Brandeis University ‘tone-deaf’ to Orthodox Jews, ad infuriates religious students

The prestigious university was blasted for offending religious Jews in its 75th anniversary rebranding campaign.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The prestigious Brandeis University in Massachusetts is receiving backlash for a huge ad it recently ran in The New York Times that appears to belittle religious Jews.

In announcing its rebranding campaign launch in May honoring the school’s 75th anniversary, Brandeis said it would use “a mix of humor, seriousness, and an emphasis on its Jewish heritage” to “reinforce” its four “pillars” of “Jewish values and reverence for learning, academic excellence, and the continual fight against hatred and discrimination.”

In the two-page spread in the Times describing itself, the university struck a less-than-inclusionary note, however, according to critics.

Titled “Brandeis was founded by Jews. But, it’s anything but orthodox,” the school describes its establishment by Jews across the religious spectrum in 1948, when the doors to higher education to many Jews in top universities.

While emphasizing its welcome to students and faculty “of all backgrounds and beliefs” and saying its Jewish students can feel “proud knowing they’re at a university that has been dedicated to fighting antisemitism,” the ad concludes with: “Needless to say, Brandeis is still unorthodox. And rest assured, we have no intention of converting.”

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This last sentence drew fire on social media.

“In this ad, ‘Orthodox’ clearly means rigid, antiquated, monolithic, and unevolving. Since Orthodox Jews would reject these adjectives in their self-definition, this line is problematic,” tweeted Malka Simkovich, Jewish Studies chair and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

“By problematic I do not mean antisemitic,” she added. “I mean that this ad serves to marginalize Brandeis’s own Orthodox Jewish student population by dissociating their religious identities from the mission of the school. So no, not antisemitic. But yes, highly problematic.”

Rabbi David Bashevkin, director of the Orthodox Union’s (OU) youth department, tweeted that the ad was “disappointing” and “seriously distasteful,” considering “all that actual Orthodox Jews face.”

Well over 100 visibly religious Jews have been physically and verbally assaulted in public in recent years in New York City, where the OU is based, with Jews in general taking the brunt of religious hate crimes over other minorities throughout the United States.

Eitan Marks, student head of the university’s Hillel campus group, whose mission statement is to “empower every Jewish student along their Jewish journey,” acknowledged that “this is yet another publicity blunder by my school.” The ad, he said, is “the perfect example” of Brandeis’ “tone-deafness when it comes to speaking to the orthodox community.”

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Speaking as an observant Jew, however, “Brandeis and Brandeis Hillel remain the best campus for orthodox students,” he said.

Brandeis’ Assistant Vice President of Communications Julie Jette told the Jewish News Syndicate, “We are committed to our orthodox community members, and the ad was intended not to offend, but to underscore both the diversity of our community and our unusual origin story.”

Last January, Brandeis came under fire for its purported acceptance of far-left and Islamic extremism on campus after it was revealed that a female terrorist dubbed “Lady Al-Qaeda” was a graduate of the university.