Beating health scares, Jonathan Sarna seals status as rock star Jewish historian

When Jonathan Sarna was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1999 at the age of 44, it changed his life.

Already a highly regarded historian at Brandeis University, Sarna was in the midst of writing his seminal study of American Jewish history when he realized with alarm that he might never finish it.

He underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgery. Though he didn’t know it at the time, doctors gave him a one-in-five chance of surviving. Then, slowly, the professor began getting better. After a year, Sarna was writing again with renewed focus and a firm deadline: He wanted to finish the book in time for the 2004 celebrations of the 350th anniversary of American Jewish life.

The book, “American Judaism: A History,” came out in March 2004. The organization in charge of the 350th celebrations anointed Sarna its chief historian. He traveled the country delivering lectures, and “American Judaism” won the Jewish Book Council’s Book of the Year award.

“That book was life-changing,” Sarna told JTA in a recent interview in his large, cluttered office at Brandeis.

“I would say my great regret at the time of my illness was that I had not finished ‘American Judaism,’ and I promised myself that if all went well I wouldn’t take on other things until the book was out,” he said.

The book was translated into Hebrew and Chinese, sold more than 30,000 copies and became an indispensable resource on the subject. Today, students at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Conservatives’ Jewish Theological Seminary and Orthodoxy’s Yeshiva University don’t study the same edition of the Bible, but they all study “American Judaism,” points out Sarna, who is working on updating the book for a new edition.

“I consider that my most important book. It certainly took me the longest, and it allowed me to put my stamp on the field,” he said. “It sold more books than any other I have done. It does change your life a little bit when you realize that you can talk to a broader audience beyond the academy. In the eyes of many people, I became ‘the American Jewish historian.’ It was a breakthrough.”

Now 61 and several books later, Sarna is something of a rock star in the world of Jewish academia — though neither he nor any of his colleagues would ever use that term to describe the diminutive professor with sparkling blue eyes and a vocal inflection that often bears traces of his parents’ British roots.

Sarna is the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, chairs the Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership at Brandeis and recently concluded a stint as president of the Association for Jewish Studies. He’s on the board of JTA’s parent company, 70 Faces Media, and too many other institutions to count. He commands $5,000 a speech.

Last month Brandeis crowned Sarna, who has taught at the school since 1990, with the title university professor – an exceedingly rare distinction. Brandeis bestows it on faculty whose “renown cuts across disciplinary boundaries” and “who have achieved exceptional scholarly or professional distinction within the academic community.”

Among journalists, Sarna is known as the go-to scholar for erudite, succinct, quotable analysis on American Jewish history. But he’s also a favorite sage for aspiring Jewish academics; more than 30 doctoral dissertations have been written under his direction. That’s partly why he decided to make Brandeis, the Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university founded in this Boston suburb in 1948, his professional home.

“I came to Brandeis not only because I thought that Brandeis should be a major center of American Jewish history, but also because I thought I would enjoy teaching a wide span of future Jewish leaders covering all the movements,” Sarna said.

Brandeis also was his undergraduate alma mater and until 1985 the professional home of his father, the late Bible scholar Nahum Sarna.

In recent years, Sarna has become a sought-after commentator on contemporary American Judaism, too. Though he demurs from offering predictions about American Jewry’s future, Sarna draws on his deep scholarship to highlight some of the lesser-noticed trends he believes will play a big role in shaping that future.

Those who talk with certainty about where American Jewry is headed based on current trends, such as declining affiliation rates, should remember that the story of American Jewry has been more cyclical than linear, Sarna cautions. In the 1930s, community leaders watching young Jews becoming communists and leaving synagogues predicted the disappearance of American Jewry, but they failed to foresee the great religious revival of the 1950s.

American Jewry may be in a “religious recession” today, Sarna says, but that’s not necessarily predictive of tomorrow.

Among the other trends Sarna says are worth watching:

  • Worldwide Jewry is at the tail end of a great consolidation, with some 80-85 percent of Jews living either in Israel or North America. Even in America, the vast majority of the community lives in about 20 large metropolitan areas.
  • American Jews are now fully mainstream, underscored by the fact that both leading presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have Jewish sons-in-law – something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Americans no longer view Jews as a minority.
  • The nature of Jewish intermarriage is radically changing. Once, those who intermarried were thought to be lost to the Jewish community; today, intermarried Jews play a big role in Jewish life.
  • New technologies are having a dramatic impact on religion broadly and Judaism in particular.


“These are changes of enormous significance that desperately need to be thought about,” Sarna says. “Today there is a massive disjunction between how we think of ourselves and how we actually are.”

