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Prof. Whitfield discusses Brandeis’ history

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: Front Page


PHOTO BY Phil Small/The Hoot

Professor Stephen Whitfield (AMST) gave a lecture Thursday evening regarding the history of Brandeis University. The program, titled Brandeis at the Beginning, highlighted early Brandeisian history from before the founding in 1948 to the end of the 1960s.

Joyce Antler (AMST) introduced Whitfield, the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization, to a group that consisted of Brandeis students, alumni, faculty and staff. Distinguished members of the group included Board of Trustees Chairman Mal Sherman, Provost Marty Krauss and Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe.

Antler described Whitfield, who received his PhD in American History from Brandeis in 1972, as the perfect person to talk about Brandeis history. He has received two teaching prizes, written eight books and edited many others on topics such as civil rights, American Jewish culture, Cold War culture and Brandeis.

Whitfield began this branch of his research at a conference in Munich last year, when he offered to present a paper about the origin of Judaic Studies at Brandeis.

“When you think you know something, it turns out you don’t … This has grown into something larger, and it’s still only a work in progress,” said Whitfield, who plans to publish his research after a sabbatical this fall.

Brandeis was founded in 1948, in the era immediately following World War II. Although anti-Semitism was generally fading around the world, Jews were still excluded from many aspects of life, including quota systems to suppress Jewish enrollment in higher education. Albert Einstein left Europe after anti-Semitism increased and took a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1933. There, he saw quotas at Princeton University firsthand.

He began corresponding with Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis about creating a Jewish-sponsored institution of higher learning. Einstein’s dream to create a secular university founded on Jewish values led to a 1946 gathering of prominent Jewish businessmen and attorneys to form it. They faced opposition from many who feared assimilation, including Chaim Weizmann.

“I was astonished to hear a few months ago that someone wastes to establish a Jewish university in America … Do not waste the strength of the Jewish people. There is no substitute for Zion,” Weizmann said, encouraging American Jews to instead focus their support on the soon-to-be state of Israel and its Hebrew University.

Despite the misgivings of Weizmann and others, Einstein went through with his plan. However, when founders offered to name the university after him, he declined. At that point, he had been in the United States for barely more than a dozen years, had been a citizen for only six years, and still spoke broken English. He wanted the school to be named after “a great Jew who was also a great American.” The obvious choice was to name the school after Justice Brandeis, who had died a few years earlier.

“The name Brandeis,” founding president Abram L. Sachar said, “will combine most felicitously the prophetic ideal of moral principle and the American tradition of political and economic liberalism.”

Sachar, who was president from the founding until 1968, lead Brandeis to become an internationally recognized teaching and research university. Only five years after opening, the New England Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited the school. After 13 years, Brandeis got a charter for Phi Beta Kappa – faster than any other college or university since 1776.

“Without [Sachar] there could have been just no Brandeis as we know it, but very possibly no surviving Brandeis at all,” a professor wrote in 1970, praising the former president for his achievement at money raising for the right reasons.

Despite accusations of downplaying its Jewish history, Brandeis was the first university outside of Israel to establish a Jewish Studies program. Whitfield spoke extensively about Nahum Glatzer, Simon Rawidowicz and Alexander Altmann, the original, German-born faculty of Judaic scholarship. The three professors contributed to an active intellectual social life, with professors and their spouses crossing departmental lines to socialize and discuss topics of the day. At the time, lines separating disciplines were blurred both physically, with music practice rooms and labs in the same building, and professionally, with many professors having several specialties.

Whitfield praised Brandeis’ ability to cultivate innovative and esteemed professors and lecturers, including people like Abraham Maslow, author of a book about values and the higher life, Herbert Marcuse, a leftist politics and philosophy professor often named in conjunction to Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, and Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady of the United States.

Whitfield recounted one story of Roosevelt’s time at Brandeis when she was in her 70s: she was teaching a politics seminar with Lawrence H. Fuchs, and she called him to regretfully inform him that she wouldn’t be able to make it to the seminar because of the weather. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that classes had been called off,” Fuchs recalled. “I called all of our fifteen students, and I got most [of them] to show up.” Roosevelt’s dedication has been a model for faculty ever since.

“Steve is someone who makes history come alive, and I think that his talk was riveting, inspirational, reverential,” Provost Marty Krauss said in an interview with The Hoot after the lecture. “I would love all students coming into this university to have access to that. He reveals how very unique and special Brandeis is. I just can’t imagine any other university that would have this kind of history. The connection of the faculty to each other, the intellectual community, was incredibly inspiring.“