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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Reflections on secularization at Brandeis

Published: October 25, 2013
Section: Opinions

Sodexo isn’t done making changes on campus. Next semester, a Kosher New York Deli will replace Quiznos. However, there are questions about the point of having more kosher options, including the soon-to-be-opened Dunkin’ Donuts, on campus. Though Brandeis is technically a secular institution, it seems like it disproportionately caters to its Jewish constituency. In the modern day, what is Brandeis University’s connection to its Jewish roots?

In 1948, a few Jewish immigrants who bought an old Medical and Veterinary School intended to establish the “Harvard for the Jews.” While no one believed them at the time, they soon opened up Brandeis University, named after Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. Though major universities refused to accept Jews at the time, Israel soon became an established country and Jews became regulars at Ivy League institutions. As the top universities in the country became diverse, they were quickly enveloped by a robust Jewish community. As a result, Brandeis also had to work harder to attract a Jewish population that was now empowered with more collegiate choices.

Brandeis has the largest percentage of Jewish students of any other secular university in the country. While originally overwhelmingly Jewish, the current population hovers around 50 percent. In the past several years, the administration has worked to attract a more diverse population, possibly at the cost of de-emphasizing Jewish life.

At first this trend caused some controversy, but despite the pushback, Brandeis has succeeded in becoming a more secular institution. Sherman Dining Hall is the only kosher dining hall; Upper and Lower Usdan, Einstein’s and Quiznos are non-kosher eateries. While there may not be much pork or shellfish available (there aren’t many different dietary options available in general), there are certainly many more non-kosher than kosher options on campus. Furthermore, anyone can eat kosher food, while Jews who keep kosher are restricted to only one half of Sherman and some prepackaged sandwiches in the C-Store.

On the other hand, the percentage of students who actually keeps kosher on campus is not very high. Some of the students who do live off campus cook their own food anyway. So should the school go through so much trouble to provide a variety of kosher options for a small percentage of students?

The central issue, though, is that Brandeis has a unique secular-Jewish identity. Without this, we are just another small liberal arts school. Not only do we have a reputation, but we also have Jewish donors. The multiple Shapiro families did not donate the money for buildings on this campus because we were a secular university; they gave because they identified with Brandeis’ unique secular-Jewish identity. They will not want to donate millions of dollars to just another university.

Those who do keep kosher deserve more places to eat than just Sherman Dining Hall. Brandeis stresses pluralism, accepting people of all backgrounds and denominations, but many Jews of all denominations value the option of having kosher food. Even though Jews who keep kosher do not dominate this campus, having a Jewish presence is still important. Brandeis can promote diversity, but it should still remain true to its roots. Without our roots, who are we? They define who we are and where we stand. Times change, and learning to deal with an increasingly secular world is part of Jewish reality.

There is no reason not to have a kosher deli and kosher options at Dunkin’ Donuts. While non-kosher eaters may have to suffer without some pork or bacon, they can easily go 10 minutes off-campus to any restaurant in Waltham. Observant Jews do not have that luxury. Besides some ice cream at Lizzy’s, the closest kosher restaurants are in Brookline, a good hour trip just one way. Anyone can eat at a kosher deli, but for Jews with very few other options, a kosher deli is a gift from heaven.

Maintaining important aspects of Jewish life on campus does not hurt non-Jews in any way, and anyone non-Jewish who wants to attend school here should know what they are getting into when they apply. Judaism is part of Brandeis’s past, present and future, and this is something we should embrace.