Even as a kid, Sarna seemed destined for academic greatness. His parents were both British intellectuals who immigrated to America in 1951. His mother, Helen, was a librarian at Hebrew College. His father taught at Philadelphia’s Gratz College and then JTS before settling at Brandeis, where he achieved wide renown. Jonathan, born in 1955, was the family’s first American-born child; he has an older brother, David.

When Sarna chose to focus on American Jewish history, it turned out to be one of the few Jewish subjects his British-trained father knew nothing about. His interest in the subject dates back to his teen years. His senior thesis at Brookline High School in suburban Boston was about the history of American anti-Semitism, and even in his driver’s education course Sarna went historical, writing about Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism for a required car-related essay. He got an A on the paper but failed the road test.

“Henry Ford had the last laugh on that one,” Sarna said wryly.

When Sarna started his career – he earned his doctorate at Yale and then taught at HUC in Cincinnati before landing at Brandeis – the field of American Jewish history was still in its infancy, he says. The challenge of the field was to synthesize not just knowledge of American history and American religion, but of Jewish history and Judaism.

Sarna’s career has spanned the colonial period to the present, including book-length histories of the Jewish communities of New HavenCincinnati and Boston. His most recent books, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History” (co-authored with Benjamin Shapell) and “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” both won critical acclaim.

The professor takes particular pride in being something of an insider in each of American Jewry’s three main religious denominations. Until the age of 10 he grew up at JTS, the flagship Conservative institution where his father taught. Sarna himself was reared in Orthodox institutions, including a post-high school year at the rigorously Orthodox Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem. And Sarna taught for more than a decade at Reform’s HUC.

Sarna attends an Orthodox shul, but his wife, Ruth Langer, a theology and liturgy professor at Boston College, is a Reform rabbi. The couple have two children: Aaron Sarna works for Google, and Leah Sarna is studying to be an Orthodox clergywoman at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.

“I know the whole spectrum of the American Jewish world as an insider in a way I think few people do,” Sarna told JTA. “That’s given me a breadth of understanding and even sympathy with each community. I think I’m at my best when I help different groups in American Jewish life understand one another.”

His most recent book, too, almost didn’t happen. In May 2014, during a weekend visit to Yale for his daughter’s graduation, Sarna collapsed while walking back from the Hillel center to his hotel and went into cardiac arrest. Because it was Shabbat, he wasn’t carrying a phone.

Fortunately, a cardiologist happened to be driving by and Sarna immediately was taken to nearby Yale-New Haven Hospital. The speed of the emergency response not only saved Sarna’s life but also helped him avoid the irreversible brain damage that often occurs in patients who suffer cardiac arrest. His physicians told Sarna that his heart blockage could be traced back to the radiation treatment he had received for his cancer a decade and a half earlier.

Two years on, Sarna has had to slow down a bit – five or six hours of sleep a night is no longer sufficient, he says ruefully – but his rate of production hardly shows it.

Before he even left the hospital at Yale, Sarna resumed edits on his Lincoln book. This fall, he’ll be going to Jerusalem on sabbatical, where he’ll be at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies working on his new book about a little-known 19th-century American Jewish female writer and poet.

“This is what I’ve been put on this earth to do,” Sarna said, “to write about and read about the American Jewish experience.”

Leonard Fein, progressive activist and writer, dies at 80

Leonard Fein, a veteran Jewish activist and writer, has died at 80.

Fein died Thursday morning, announced the Forward newspaper, where he was a longtime columnist.

A prominent voice of Jewish liberalism and left-wing Zionism, Fein was the author of numerous books on Jewish issues and politics.

Fein was the founder of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and of the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy.

He also was a founder and board member of Americans for Peace Now, the American affiliate of Israel’s Peace Now movement.

In 1975, he co-founded Moment Magazine with Elie Wiesel. Fein was a former professor of political science and social policy at Brandeis University, where he also taught Jewish studies.

Al-Quds University president denounces extremist rally

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A Nov. 5 rally at the West Bank-based Al-Quds University that featured demonstrators from the Islamic Jihad flashing Nazi-like salutes resulted in Brandeis University recalling its faculty from a joint program. Divisions racked the Palestinian university’s student body and faculty following the demonstration and word that the Boston-based school was suspending its presence at Al-Quds.

International pressure mounted on Al-Quds University President Dr. Sari Nusseibeh to respond to Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence’s demand to condemn what was being called a “radical” behavior at the rally. Nusseibeh told The Media Line that, “We don’t believe in oppressing freedom of opinion, but respecting it. I said clearly about what happens in this rally that such manifestations are harmful to the university. The university will not allow the breaching of respect.”

