The Brandeis ad in The New York Times Magazine.

Brandeis president apologizes after national ad campaign angers the school’s Orthodox community

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Brandeis president apologizes after national ad campaign angers the school’s Orthodox community

The Brandeis ad in The New York Times Magazine.

The president of Brandeis University has apologized for a recent ad in The New York Times Magazine, that took aim at the school’s connection to Orthodox Judaism. The university came under fire for declaring in the title of the June 25 ad that Brandeis was “anything but Orthodox.” The ad angered observant students and Brandeis graduates, and brought international attention to the Waltham university.

The two-page spread appeared in The New York Times Magazine titled “Brandeis was founded by Jews. But, it’s anything but Orthodox.” The article contained the line “when we say that Brandeis is anything but orthodox, we’re referring to its character.” The article went on to expound on the founding values of the university and its myriad accomplishments in the last 75 years. It ended with “needless to say, Brandeis is still unorthodox. And rest assured, we have no intention of converting.”

On June 30, Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz sent out an email to current members of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization (BOO), formally apologizing for the ad.

Liebowitz wrote, “I am especially sorry that members of Brandeis’ Orthodox Jewish community, in particular, were hurt by the ad. You play a key role in our ongoing success: You bring energy, intelligence, and creativity to our Jewish community, to student life more broadly, and to the rigor of the academic experience that Brandeis offers. We are grateful to have such an engaged and thoughtful Orthodox Jewish community.”

The president’s email is a reversal from the initial statement released by the university’s communications department, which did not apologize, but pointed out that, “The ad was in no way intended to offend, but to underscore both the diversity of our community and our unusual origin story.”

Meshulam Ungar, currently a rising senior and former vice president of BOO, said in response to the new statement, “I think it’s correctly directed to the Orthodox community, and it’s sincere … any potential long-term damage that could have been done between the Orthodox community and Brandeis has been mitigated by this apology.”

Prior to Liebowitz’s statement at the end of last week, multiple Jewish organizations within the school – including Hillel and Chabad – released their own statements condemning the ad. BOO student leadership sent out a statement to current and alumni BOO members on the Tuesday after the ad ran, saying, “We are hurt and disappointed to see something like this coming from our university, just as I’m sure many of you are.”

Matt Shapiro, a rising senior at Brandeis and president of BOO, told the Journal – before Liebowitz released his statement – that BOO was in communication with “senior administrators” and that conversations were going well. “I think it says a lot that they are willing to have this conversation,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll take steps to make sure this never happens again.”

Thus far in the ad campaign, print ads have only run in the New York Times. According to Julie Jette, interim senior vice president of communications at Brandeis, the campaign has also included digital ads on the websites of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and Time magazine, and Facebook. The campaign will continue to run through the fall.

Jette could not offer further comment, but encouraged curious parties to look at the other ads in the campaign, which was launched May 21. “They are very helpful context for the focus of our campaign,” she told the Journal in an email.

“[The ad] went out of its way to say that Orthodox Jews helped build Brandeis,” said Dr. Jonathan Sarna, a University professor and the director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis. “A lot of people only read the headline and never got to the text itself … we should use this as an opportunity to highlight what a great place for Orthodox Jews Brandeis actually is.”

This sentiment is shared by at least some of the Orthodox community at Brandeis, and bolstered by the reality that observant Jews at the university enjoy a few key perks that are not often found at other secular colleges in the country, including nearly all Jewish holidays off, multiple kosher dining options and daily minyanim.

Even before Liebowitz’s statement was released, Ungar told the Journal, “The school, in my opinion, is just the best secular college in the United States to be a practicing Orthodox student … This ad just totally obscured that the Orthodox Jews actually really do have it so good at Brandeis.”

From the variety of students and alumni the Journal connected with for this story, this seems to be the general consensus: the ad was misconceived (“tone deaf,” said Ungar), but not reflective of the Orthodox experience at the school.

“Everyone who went to Brandeis knows how much Brandeis loves and supports its Orthodox Jews,” said Liat Fischer, a 2020 alum. Fischer was deeply involved in the Orthodox and broader Brandeis community when she attended the School, including holding roles on BOO Student Board and Chabad Student Board.

Fischer, who also served as a tour guide for the university, noted that the admissions department is particular about how Brandeis is perceived as Jewish school.

“Admissions made it really clear that Jewishly, they wanted us to emphasize that Brandeis is a non-sectarian university that was founded by Jews but for everyone on the basis of Jewish values,” Fischer said. “Reading through the article, I really understood that the point that Brandeis is trying to make is, ‘you might think that we’re a Jewish university – we’re not … we definitely have Jewish values … but we’re innovative, and doing new things, and we’re never going to have orthodox traditional values when it comes to education and learning.’ I honestly really like the article. That being said, I do understand how people took the title in a bad way.”

Fischer isn’t alone in her appreciation of the ad.

“I, for one, honestly kind of resonate with what they’re saying, how we’re anything but Orthodox,” said Josue Miranda, a rising senior and former social events coordinator of BOO. “People could describe me as Orthodox, but I wouldn’t really describe myself as Orthodox. I’m Sephardic. The version of Orthodox over here is so different from what I grew up knowing, and was raised by. I, for one, never really felt as if I fit the mold of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew at Brandeis.”

For Miranda, the ad actually offered a powerful message. “What people feel is valid,” he said. “But there are other perspectives to consider. Not everyone is an Orthodox Jew. Those words carry a lot of meaning that not everyone resonates with.” Θ

Note: The author is a graduate of Brandeis University, and was a member of BOO and the Chabad Student Board during her time there.

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