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Embrace true identity

MAELSTRÖM

Columnist

Published: Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 00:04

Over the past few weeks, I became involved in a conversation with the goal of answering the question, “How Jewish is Brandeis?” Together with several Jewish student leaders and Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel, I began to confront Brandeis’ identity crisis. Why does our Jewish community lack cohesion? Why is Brandeis so self-conscious about our lack of diversity? What stops us from freely associating the word “Jewish” with our University?

Last week, I had the honor of attending a special dinner with the Board of Trustees and members of the Israeli Knesset who visited the United States last week as Ruderman Fellows. These Members of Knesset, sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Office of the President at Brandeis, came to learn about the American Jewish community and strengthen ties with its leaders. The MKs do not come to preach Zionism or publicly justify Israel’s policy decisions. Their visit is designed as a showcase of American Judaism. Brandeis, as one of the country’s most prominent Jewish-sponsored institutions, made this showcase possible.

This dinner was nothing like I expected. It connected many loose thoughts I’ve had lately about the University’s responsibility to carry the Jewish tradition even while it must answer to many demands from many international communities. Mr. Flagel tasked me with one question: How Jewish is Brandeis? But meeting with Israeli MKs and our own trustees raised an entirely different question: Why does Brandeis have the right to exemplify American Judaism to international guests? The question troubles me because we have no idea how Jewish we are. When we think about it, our first thoughts usually travel to numbers. What percentage of the undergraduate student body is Jewish? Given the way we frame the concept of “Jewishness” in our minds, there is no good answer. We know that our student body is about 50 to 55 percent Jewish. But in truth, the statistic doesn’t reveal all that much.

Recently, I saw a University photographer arranging a group of five students at a table in Usdan Café with plates of food. The students were of different ethnicities. This was disturbing. After a visit shortly thereafter to Brandeis’ Admissions website and looking at the abundance of diverse images, authentic or disingenuous as they may be, it occurred to me that these crafted photos could be a potentially subtler answer to the question, “How Jewish is Brandeis?” But this answer—a manufactured appearance of diversity—rubs me the wrong way. We have a diverse campus full of curious students. Why is Brandeis running from its true identity? I am proud of this University. It is an important answer to prejudice in the history of the United States and the world. It establishes and promotes diversity in academia because higher education must be open and accessible to everyone. Brandeis’ foundational identity demands that we retain these commitments.

But I am not proud of our inability to assert our identity. We represent American Judaism, but we do not answer to it.

Brandeis’ first objective in developing a clear identity is excellence in academics. To fulfill its original goal of serving as a safe haven for those who were denied access to the best in higher education, Brandeis must uphold standards of academic superiority. It must make it a priority to fill its academic departments with faculty of the highest intellectual caliber and commitment to student learning. This will make all students—regardless of religion, race or ethnicity—proud to be part of our institution and invested in its continuity as an institution of Jewish character.

If we had a successful answer to the question, “How Jewish is Brandeis?” we would be answering not to statistics or demographics but to tradition and ritual practice. For example, Brandeis ought to make Shabbat dinner free of charge, open to the public and allowed to adapt to the diverse character of this campus. Make it a “Brandeis thing.” Brandeis tradition can easily mimic Jewish tradition so that students of all backgrounds can touch the values that founded our identity. These values of inclusion and learning, exemplified by a ritual like a Shabbat dinner, ought to come to mind first when explaining how Jewish Brandeis is. To this end, Brandeis need not struggle to convince onlookers that diversity exists here. I urge Mr. Flagel, President Lawrence and the Board of Trustees to continue pioneering our institutional self-examination. Diversity can thrive through our embrace of the approachable elements of Jewish tradition. We must enhance our commitment to academic excellence. Meanwhile, let’s refrain from using Usdan as a stage.

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