As for the demand from Boston, Nusseibeh said, “I’m not answerable to Brandeis or anyone else for that matter.”

Fadi Shawahin, the head of the university’s student council, explained that such gestures are often used to signify an oath by members of political organizations and that was what was being seen on Nov. 5.

“One of the ways an oath is done is by putting the hand to the heart; others by raising one finger; and the Islamic Jihad’s oath is done by pointing the full hand to the sky,” Shawahin said. He claimed that some media outlets portrayed the gesture as if it were a Nazi salute and Nazi-style demonstration being permitted on the campus. “This is clear propaganda to put pressure on the Palestinian leadership,” he charged.

The lack of an immediate response from the university administration inflamed reactions from both Brandeis and the Jewish community.

In his statement to The Media Line, Nusseibeh said, “I’m not here as president of the university under occupation and I’m not required to offer a condemnation. I’m required to educate people. I stated very clearly that I am against fascism and Nazism.”

Shawahin said that the student council approved of a proposed activity by the Islamic Jihad student-bloc at the university that was presented as an event to welcome new students. As part of their presentation, “Fifteen members of the party participated in a play that ended with a march on the anniversary of the martyrdom of the late Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Al-Shiqaqi, and to welcome the university’s new students,” he explained. Shiqaqi was killed by Israel in 1995.

Participants dressed in military garb and carried fake assault rifles while performing the Nazi-style salute before a gathered crowd of about 200 people. Israeli flags were laid on the ground and walked on, while a large poster with photos of Palestinian suicide bombers was erected in the square. Some people were also reported to have dressed up as dead Israelis.

“I do not honor suicide bombers. I do not know for a fact that this was the case because I was not there,” Nusseibeh said. “What I did find unacceptable was the picture of the people of the arms extended upwards wearing military uniforms. This is not acceptable on a university campus. Any manifestation of this must be told in a clear way that it is unacceptable. I made this very clear to my students, all 3,000 of them, in Arabic — not in English or Japanese.”

In a statement released on Nov. 11, Brandeis University expressed concern about the event and demanded an investigation by Al-Quds. President Lawrence then reached out to his counterpart requesting that Nusseibeh condemn the rally in both Arabic and English.

“The response that we received was unsatisfactory,” said Ellen de Graffenreid, senior Vice President of Communications at Brandeis University, citing the lack of a condemnation as the primary reason for Brandeis’ decision to remove their faculty.

“I’m very sorry that these pressures made President Lawrence take the action that he did,” Nusseibeh said. “Our mission and his should be to fight extremism and to bring about a peaceful future. I’m happy anytime they decide to go back on the decision. I welcome it anytime.”

A statement issued by Al-Quds elaborated on the relationship with Brandeis, calling it “a partnership promoting peace and human values and is mutually beneficial by bringing minds together to think of the power of education and use it against the extremist influences that exist out there.”

Social media was awash with outrage on both sides of the conflict. A Jerusalem member of the movement that advocates anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) posted, “Brandeis University endorses academic boycott…of Palestinians. Do they have an issue w/ Israeli racism on campus?”  Pro-Israel NGO Monitor said that it was “glad to see @BrandeisU did the right thing in the face of appalling intolerance and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

Al-Quds University has 18,000 students spread across three West Bank campuses. The collaboration with Brandeis began in 1998, but more recently budget issues reduced the program to only a faculty exchange between the two universities. Bard College in New York, which also operates an exchange program with Al-Quds University, did not enter the controversy.

“The majority of staff and students were disappointed by the disturbances of the rally and that they were against the event,” an Al-Quds professor who requested to remain anonymous told The Media Line. “Some people are extremists and are destroying everything, all the efforts we have put into the university investing in people to respect each other. The extremists help the extreme. We do not agree with honoring suicide bombers. We are in the middle.”

Islamic Jihad has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. It has carried out dozens of attacks against Israeli citizens since its foundation in the 1970s.

Al-Quds University has set up an investigative committee to determine who participated in the event and in particular, whether the participants included members of the university’s faculty or student body. Dr. Nusseibeh told The Media Line that he is waiting for the report and will act as the case will warrant.

Diana Atallah contributed reporting from Ramallah.

On its 10th anniversary, Lauder Business School looking West for new students

With more than 250 students living, studying or partying on its campus, quiet moments are rare at the Lauder Business School. But when a lull does occur, it reminds managing director Alex Zirkler of this Jewish university’s opening 10 years ago, when it had only seven students, 15 lecturers and many silent hallways.

