Brandeis marks 50 years as secular but Jewish institute

Paul Levenson was considering which college to attend when his rabbi asked, "Did you hear of the new university that the Jewish people are sponsoring?"

It was 1948, and a group of New York Jews had decided to establish Brandeis University on the site of Middlesex College, a defunct medical and veterinary school in Waltham, Mass.

The idea appealed to Levenson.

"We shared a sense of excitement and had a rare opportunity to create something that hadn't been done before," says Levenson, a member of the class of 1952 and now a Boston lawyer. "I presented my father and uncle with what I was planning to do, and they thought I was crazy."

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, Brandeis University is still the only private, major research university founded in the United States in the 20th century. It is named for Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brandeis is also "a unique institution of higher education in the United States," says Jehuda Reinharz, its president since 1994. About 3,700 colleges and universities exist in the United States, "but there is only one secular university that was created by the American Jewish community for the benefit of all."

The university opened with 107 freshmen and $33,000 in the bank. The library, housed in a stable, had 100 books — a large number of which were copies of "Gone With the Wind."

Today, 4,000 students from 89 countries attend Brandeis. With a faculty of 350, the student-faculty ratio at Brandeis is 11-to-1.

And 28,000 alumni live throughout the world.

One of the school's celebrated former instructors, the late literary critic Irving Howe, wrote in his memoir "A Margin of Hope" of his decade spent teaching in Waltham: "A strange place, this Brandeis — brilliant, unstable, vibrant, not quite the scholarly enclave a university is supposed to be, but a home of turbulent intellectual energies, and doomed soon enough to slide into academic respectability."

Brandeis was established as a fundamentally Jewish institution. But to this day, its Jewish identity is somewhat ambiguous. Reinharz, a noted Zionist historian who grew up in Germany and Israel, estimates that 60 percent of the undergraduates are Jewish, but he is not sure.

"It's illegal to ask," he said. "It is complicated. We are not a seminary. If you are the Jewish Theological Seminary or Yeshiva University, you can explain who you are in one sentence. Much as you can't explain the American Jewish community in one sentence, you can't explain Brandeis in one sentence."

Brandeis' Jewish character always has been shrouded in ambiguity, says Edward Shapiro, author of "A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II." People were naturally confused by a university describing itself as both Jewish and nonsectarian. How could a university claiming to be Jewish not profess some specific form of Judaism or Jewish culture?

In the beginning, Brandeis was aggressively nonsectarian — which was symbolized by its circle of Jewish, Protestant and Catholic chapels. "The three chapels were designed in such a way that at no time of year will one chapel cast a shadow on the others," Shapiro says .

Although the founders portrayed the university as a proud gesture heralding Jewish acceptance in American society, some of the early supporters apparently believed that the university was a response to quotas elsewhere that limited the academic opportunities for Jewish faculty and students.

"Under present circumstances, many of our gifted youth see themselves denied the cultural and professional education they are longing for," said Albert Einstein, an early supporter of Brandeis.

When Levenson was growing up in Salem, Mass., in the 1930s, "we did have an ongoing problem — anti-Semitic groups were very active in the area. However, I can't think of a single person who went to Brandeis because of anti-Semitism they had been exposed to elsewhere."

Regardless of its Jewish component, Reinharz is proud of its academic record. "We like to think that we compete with some of the Ivy Leagues and the first-ranked universities," he says.

He ticks off the measures of success: A recent survey ranked Brandeis as the No. 1 "rising" research university in the United States. Fifteen of Brandeis' alumni currently are college presidents. The university's percentage of faculty in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in the National Academy of Sciences is unusually high, as is its ability to place graduates in medical and law schools.

Brandeis offers advanced degrees in 20 areas. It has a variety of institutes and specialized centers, covering a gamut of fields, including the fine arts, advanced Jewish studies, East European Jewish affairs, the study of violence, women's studies, international economics and contemporary Jewish life, humanities and medicine.

It is a very selective university. Applications have risen 48 percent in the last five years and Brandeis receives 6,000 applications a year for an incoming class of 600.

And because Brandeis is, at the same time, a secular university, it must relate to its Jewish population in a way that does not make others uncomfortable. It must be assumed, though, that prospective students who are uncomfortable with Brandeis' Jewish identity would not apply, even as that character would appeal to others.

Sharyn Sooho, an Asian-American attorney in Massachusetts, says she was attracted to Brandeis because of its academic reputation and because it was liberal.

And then there was the advice of her Aunt Alice, who lived in Florida and had Jewish friends. "She told me and my cousins, `If I were a young person, I'd go to Brandeis because the Jewish tradition of education is so much in keeping with the Chinese tradition,'" says Sooho, a member of the class of 1969.

As an Asian American, "I'd be a minority wherever I went," Sooho says. "That one other minority group could come together in a critical mass and appreciate its shared values was wonderful for me to see."