(JTA) — Orthodox students at Brandeis University are decrying an ad for their school that said the university is “anything but Orthodox.”
The ad, which was published on Sunday in The New York Times Magazine, was headlined, “Brandeis was founded by Jews. But, it’s anything but Orthodox.” The two-page spread was part of a campaign launched in May that, according to an online statement from the school, is meant to demonstrate a “mix of humor, seriousness, and an emphasis on its Jewish heritage.”
Brandeis was founded by Jews in the Boston area in 1948 as a nonsectarian university serving as an alternative to elite colleges in the northeast that had strict quotas limiting the number of Jews they would admit. It is named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, has Hebrew in its seal and has a large population of Jewish students.
Now some of those students — who say they view Brandeis as a comfortable place to be Orthodox Jews — are condemning their school’s messaging in this advertisement. On Tuesday, the leaders of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, a student group, sent an email to its members saying they were “hurt and disappointed to see something like this coming from our university.”
“We know that for decades, Brandeis has provided Orthodox Jewish students like ourselves a place where they could comfortably grow and succeed,” said the email, which was signed by the group’s president and vice president, Matt Shapiro and Shoshana Solomon. “However, the statement that was made in this advertisement was unacceptable and antithetical to Brandeis’ values.”
The two students added that they have been in communication with university administration to make sure that a similar message does not get published again, and that Orthodox students are recognized and respected on campus. In recent days, the ad has been criticized by other Orthodox Jews, who wrote on social media that they found it offensive.
Disappointing ad from @BrandeisU.
But with all that *actual* Orthodox Jews face I find this seriously distasteful. pic.twitter.com/jpN2nDzCqN
— David/Dovid Bashevkin (@DBashIdeas) June 25, 2023
The university said in a statement that the ad was “a play on words meant to highlight Brandeis’ unique story and history of innovation — as do the other ads in the campaign,” and that the university is “deeply committed to our Orthodox community members.”
The statement added that “the ad was intended not to offend, but to underscore both the diversity of our community and our unusual origin story.”
The statement did not include an apology, but included an encouragement to “read the full ad, which discusses with pride how Brandeis was founded by American Jews of all denominations.”
Meshulam Ungar, an incoming senior who served as vice president of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization last year, told JTA that he believes the mistake was “inadvertent” but that he felt the ad was tone-deaf.
“Orthodox people are especially attuned to being portrayed a certain way in the media,” Ungar said, adding that the ad “touched on that sense in Orthodox people’s kishkes, in the gut, that this is a very unfair characterization that is just inaccurate, and it plays on the aspects of the community which are wrong but are, unfortunately, commonly held beliefs.”
Ungar said that ”on pure factual grounds,” it is true that the school has a diverse student body and is “particularly diverse with regard to Jewish issues and the Jewish people.”
“That said, I mean, it’s not an apology,” he said. “So it’s unfortunate.”