“I don’t like to remember those absurd times,” said Zirkler, a Vienna native who has been with the institution ever since the American cosmetics magnate and Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder envisaged opening a first-rate business university for young Jews from across Europe and beyond.

The school’s rapid growth owes largely to an influx of students from the former Soviet bloc, who make up 70 percent of current enrollees. With its ample scholarships and reputation as a boutique university, the school offers them a rare shot at a Western education.

LBS offers an English-language bachelor's program in international business administration and a master’s in international management and leadership. With a scholarship, students from outside the European Union pay about $7,000 annually — a fee that includes housing and three kosher meals a day, as well as compulsory courses in Hebrew and Jewish studies.

But as LBS marks its 10th anniversary this year, the school's directors are striving for a more equal balance between East and West that they say will enhance academic performance and fulfill the school’s mission as a rare melting pot for Jewish European academics.

“People come here to network with fellow students in a Jewish, international setting,” said Jacob Biderman, an Israeli-born Chabad rabbi and the LBS chairman. “It is in their interest that the school facilitate cross-fertilization: Our students are not looking to study with only French people or only Ukrainian people, or they would not have come here in the first place.”

Biderman acknowledges it will be a challenge. Given the attractive pricing, students from the East are “obvious, natural clients,” he says.

But Biderman believes LBS has the potential to attract many Western European Jews who are seeking an institution that combines a top-rate secular education with Jewish studies — similar to what Yeshiva University and Brandeis offer in the United States. For students from the East, LBS offers more than just an education, but an opportunity to gain a toehold on new lives in more affluent central and Eastern European countries.

Gabor came from Budapest to study at LBS in 2005. He now works in the banking industry in Vienna.

“Graduating in Austria is pretty powerful when applying and makes it much easier to find work,” he said.

Tatyana Belousova came to LBS from Vladimir, a town east of Moscow, and secured a job in Germany even before she graduated last year.

“An opportunity of getting higher education in Europe and living a Jewish life with no compromises was a decisive factor,” she said of her decision to enroll in LBS at the age of 17.

Some 300 to 400 students apply for admission each year, of which approximately 100 are accepted. Applicants are evaluated by the LBS academic committee on the basis of their grades, but to receive a scholarship and housing, they must apply to the Jewish Heritage Fund, a separate body that is comprised of several private donors and charities.

The fund assesses the “compatibility” of applicants in deciding whether to offer them a spot in the dormitories and up to 80 percent of their tuition. A major part of assessing compatibility, Biderman said, is whether a student is Jewish according to religious law.

The separation between the school and its dorms permits LBS to qualify for funding from the government of Austria, which otherwise would not be allowed to support a school that considers religion in admissions decisions. About one-quarter of the $3.2 million LBS budget comes from the Austrian government. LBS gets significant additional help from public authorities in Austria. The government made an exception to its rule requiring publicly funded schools to admit anyone with a high school diploma, a regulation that would have undercut LBS aspirations to admit only the best.

Austria also helped LBS work around a European rule requiring universities to have at least 2,000 students to be accredited independently. The school's entire campus, an 18th century palace that once was home to Princess Maria Theresa, was donated by the Vienna municipality. The five buildings have more than 100,000 square feet of floor space, and are arranged around a 54,000 square foot courtyard. Lauder spent $8 million renovating the campus, to which the school has title for 60 years.

Such favorable treatment is part of the reason LBS elected to operate in Austria, where Lauder made many close contacts during his tenure as U.S. ambassador from 1986 to 1987.

“The fact that Ronald Lauder is the institution’s president adds much to our stature in Austria and elsewhere,” Biderman said, though he dismissed the notion that LBS enjoys special dispensations solely on this account.

Austria is keen “to re-establish Vienna as the seat of Jewish intelligentsia,” Biderman said. “They understand we can’t put together the numbers because of the Holocaust.”

On campus, the ancient palace facade creates a jarring juxtaposition with the modern, high-tech classroom interiors, complete with projectors, sound systems and new furniture. Enhancing the mix of old and new is the large metal-and-glass auditorium planted at the center of the ancient interior yard between the classrooms and dorms.

Every year, a few graduates end up staying in Vienna and marrying Viennese Jewish spouses, according to Biderman. In total, the school has learned of 30 weddings of former students who met on campus. The institution even has a photo album with a picture from each wedding.

“We recently received a postcard from Israel with a picture of a baby born to two of our graduates who made aliyah after meeting here,” Biderman said. “We call them LBS babies.”

Brandeis students disrupt meeting with Israeli lawmakers

Brandeis University students disrupted a panel discussion at a Boston-area synagogue featuring Israeli lawmakers and Jewish community leaders.

