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Orthodox Jewish Students Defend Brandeis University Despite Controversial Ad

Brandeis University Faces Backlash Over Controversial Advertisement Seen as Anti-Orthodox

Days after a controversial Brandeis University advertisement appeared in The New York Times Magazine, which many saw as anti-Orthodox, students told JNS that Brandeis is a great place for observant Jews.

WALTHAM, MA – JULY 23: Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. (LANA TURNER/The Boston Globe via GETTY IMAGES) 

“Orthodox Jewish students have it really good at Brandeis,” Meshulam Ungar, 22, a rising senior and former vice president of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, a student group, told JNS.

Ungar understands why the advertisement struck readers as negative. Still, he told JNS, “these negative connotations are not reflective of the quality of life for the Orthodox on campus.”

Maya Ungar (no relation to Meshulam) is entering her junior year at Brandeis, where she is double majoring in American studies and education. The 21-year-old told JNS that the Brandeis ad was “tone-deaf.” She has had very positive experiences as an Orthodox student at Brandeis, where she chose to study in part for its “vibrant observant community.”

“As an Orthodox Jewish woman, I feel empowered,” she told JNS. “This ad seemed reflective of wildly poor judgment, but it doesn’t change the way that I feel about Brandeis.”

The advertisement, which filled a two-page spread in the magazine’s June 25 Sunday edition, stated that “Brandeis was founded by Jews. But, it’s anything but orthodox.”

“Since Orthodox Jews would reject these adjectives in their self-definition, this line is problematic,” Malka Simkovich, chair of Jewish studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, posted on Twitter. (Simkovich holds a doctorate in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis.)

Julie Jette, assistant vice president of communications at Brandeis, told JNS earlier in the week that the ad was not intended to offend. She did not answer a JNS question about whether Brandeis would have approached the ad differently in hindsight.

‘It was like Jerusalem on Shabbat’

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis and director of its Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, told JNS that the controversy stems from a misunderstanding.

“They clearly thought ‘unorthodox’ was a reference to character. They didn’t realize many people would not read the small print. It could not have been more explicit,” Sarna told JNS. (“But when we say that Brandeis is anything but orthodox, we’re referring to its character,” the ad stated.)

Sarna was not involved in crafting the ad, and he told JNS that he didn’t think it was unusual that the outside advertising agency—in this case, DeVito/Verdi, co-founded by Brandeis graduate Ellis Verdi—and Brandeis senior administrators did not seek his opinion on it. (Verdi has said that he referred to a “Jewish-American Princess,” or JAP, in a client pitch.)

“In retrospect, they probably wished they had tested it out with us first,” Sarna told JNS, referring to Brandeis administrators sharing the ad with Jewish-studies faculty. He did note that the ad celebrated both the 75th anniversaries of the university and the modern Jewish state.

“I was sorry people misunderstood ‘unorthodox,’” he said. “It’s a reminder that you can’t be too careful in the marketing business.”

On June 27, Matt Shapiro and Shoshana Solomon, president and vice president, respectively, of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization stated in an email that they were “hurt and disappointed,” and that the advertisement was “unacceptable and antithetical to Brandeis’ values.”

Ungar, the student group’s former vice president, told JNS that Orthodox Jewish life at Brandeis is vibrant, with an active beit midrash (religious study hall), a kosher dining hall and weekly Shabbat dinners organized by Chabad and Hillel. The campus has the “feel of being Jewish,” even though it is a secular university, he said.

“I remember thinking that it was like Jerusalem on Shabbat,” Ungar said of his first Shabbat campus experience.

A new hire and possibly another in the works

Late last February, Brandeis began reviewing applications for its newly created role: a senior associate provost and Lavine director of the Brandeis Jewish Studies Center. Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine endowed a Brandeis professorship and directorship of the center.

The hire would report directly to the provost and be a part of the latter’s senior leadership team and “will support the university in all aspects of Jewish studies and Jewish communal activity,” according to the announcement.

The new role will also supervise the directors of five Brandeis units: the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies/Steinhardt Social Research Institute; the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies; the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education; the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies; and the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry. The announcement stated that the hire is expected to start this summer or fall.

Sources told JNS that such a hire would have the sort of intuition about Jewish subjects that could have flagged the advertisement as potentially misleading prior to its publication. Earlier this month, Brandeis also announced that it hired Jeffrey Spencer Shoulson—a respected scholar of Jewish studies and a longtime administrator, most recently senior vice provost at the University of Connecticut—as its new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Such a hire complicates the senior associate provost search, sources told JNS, as the more senior-level dean—with extensive administrative experience and deep Jewish scholarship—rendered the other role moot. Why would Brandeis have two people doing the same thing, the sources asked? (At press time, the Brandeis provost’s office still listed the position as open, although clicking on the listing yields a page stating “The page you are looking for doesn’t exist.”)

“I was thrilled by the appointment of one of the leading early modern scholars, and unusually, we have a scholar, who has published multiple books who also has an amazing record of administrative success,” Sarna told JNS. “Brandeis will now have in the administration someone who is so knowledgeable about Jewish studies and so sensitive to the concerns of Brandeis’ Jewish community.”

Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate

Edited by Kyana Jeanin Rubinfeld and Alberto Arellano

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