Column Stirs Campus: Is Brandeis ‘Too Jewish’?

By Anthony Weiss

Published April 28, 2006, issue of April 28, 2006.

A student opinion column in Brandeis University’s campus newspaper has enraged parents, students and alumni by suggesting that the school is too Jewish.

In the April 4 column, titled “Brandeis: Too Jewish For Its Own Good,” sophomore Matt Brown, 19, argued that the pervasive Jewishness on campus was detrimental to student life and scared away potential applicants. “One of my biggest pet peeves is when people talk about Brandeis as the ‘Jewish university,’” wrote Brown, the forum editor of the student newspaper, The Justice. “It does a huge disservice to the school when it is known as that over its other, more important merits.”

Readers replied with several blistering letters to the editor, which the paper published the following week. One wrote, “Brown thinks a Jewish population of 30% at Brandeis is enough. What is his solution? Gas chambers or suicide bombers?” (In the article, Brown suggested that “a 30% Jewish student body should be fine.”) Another letter-writer ominously warned, “Perhaps Brown should recall the affluent and well respected German Jews prior to Hitler’s rise to power.” A third called Brown “a self-loathing Jew.”

Brown’s article revived an old controversy at Brandeis. Since its founding in 1948, the university has described itself as a “non-sectarian, Jewish-sponsored” institution. Named for Louis D. Brandeis — a secular Jew, ardent Zionist and the first Jewish justice on the Supreme Court — the university was originally founded to serve talented Jewish students, whose numbers at top universities were limited by quotas.

As opportunities for Jews opened up at other universities, Brandeis has struggled with its Jewish identity. In the 1980s, then-president Evelyn Handler moved to tone down Brandeis’s overt Jewishness, including removing the Hebrew letters from the Brandeis seal, omitting some references to Jewish holidays in the school calendar, and, famously, allowing pork in some of the school cafeterias.

The move created an uproar, as students, faculty and alumni protested, and donors threatened to withdraw their support. Handler resigned in 1991, reportedly under duress.

Since then, Brandeis has reembraced its roots. The Hebrew letters have returned to the motto, and the Jewish holidays have returned to the school calendar.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of modern Jewish history at Brandeis and a critic of Handler’s policies, said that the university came to recognize that its Jewish identity was one of its great assets.

“The university has tried very successfully to balance its Jewish identity with its universal mission,” he told the Forward. “If it’s working, why change it?”

Ironically, the percentage of Jewish enrollment has dropped at Brandeis since Handler’s tenure. A 1988 Associated Press article estimated the Jewish population at 65% of enrolled students, while Sarna told the Forward that the current estimate is about 50%.

Brown, who is Jewish, confessed that he was surprised by the vehemence of some of the letters. “I know it’s a sensitive issue, so I’m not surprised that there’s a lot of reaction,” he told the Forward. “But the ones who resorted to name-calling — I didn’t expect that.”

Sarna suggested that the vehemence was a sign that Brown’s article, more than arousing discussion, had touched a sensitive nerve in Jewish consciousness.

“I think it has something to do with Jews’ fear of disappearing,” Sarna said. “We’re a small people with a high rate of intermarriage, who never regained the numbers lost in the Shoah. The idea that a symbol of the Jewish community might disappear evokes great emotions.”



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