The students, members of the Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine group, removed their shirts in Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass., to uncover T-shirts that read “apartheid” in Hebrew. They also chanted, “Free, free Palestine,” and, “Israel is an apartheid state and the Knesset is an apartheid parliament!”

Police and security guards removed the students; one student was arrested.

The five lawmakers — Ofir Akunis of the Likud Party, Lia Shemtov and Faina Kirschenbaum of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, Ilan Gilon of the Meretz Party and Ghaleb Majadele of the Labor Party — were in Boston as part of the Ruderman Fellowship, which educates Israeli politicians about Jewry in America. 

The protesters singled out Akunis and Kirshenbaum for “sponsoring fascist legislation in the Knesset” that limits international funding to nongovernmental organizations, and Kirshenbaum for living in a West Bank settlement.

Israeli lawmaker Dichter heckled at Brandeis [VIDEO]

Israeli lawmaker Avi Dichter was heckled by protesters during a speech at Brandeis University.

Students from the group Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine stood up as Dichter began speaking Tuesday during a panel discussion before an audience of several hundred students and called him a war criminal in English and Hebrew, Haaretz reported. The incident can be viewed on YouTube.

Dichter, a member of the Kadima Party, served as director of the Shin Bet security service during the second Palestinian Intifada.

The students, including Jewish and Palestinian students, chanted “Don’t worry Avi Dichter, we’ll see you at The Hague,” referring to the site of the International Criminal Court. They accused him of committing war crimes for ordering the 2002 assassination of a Hamas terrorist; a bomb was dropped on the terrorist’s home, killing 15, including nine children.

Dichter is visiting the United States with five other Israeli lawmakers from the Likud, Labor and Kadima parties to study American Jewish life as part of the inaugural Ruderman Fellows Program.

Israeli lawmaker Dichter heckled at Brandeis

Israeli lawmaker Avi Dichter was heckled by protesters during a speech at Brandeis University.

Students from the group Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine stood up as Dichter began speaking Tuesday during a panel discussion before an audience of several hundred students and called him a war criminal in English and Hebrew, Haaretz reported. The incident can be viewed on YouTube.

Dichter, a member of the Kadima Party, served as director of the Shin Bet security service during the second Palestinian Intifada.

The students, including Jewish and Palestinian students, chanted “Don’t worry Avi Dichter, we’ll see you at The Hague,” referring to the site of the International Criminal Court. They accused him of committing war crimes for ordering the 2002 assassination of a Hamas terrorist; a bomb was dropped on the terrorist’s home, killing 15, including nine children.

Dichter is visiting the United States with five other Israeli lawmakers from the Likud, Labor and Kadima parties to study American Jewish life as part of the inaugural Ruderman Fellows Program.

Brandeis Hillel excludes a controversial group on Israel, generating debate

Hillel may be the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, but that doesn’t mean every Jewish student group is welcome.

Last week, Brandeis University’s Hillel voted not to accept the membership bid of the local campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that has been criticized for its support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign targeting Israel and was listed by the Anti-Defamation League last October as among the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the United States.

“While we understand that JVP at Brandeis considers itself a pro-Israel club, based on positions and programming JVP has sponsored, we do not believe that JVP can be included under Hillel’s umbrella,” Brandeis senior Andrea Wexler, the president of the 11-member Hillel student executive board that rejected the application of Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote in a letter explaining the board’s decision.

Wexler said the group’s words and actions put it beyond what is acceptable to Hillel.

Fellow Brandeis senior Lev Hirschhorn, who presented JVP’s case to the Hillel board, said Hillel should not exclude any Jewish student group.

“As members of the Brandeis Jewish community, we wanted Jewish Voice for Peace to be included at the Jewish communal table,” he said.

The battle at Brandeis over JVP is part of the growing, heated debate in the American Jewish community over what constitutes acceptable criticism of Israel.

Last summer, a furor erupted in San Francisco over Jewish federation funding for a Jewish film festival that screened a film about pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie. For the past three years, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group J Street has stirred passions on both sides of the divide for its calls for increased U.S. pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians. This month, Israel’s Knesset decided to investigate J Street.

At Brandeis, the organization’s college chapter, called J Street U, blasted Hillel’s decision on Jewish Voice for Peace.

“While J Street U and JVP strongly disagree about many issues related to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the BDS movement, we nonetheless believe that they should be a part of the Jewish communal conversation,” J Street U said, using the acronym for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

Unlike J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace does not describe itself as pro-Israel. That and JVP’s support for the BDS movement were critical to Hillel’s decision, Wexler said. The decision, she added, was “very difficult” and not unanimous.

