board totally committed to this mission” to keep Brandeis an overtly Jewish institution, Grossman said, “and I don’t see it changing.”

If the school does change course at some point, “It is not going to be anyone on this board” who pushes that change, Grossman said.

As for Reinharz’s future, he says he has received firm offers from two major Jewish foundations that do work both in the United States and in Israel. But he declined to say which ones, saying only that he has not made a decision about which job to take.

Reinharz says he would like to stay in the Boston area, and his wife, Shula, the director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis, says she is not leaving her job.

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