Opening The Ivy Doors


New Haven, Conn. — For a long time Yale University was not a good place to be a Jewish student. The WASPy Ivy League school here maintained a Jewish quota from the 1920s until the ‘50s, limiting the number of Jews to 10 percent of the undergraduate class.

For a few years Yale was not a good place to be an Orthodox Jew. In 1997 a group of students, dubbed the Yale Five, sued for permission to live off-campus. They were offended by what they considered a promiscuous lifestyle in the coed dormitories where undergraduates were required to live, but their suit was dismissed.

Today, the quota is long gone, the administration according to representatives of Jewish organizations has made an attempt to accommodate Orthodox concerns and the increased number of Jewish students here includes scores of Orthodox students.

And, in the latest sign of change, a small part of the history of the international fight against anti-Semitism was made one recent afternoon in a crowded seminar room in an academic office building on the edge of campus. A few days before Iran opened its controversial conference debating the historical accuracy of the Holocaust, Guy Raz, a correspondent for National Public Radio, discussed media coverage of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activities. Weaving together personal anecdotes and archival research, playing sound clips from a laptop computer on the podium and answering questions from the audience, he surveyed media perceptions of anti-Semitism from World War II and the Holocaust until 9/11 and Israel’s recent war in Lebanon.

His speech marked the final public event of the first semester of The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, a research center that bills itself as the first such university-based program in North America.

Spurred by reports in recent years of growing anti-Semitism internationally, especially in Europe and the Middle East, the Initiative since September has sponsored a series of lectures by leading authors and scholars, hosted visiting researchers and served as a resource for journalists and politicians. Future plans, says Charles Small, founding director, include hosting academic conferences, issuing curriculum materials and publishing periodicals and reports. Reflecting the more tolerant mood on campus, the Initiative’s work has not drawn any anti-Semitic threats or vandalism, Small says. At Raz’s speech there was no visible security presence, no hecklers and no protestors.

Yale has its share of anti-Israel activities, such as student rallies and letters in the Yale Daily News, but no more than at any major American university, says Dr. Dan Oren, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and author of “Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale” (Yale University Press, 2000).

Like other major liberal arts universities in North America, Yale is home to “a couple of individual professors who have strong anti-Israel views,” Oren says. “It’s probably comparable to other schools.”

Earlier this year the Yale Center for International and Area Studies was on the verge of hiring Juan Cole, a prominent Middle East scholar at the University of Michigan who had drawn criticism for the tone of anti-Israel remarks he had made in his “Informed Comment” blog. After approval by the sociology and history departments, Cole’s nomination was vetoed by the school’s tenure committee, which has the final say on hirings.

Cole’s politics overshadowed his academic reputation, Oren says, adding that in turning down Cole Yale sent the message that “people whose politics are stronger than their scholarship …can’t rely on their scholarship to find them a place at the academy.”

The public debate over the Cole hiring did not increase expressions of anti-Semitism at the university, Oren says. “I don’t think there is a strong aftertaste. I haven’t seen anything to that effect.”

‘Gratifying’ Growth Of Jewish Life

The historical irony of anti-Semitism being studied at Yale, where the number of Jewish students was restricted for four decades, is not lost on members of the university’s Jewish community.

“I find it gratifying,” says humorist Calvin Trillin, who graduated from the school in 1957.

A 10-minute walk away from the building where the Initiative is housed is the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, a four-story brick building that serves as the anchor of Jewish activities at Yale. In the lobby hang posted announcements for holiday celebrations, Torah classes and weekly religious services, ranging from Orthodox to egalitarian. On a coffee table sit copies of the Yale Israel Journal, an academic publication put out by Jewish students. In the basement is a kosher kitchen.

Now about a third of the Yale faculty is Jewish, and the school has a Jewish president, Richard Levin. Now Yale has a Jewish fraternity and sorority. Now the Yale University Press publishes dozens of Jewish titles, with this year’s offerings including “History of the Yiddish Language” and “The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague.” Now Yale is planning to have an eruv, an enclosure that enables observant Jews to carry on Shabbat. Now Yale has its own klezmer group.

“It’s very Yale to be Jewish,” says Ivan Marcus, chair of the university’s Judaic studies program.

“Yale has changed quite a bit,” says Trillin, who served as master of ceremonies for the Slifka Center’s opening in 1995, and was a Yale trustee in the mid-1980s. “It’s changed not just for Jews but for everybody.”

Like many universities in the United States, Yale instituted a quota in the 1920s to keep out large numbers of Jewish students, particularly New York Jews from immigrant families. From that decade until the 1950s, the number of Jewish undergraduates never exceeded about 10 percent, says Oren. “It wasn’t just this school. It was throughout the northeast,” says Oren, whose book about Jews at Yale grew out of an undergraduate essay.

Many universities favored the mostly Protestant graduates from elite boarding schools over Jews, who usually attended public schools and were seen as too pushy, says Oren. This preference was most evident at Yale, Harvard and Princeton, for decades the most prestigious American universities. “The arrival of Jews would mean the departure of the sons [these schools were males-only early in the 20th century] of the Protestant upper and upper-middle classes whom Harvard most wished to enroll,” Jerome Karabel writes in his 2005 book, “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” (Houghton Mifflin).

That began to change after World War II, when many Jews joined the armed services and the Holocaust made open expressions of anti-Semitism unfashionable. By the late 1950s, post-Sputnik, universities were reaching out to the country’s best and brightest to catch up with Russian science. By the early 1960s, the civil rights movement opened up America. By the mid-1980s, Yale President A. Bartlett Giammati officially abolished the records that the admissions office had used to keep track of the number of Jews on campus.