“According to the pro-Israel guidelines given to us, which we support and agree with, we didn’t feel they fit into what we consider a Hillel member group,” Wexler said of JVP.

The membership guidelines to which Wexler referred were released by Hillel’s international body last December. The guidelines reiterate Hillel’s support for Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” and say Hillel “will not partner with, house or host” groups or speakers that do not agree with that statement, including those that support the BDS campaign.

Hirschhorn says the Brandeis chapter of JVP only supports boycotting goods produced in Gaza and the West Bank, not Israel proper, so it should not be considered anti-Israel.

“We know what the national guidelines say, but we also know Brandeis is an open, welcoming community,” he said.

Wexler said the campus JVP chapter cannot be considered apart from positions taken by its national organization, which held its national membership conference over the weekend in Philadelphia.

Wayne Firestone, Hillel’s president and the main author of the new membership guidelines, says that any organization, including Hillel, has the right to define its limits.

“We do not feel we can be true to our values and partner with groups that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.

Firestone noted that the guidelines also would exclude right-wing student organizations that do not support Israel as a democratic state, although no such groups have applied to Hillel since the regulations were put in place.

The Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which was created last fall, was the first JVP chapter nationwide to apply for Hillel membership. The organization, which began in the San Francisco area, also has chapters at the University of California, San Diego, the University of Arizona, St. Lawrence University and Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. It is organizing on six more campuses, according to a spokesperson.

Adam Lerner, a sophomore at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where JVP is organizing, says Hillel, which has the stated goal of providing a safe space for students to explore their Jewish identity, should not set a political litmus test for who is in and who is out.

“If Hillel promotes itself as ‘the’ center for Jewish life on campus, they need to have as pluralistic a voice as possible,” Lerner said. “If Israel is open to all Jews, then Hillel should be open to all Jewish groups on campus. They should take the model they’re promoting for the Jewish state and apply it to themselves.”

Jonathan Horovitz, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, says the issue isn’t Hillel banning a particular opinion but choosing not to partner with an organization that is disruptive and uncivil. He noted that JVP supporters have heckled pro-Israel speakers, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the group aligns with organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and the International Solidarity Movement.

“The actions of JVP and their guests abuse the openness offered by the mainstream Jewish community by responding with hostility,” Horovitz said. “A group that hosts such events and welcomes such disrespectful jeering should not be allowed in the Jewish community.”

Firestone says all students are welcome at Hillel as individuals, no matter their organizational affiliations. But “that’s different from co-sponsoring with an organization that does harm to our central values,” he said.

Ben Sales, editor of New Voices, an online publication serving the American Jewish student community, says this position is disingenuous.

“If Hillel wants to be the Israel advocacy organization on campus that also provides a wealth of other programming for Jewish students, that’s fine,” Sales said, “but then it’s inaccurate to call itself the center for Jewish life while excluding a group of Jewish students who do not support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state but who are not violent or discriminatory, and who ground their positions in Jewish values.”

It turns out the debate about the Brandeis Hillel decision is much more heated off-campus than on it; both Hirschhorn and Wexler say there is no hostility between their groups.

“I study Hebrew with a lot of them,” Hirschhorn said of the Hillel board members. “They made sure we understood this isn’t a personal thing.” Wexler added that after the meeting, several of the students became “friends” with each other on Facebook.

“We encourage these conversations,” said Larry Sternberg, executive director of the Hillel at Brandeis. “This whole thing reflects the fact that there are such conversations taking place. And the fact that JVP wants to be part of Hillel is a good thing.”

Brandeis Hillel rejects Jewish Voice for Peace

The Brandeis University Hillel voted to reject Jewish Voice for Peace as a member group.

Andrea Wexler, student president of the Hillel chapter at the suburban Boston school, explained in a letter to Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish organization that champions Palestinian rights, that Tuesday’s vote followed the international guidelines of the student organization.

“Our policy, consistent with our international guidelines, states that ‘Hillel is pro-Israel; steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations,’ ” Wexler wrote. “While, based on your presentation, we understand that JVP at Brandeis considers itself a pro-Israel club, based on positions and programming JVP has sponsored, we do not believe that JVP can be included under Hillel’s umbrella.”

Wexler cited the fact that Jewish Voice for Peace supports a boycott of Israeli goods produced in the West Bank as an example.

In response to the decision, Brandeis senior and Jewish Voice for Peace activist Jon Sussman said in a statement that “Brandeis students have lost an opportunity to learn from one another. Jewish students must demand the national Hillel organization change its condescending guidelines which marginalize progressive Jewish opinion on campus.”

