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Seeds of knowledge

Brandeis University used to be called the "Jewish Harvard." Today, Harvard is the Jewish Harvard. The odious Jewish quotas in Cambridge ended in the '60s, and smart Jewish kids have poured into Harvard Yard since then. "In the bad old days, that advantage was very important to us," Brandeis's president, Jehuda Reinharz, says about the quotas. "Now, we compete for the same kind of student who goes to the Ivy League."

Against Harvard, this is brutal. So what Reinharz has done during his 10 years of leadership there is to take the place to dizzying heights of multiculturalism.

While the institution has accepted gentiles and people of color since its founding in 1948, the year Israel grasped its independence, it has always been to most outsiders a Jewish school in Waltham. (Reinharz patiently repeats that it is not, nor was ever meant to be, a purely Jewish place of learning. Anyone who wants that, he says, should go to a yeshiva.)

Jews now account for a mere 54 percent of its 3,000 undergraduate student body, down from the near total-Jewish profile in the early years, and the number could go lower. There are students from 101 countries and 17 religions represented on campus, with more than 200 Muslims.

And, despite the dismal state of relations between blacks and Jews in this country, there are about 200 black students. (In a sign of the times, Reinharz notes that the American Jewish Committee has created a department for Latino relations.) "To a certain extent, we've given up," he says of American Jewry and blacks. "When we lost it, I don't know."

Today, Brandeis is tough to deconstruct because of its complexity. It does not lend itself easily to a soundbite definition. While it is multicultural, the campus is still anchored by Jewish religion and culture.

But then it has always been a complicated read. Although it began with 13 faculty and no buildings or money, it was never an ordinary place. Eleanor Roosevelt taught there for 12 years. Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche and Israeli statesman Abba Eban spoke at its first graduation.

It is surprising, then, that the school is so modestly endowed -- a puny $195 million when Reinharz took over a decade ago. The $500 million he is nearing is still small.

The man operates from an essential truth of the human condition. In his own words: "Only the personal encounter will make a difference." He is constantly forging new connections -- in Pakistan and Korea, Turkey and India. Many students from these countries are on full scholarship, so unlike other area institutions, he does not look to them as revenue sources.

Last year, he wangled money out of the Ford Foundation and, with six faculty and staff, spent a week at Al-Quds University, the Arab institution based in East Jerusalem, and its president Sari Nusseibeh.In April, six counterparts from Al-Quds, with Nusseibeh, will arrive at Brandeis.

"I have no idea how it will go," says Reinharz. "I have no illusions this will change the course of the Mideast. What I do is plant seeds."

The Reinharz legacy will surely be the Center For Middle East Studies, which opens in September. He promises a large improvement over other such programs, which he claims are rife with ideology and mediocrity. "We would never allow such a situation in Russian studies," he says. Drop below the level of Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, he adds, "and you can count the number of great scholars maybe on both hands."

Astonishingly, there existed no chair in Israel studies in America when he established one two years ago, now occupied by Ilan Troen. "Jews have ignored the field," Reinharz says. "For forty years, they focused on Judaic studies, not the Middle East."

So his center will have one. It will also have a chair in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, already filled by the distinguished Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya, and another in Arab politics. None of its funding comes with strings attached. Reinharz vows his center will be "completely nonideological." Good luck.

There will be a focus on the economic and political geography of the Mideast. Israel will be studied as part of the region, along with Turkey and Iran, two countries often left out of the mix. The study of languages, a current American embarrassment will be prized.

Born in the Israeli city of Haifa and educated in Germany and America, the man is intense, smart, direct -- and pluralist to his core. He finds the recent ban in France on headscarves and other religious accoutrements dumb and counterproductive. And he sides squarely with Leonard Bernstein over the third-rail issue of Jewish orchestras or conductors playing the sublime music of the racist Richard Wagner.

(Bernstein, who once conducted an all-Wagner program at the Vienna State Opera, subtitled a piece he wrote on the subject: "What's a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing in a Place Like This, Playing That Racist Music?")

"If it's a great piece of music," echoes Reinharz, "we ought to judge it on its own merit."

He calls Brandeis "rye bread" to the "white bread" of American higher education. Good line. But it still leaves a relentless fight for students and money. And there are more seeds to plant.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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