Starting in the 1960s, about a quarter of Yale’s undergraduates were Jewish, and the percentage has remained that high since, according to most estimates. The Yale Hillel Web site states that “between 1/4 and 1/3” of undergraduates are Jews.

“As the ‘60s changed all of America, these [academic] institutions changed,” Marcus says.

In his days on campus, the early 1960s, “nobody walked around with a kipa,” he says. “Today, it’s common to see. It’s a leading indicator” of the change.

Extensive Judaic Studies Program

Marcus’ Judaic studies program offers more than 40 courses, including titles like “Contemporary Israeli Society in Film” and “Holocaust in Historical Perspective.” When he studied there, “there were no courses you could take in Judaic studies except for Hebrew.”

The school, founded in 1701, did not admit its first Jewish student for more than a century.

“It’s a very Jewish school now,” says Rabbi Shua Rosenstein, executive director of Chabad at Yale. The Chabad shaliach, or emissary, in New Haven, runs an off-campus Chabad House that draws a hundred or more students to Friday night Shabbat dinners. The rabbi walks around in obviously Orthodox garb, with no problems. “There’s even a couple of chasidic students” at Yale, he says.

Joshua Ezra Burns, a doctoral student from Queens, points to the Chai Society, of which he is president. The decade-old Chai Society, whose formation was energized by the Yale Five controversy, is one of the school’s so-called secret societies — invitation-only social and networking clubs that characterize Yale. The best-known such society is Skull and Bones, to which Sen. John Kerry and both Presidents Bush belonged.

The Chai Society, Yale’s only Jewish one, has a cultural and political orientation and is geared to future Jewish leaders. It is an around-the-clock hangout for members, a remodeled private house near campus with a winding staircase, where members come to study between classes or to hear weekly lectures or to attend Shabbat meals.

The motto of the Chai Society is “uniquely Jewish, uniquely Yale,” Burns says. “It’s a terrific thing to say that Jewish life has grown to such a degree that Jewish students can do something typical of Yale.”

“The Yale administration is very helpful in making being observant on campus as easy as possible,” the Hillel Web site states. “Many gates and doors on campus are opened by an electronic card, so the University supplies ‘Shabbos keys’ to anyone who requests them. Deans of each college can help you postpone work due on Jewish holidays and professors are always understanding about missed classes for this reason.”

“It’s hard to believe,” Oren says. “Each time I walk into the Slifka Center, I pinch myself.”

Oren attended Yale three decades ago. When he arrived on campus, he says, “Yale was still very much a Protestant institution.

“Today,” he says, “Yale has become a global institution.”

The school supported the formation of the new anti-Semitism initiative.

Not In Ivory TowerWhile the Initiative has a more academic orientation than such activist organizations as the New York-based Anti-Defamation League and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, it will work to influence public policy affecting anti-Semitism, and earlier this month sponsored a press conference in Manhattan that protested Iran’s ongoing activities attacking the authenticity of the Holocaust.

“We’re not going to be stuck in an ivory tower,” Small says of the Initiative, which was founded by Yale’s Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism. The Initiative is not affiliated with any political or religious organization, is open to various leanings and has sponsored speeches by non-Jewish authorities, Small says. “This is not a Jewish organization.”

A program that adds an academic voice to the study of anti-Semitism is vital, says Rhonda Barad, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s New York office.

“With all that’s going on in the world today,” she says, alluding to the Holocaust conference in Iran, “it’s very important. The more people that understand the issue, the better it is. Anti-Semitism does have a very long history — it has to be studied in a historical context.”

The Initiative “is dedicated to the scholarly research of the origins and manifestations associated with anti-Semitism globally, as well as other forms of prejudice, including racisms,” a pamphlet published by the program states. “The world is changing. Manifestations of anti-Semitism are changing,” Small says. “Scholars try to understand why it is happening. I don’t think the West understands why it is happening.” The Initiative’s emphasis is on analyzing the causes of contemporary anti-Semitism and on suggesting ways to combat it, he says. “The role of a scholar is to shed light where there is no light.”

A native of Montreal with a doctorate from Oxford University and a specialty in social and cultural theory, Small lived for several years in Israel, where he taught at several universities and was involved in reconciliation activities between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yale’s greater openness to Jews — as well as to women, blacks, Asians and students from various other minority groups — has boosted its academic reputation and fundraising, Oren says.

Yale rents the Slifka Center its land, prime real estate, at a price far below market rate, he says. The center was established by Alan Slifka, a Yale graduate, and named for his late father.

For most students, stories of quotas at Yale are part of the distant past, Oren says.

“By the time I was there” in the 1950s “it wasn’t a big issue,” Trillin says. He came to New Haven from Kansas City; his name isn’t typically Jewish. “If you didn’t have a Jewish name, if you didn’t come from New York City, you might have a different experience,” he says.

“We are aware that it was not easy to be Jewish,” says Megan Goldman, who is working at Yale this year for national Hillel’s Jewish Campus Service Corps. Yale’s Jewish history is “appreciated only by those people who have been here long enough,” she says.

Goldman, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, coordinates programming at the Slifka Center, offering students an age-group peer on the center staff.

On the Friday morning before Chanukah, she slipped a hooded Yale sweatshirt over her head, walked out of the center pushing a small metal wagon and headed toward the Commons dining hall. Outside the entrance to the cafeteria she pulled a paper tablecloth over the wagon and set up a tray of latkes and a full range of condiments.

Interested Jewish students, some wearing kipot, approached.

“Orthodox Jewish life on campus has gotten easier,” says Chabad’s Rabbi Shua Rosenstein.

On Wednesday, he was to lead the first-ever public menorah-lighting ceremony on campus. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was to light the candles outside the office of Yale’s Jewish president.