Selection of Israeli envoy sparks debate at Brandeis

Brandeis has sparked a controversy in the university community with its selection of Israel’s ambassador to Washington as its commencement speaker.

Last week’s announcement of Michael Oren as this year’s keynoter has evoked a spectrum of responses in campus publications and online forums ranging from enthusiastic support to wary apprehension to outrage.

Neither Oren nor the suburban Boston university are strangers to such controversies.

Oren was at the center of a debate over free speech after hecklers were arrested for repeatedly disrupting his address at the University of California, Irvine in February. And Brandeis, a secular university with a large Jewish student population and many Jewish donors, drew heat in some circles in 2006 for tapping Tony Kushner to receive an honorary degree, with critics citing the playwright’s statement that “it would have been better if Israel never happened” and his assertion that Israel was guilty of carrying out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Oren, who became ambassador after a lengthy academic career, was announced as both the sole speaker at the May 23 graduation and one of seven honorary degree recipients. Among the other recipients, according to an April 20 news release, is veteran U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross.

Some of those criticizing Oren’s selection cite the policies of the Israeli government that he represents.

Others say the potential for controversy and unhappiness over the selection should have been enough to steer the university in a less divisive direction. Such critics argue that the selection of Oren was unsuitable for an ideologically diverse student body and inevitably would become a distraction, drawing the focus away from graduating seniors.

Critics of the choice include the student newspaper, The Justice, which published an editorial blasting the selection.

“Mr. Oren is a divisive and inappropriate choice for keynote speaker at commencement, and we disapprove of the University’s decision to grant someone of his polarity on this campus that honor,” the newspaper wrote, adding that the “invitation constitutes at best naivete and at worst disregard concerning the reality of the range of student political orientation on this campus.”

Writing in a separate opinion piece for the newspaper, Jeremy Sherer, the president of the campus chapter of J Street, noted that while he was personally “bothered” by Oren’s politics, “far more important to the Brandeis community” was the “possibility that Oren’s address will alienate portions of the senior class on their final day as Brandeis students.”

The column stood in stark contrast to the J Street national office, which expressed disappointment when Oren declined to attend its inaugural conference last year and has been working hard to convince the ambassador that the organization is a strong supporter of Israel even if it opposes his government’s policies in certain areas.

A J Street spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick, told JTA that Sherer does not speak for the organization, insisting that the group “welcomes the ambassador speaking at the commencement.”

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the choice came from computer science professor Harry Mairson, who decried the school administration’s “political statement” in inviting an “apologist” for Israel’s actions in Gaza. Subtly likening the move to having former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara speak during the peak of the Vietnam War, Mairson said the decision to invite Oren would “compromise Brandeis’ commitment to social justice.”

The vice president of the university, Andrew Gully, defended the selection of Oren—made by school President Jehuda Reinharz —and downplayed the ensuing controversy.

“Ambassador Oren is a highly distinguished scholar and endlessly deserving of the honor he will receive,” Gully told JTA.

The Brandeis administration, he said, is not expecting disruptive protests during the speech.

“I think people are reacting without even knowing what he’ll be speaking about,” Gully said, noting that Brandeis does not request the speaker to divulge the topic or content beforehand.

Other Oren supporters emphasize his scholarly credentials and larger relevance as a historian and policymaker.

Heddy Ben-Atar, the student representative on the school’s board of trustees, wrote in the student newspaper that Oren’s “academic excellence, rigorous research practices and fearlessly honest writing” merit the invitation to speak.

Ben-Atar lamented what she described as critics unfairly speculating about the content of Oren’s speech.

Adam Ross, a senior, has launched an online petition in support of Oren, touting his accomplishments in academia and urging members of the Brandeis community to “fully embody the rich academic quality and sophistication of our university and receive Ambassador Oren’s speech respectfully, regardless of personal opinions regarding the country that Ambassador Oren represents.”

Some critics of Oren’s selection have said they would have preferred to hear from another of the honorary degree recipients: Paul Farmer, the founder of the nonprofit medical organization Partners in Health, which has been doing work in Haiti.

The school shows no sign of bowing to the calls to dump Oren as commencement speaker. But Reinharz has voiced support for a separate, growing student campaign to have singer-songwriter Paul Simon, another of the honorary degree recipients, perform while he’s on campus.

Milken JCC hires new director; Heschel West receives award

Milken JCC Hires New Executive Director, Finalizes Strategic Plan for Improvements

Paul Frishman, a 22-year veteran of the Jewish Community Center movement, has been tapped as the new executive director of The New JCC at Milken. He officially began Sept. 2.

