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A question of culture

Brandeis debates its Jewish 'flavor' after a student column suggests it is a problem

Brandeis student Matt Brown wrote a controversial op-ed piece.
Brandeis student Matt Brown wrote a controversial op-ed piece. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

WALTHAM -- Matt Brown, like more than half the students at Brandeis University, is Jewish. Yet, in a recent opinion piece in the student paper, he wrote that he was a part of the problem suffocating the campus: Brandeis, he said, is too Jewish.

The opinion piece drew a rash of letters to the editor, including one calling Brown a ''self-loathing Jew," and added to tension over the role of Judaism at the school.

The university, which calls itself nonsectarian, came under fire last month for being perceived as too sympathetic to Israel after it removed a student-organized exhibit of Palestinian children's art.

This week, the university went on the counteroffensive, deploying a New York public relations firm to showcase its efforts at even-handedness: On Sunday, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan will deliver the school's commencement address, and playwright Tony Kushner, who is Jewish but has been accused of making anti-Israel statements, will receive an honorary degree. Both figures are controversial in the Jewish community, and the school has been criticized for selecting them.

The clashes highlight the tricky dual role the university plays, as both a majority Jewish school, drawing the bulk of its support from Jews, but one not formally associated with or governed by tenets of the Jewish religion.

Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis, insists that the school is better for the duality. In an interview, Reinharz described Brandeis as having a ''discrete obligation to the Jewish community," which he said means research and scholarship in areas of Jewish interest. Yet he said it also is committed to maintaining a diverse student body, which is, among other groups, roughly 20 percent Catholic and 10 percent Muslim.

''Brandeis is not a Jewish university; it is a great American university," he said. ''But it is an American university with a particular flavor."

That ''creates a tension on campus," he said. ''. . . I think it is a healthy debate."

The Palestinian art exhibit perfectly underscored his approach to the jumble of interests on campus, Reinharz said. If the exhibit had been less one-sided, it would have been permitted and welcomed as an object of learning, he said.

On the issue of the campus culture, Reinharz said Brown had it all wrong in his column when he wrote, ''The University wants applicants of all stripes to apply in the same numbers that the Jewish community does, but doesn't want to alienate its primary donors. It comes down to scaring away hundreds of fantastic potential Brandeisians, or not being able to receive a much-needed check from a would-be Jewish philanthropist."

He also objected to Brown's suggestion that Brandeis's Jewish population be limited to 30 percent to make it more culturally balanced. A quota would undermine the underpinnings of the school, he said.

''I am reminded every day there was a group of 10 men who had this crazy idea of creating a university," he said, showing a visitor a photograph of the men gathered in March 1947 at Albert Einstein's home, where they had gone to seek his advice on creating an alternative college to the elite schools that limited the number of Jews they admitted at the time.

Brown said in an interview that with fewer Jews, the campus might not be as alienating to non-Jews. He noted that there are few non-Sabbath activities on Friday nights. Also, many students commonly use Hebrew words for Jewish terms, Pesach instead of Passover, for example.

''There is an entitlement among many students of the Jewish faith, in that they expect everyone to understand Jewish things," said Brown, 19, of Los Angeles, also editor of the school paper's opinion page. ''I would have expected them, coming from being on the minority side themselves, to be more aware of the people who are not in the majority and make them feel included."

Some students agreed, saying that as non-Jews, they sometimes feel like outsiders.

''It's not that the school is unwelcoming; it's just that they prioritize the Jewish agenda over all others," said Kate Millerick of Andover, who is not Jewish and will be a junior in the fall. She cited the days off on the school calendar for Jewish holidays.

How much Jewish culture should permeate the campus has long been a question. The issue flared most dramatically in the 1980s, when financial woes, resulting from a drop in applications, spurred Evelyn Handler, then president, to appeal to more non-Jews by suggesting that Hebrew be removed from the university seal and that shellfish and pork, which are not kosher, be available in some dining halls.

Opponents of the suggested changes won: Hebrew adorns the seal today, and only pork, not shellfish, is available in one dining hall, upon request.

While some students side with Brown about the ''too Jewish" label, others say they accept the Jewishness of the campus as a fact of life.

''Everybody says that!" said Cristina Cabarcos, 20, a Catholic economics major from Panama. ''But, for me, it has been enriching. I have learned about a new culture."

Ben Snodgrass, a 22-year-old graduating senior from Cleveland, said he initially found the religious Jewish groups on campus to be cliquey. School officials say they have no numbers reflecting the number of religious and nonreligious Jewish students.

Snodgrass said he eventually found his niche. ''It's too easy to say to blame your social life on the campus being too Jewish," he said.

The school has taken steps to ensure that non-Jewish students feel welcome. It has a Christian awareness week, which provides gatherings for Christians and interreligious dialogue.

Jonathan Sarna, a modern Jewish history professor, suggested the school website include a glossary of Jewish phrases and customs.

Sylvia Barack Fishman, a contemporary Jewish life professor, said the administration keeps the influence of Judaism to a minimum.

''Why must it be that Christians must always be in the majority?" she asked. ''Is it against the laws of nature for Jews to be majority?"

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at

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