At 50, Brandeis U. taking giant step back to its roots

WALTHAM, Mass. (JTA) — As Brandeis University prepares to mark its 50th birthday this fall, the Jewish-sponsored, non-sectarian university founded the same year as the state of Israel appears to be experiencing a resurgence of Jewish life unparalleled in the school's history.

While the number of Jewish students at Brandeis has remained relatively constant in recent years, students and faculty alike point to an increase in Jewish activity on campus, a growing number of Jewish institutes sponsored by the university and a renewed interest in Jewish affairs and community as indicators that Brandeis is returning to its Jewish roots.

It is not difficult for longtime members of the Brandeis community to pinpoint the beginning of this Jewish resurgence: the 1990 resignation of former university president Evelyn Handler.

During Handler's seven-year tenure, Brandeis reportedly lost considerable support in the Jewish community as a result of a drive toward diversification, which was viewed as coming at the expense of the school's Jewish character. When interim president Stuart Altman donned a yarmulke during Brandeis' first commencement ceremonies after Handler's departure, it was considered a harbinger of change on campus.

But, says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American history at Brandeis, it was not until Jehudah Reinharz's assumption of the presidency in March 1994 that Brandeis took a crucial step back toward matters Jewish.

"President Reinharz has been able to articulate a vision for the university that makes its ties to the Jewish community central to what the university is about," Sarna said in a recent interview. "He glories in the university's Jewishness."

Born and raised in Israel, Reinharz is the first Brandeis alumnus to become president, and his close ties with Jewish leaders and academics in the United States and Israel are regarded as a boon for the university. Fund-raising has increased, university administrators report, and during Reinharz's tenure more than 12 Jewish-related centers and institutes have been created at Brandeis.

Reinharz is being credited for wooing back into the fold Jewish supporters who had been estranged from Brandeis and attracting the support of prominent Jews, including industrialists Charles Bronfman and Max Fisher and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

"Brandeis is a microcosm of world Jewry, and this imposes special obligations upon us," Reinharz said. "We are seen today by the Jewish community as the think tank and action center of the Jewish community."

In the past year alone, Brandeis has launched several programs to address Jewish issues, including the Fisher Bernstein Institute on Jewish Leadership and Philanthropy, the Genesis program for Jewish youth, and the International Research Institute on Jewish Women.

Brandeis' close association with the New Jewish High School in Waltham, Mass., which sits adjacent to the Brandeis campus and uses university facilities, is seen as reflecting the college's renewed focus on Jewish education.

While not everybody has been happy with Brandeis' return toward Jewish affairs, Reinharz remains unapologetic.

"I define very clearly what Brandeis is, knowing full well that some people will not like it," he said. "Brandeis is unique. There is no other university which has service to the Jewish community as part of its mission."

For some, Brandeis' special role remains complex and ill-defined.

"Brandeis has a huge identity problem," said Elisheva Rovner, Hillel director for student activities on the campus. "The conflict is that on the one hand Brandeis wants to maintain its unique role at the forefront of the Jewish community, while on the other it has a desire for diversity."

This conflict is reflected in the student body, according to Dahlia Kronish, student president of Brandeis Hillel.

"While students at other schools know they have to be active to remain Jewish, most people here figure that the simple act of being at Brandeis fulfills their need for a Jewish identity," she said. Slightly less than two-thirds of the student body is estimated to be Jewish.

Hillel Rabbi Albert Axelrad, who has been a fixture at Brandeis for 33 years, attributes the recent growth in Jewish student activity to the influx of greater numbers of traditional Jews.

"The yarmulke count on campus is higher than it has ever been," said Axelrad, who pointed to the burgeoning Orthodox community as the most impressive of those changes.

The increased Orthodox presence at Brandeis, which began five years ago after students initiated a recruitment drive designed to appeal to day school and yeshiva graduates, has more than tripled in the last decade, according to Todd Kammerman, student president of Brandeis' Orthodox Organization.

Shabbat services have grown so large that seating space has become a problem, prompting Reinharz to acknowledge that the creation of a new Hillel building to accommodate this growth is "clearly one of the next things we need to do."