Frishman, 45, spent the last four and a half years as chief operating officer of the Valley of the Sun JCC in Scottsdale, Ariz., and 18 years at the Dave & Mary Alper JCC in Miami.

His selection represents a solid commitment to rebuilding Milken JCC, said Steve Rheuban, the center’s board chair.

In spring 2007, as the center was facing a $250,000 deficit, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles closed the Olympic-sized pool, causing almost one-third of its members to abandon the JCC. Despite these challenges, the center’s leaders voted down a one-time $350,000 allocation offered by The Federation that would have required giving up its historic right to be the major tenant on the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills.

The organization now has finalized a new business plan, as well as a strategic plan to create a state-of-the-art fitness center, with the goal of reopening the pool and shower facilities. It is working with the JCC Development Corp., successor to JCC parent organization, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, to finance reopening of the pool. Once that happens, Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg is on board to bring back his swim school.

Additionally, representatives of the JCC and The Federation have been meeting to work out an agreement by December detailing occupancy and responsibility issues.

“It’s not us vs. them. We are a community, and the JCC is part of the community,” said Richard Sandler, Federation vice chair and one of the negotiators.

Meanwhile, more than 80 2- to 4-year-olds are enrolled in the JCC preschool, and 200 to 250 seniors daily attend classes, play cards or work out at the center. “This is their home,” Frishman said.

He wants to increase membership, currently hovering around 500 families, as well as sports, educational and cultural activities, including specialized programming for the Russian and Israeli communities. In addition, he wants to make facility improvements.

“I look at this with wide-open eyes and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm,” he said.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

College Credit, Teacher Training Now Available for Arab-Israeli Conflict Course

Beginning this fall, high school juniors and seniors who complete The David Project’s course on the Arab-Israeli conflict can receive freshman-level college credit for the class. Teacher training on the high school curriculum is tentatively planned for Nov. 2-4 in Los Angeles.

“The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Educating Ourselves, Educating Others” teaches the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict by promoting historical accuracy, critical thinking, discussion, moral decision making and activism.

The curriculum has been offered for the past two years through the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, a transdenominational Jewish college in Melrose Park, Pa. With support from the Avi Chai Foundation, the course has been adopted by 100 schools in the United States and Canada, including YULA High School in Los Angeles. More than 3,500 students complete the class each year.

The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, a nonprofit educational organization, has partnered with The Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles to offer the Teacher Training Institute, tentatively scheduled for November. Registration for the three-day seminar would be $150 (includes lodging and two meals per day); a commuter option would also be available.

For more information, visit Questions about the teacher training institute can be addressed to Na’ama Levitz Applbaum at

— Anita K. Kantrowitz, Contributing Writer

Heschel West Receives Blue Ribbon Award

The U.S. Department of Education has given Heschel West Day School the National Blue Ribbon Award, a prestigious prize given to the “top 10 percent of schools nationally, based upon academic achievement.”

The Agoura school is the first Jewish school in the Conejo and San Fernando valleys to be awarded the prize. Heschel West attributes the award to its commitment to the education of the whole child.

“Often, parents come to us believing they have to choose between schools that provide children with rigorous academics and those that build strong values,” said Tami Weiser, Heschel West’s head of school. “This Blue Ribbon Award is validation of what we knew all along at Heschel West — families can come to us and find everything they are seeking at one school.”

The community Jewish school will celebrate its Blue Ribbon Award at Mitzvah Day on Sunday, Nov. 2. The event will call attention to illiteracy in other communities and collect books, toys and funds for underprivileged students and schools.

For more information, call (818) 707-2365.

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Shalhevet Student Participates in Genesis College Program at Brandeis University

While other high school students spent this past summer in camp or working, Penina Smith was away at college.

The Shalhevet senior was one of 62 rising juniors and seniors chosen to attend Genesis, a four-week residential program at Brandeis University offering first-year college-level courses integrating the arts, Jewish studies, humanities, social action and community building.

Participants from 21 states, Canada, Israel, Spain and Russia attended team-taught workshops and seminars that were both test and grade free. The students, representing the spectrum of Jewish life from Modern Orthodox to secular, also created different Shabbat programs weekly and worked on various community service projects.

Smith took a world religions course and a creative writing workshop titled, “The Lie That Tells a Truth.” Other courses included “Journalism, Judaism and Ethics,” “Israel” and “Judaism and Justice.” In addition, workshops included mixed media, music and digital photography.

Founded in 1997 with support from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, Genesis accepts applications on a rolling basis.

For more information, visit