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Brandeis matter ‘closed’ after president apology, current, former Jewish students say

The apology came nearly a week after a Brandeis University ad in the “New York Times” drew criticism for attacking Orthodox Judaism.

Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., in 2016. Photo by Vitalii Biliak/Shutterstock.
Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., in 2016. Photo by Vitalii Biliak/Shutterstock.

Nearly a week after a controversial Brandeis University advertisement, which many saw as critical of Orthodox Judaism, appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Ronald D. Liebowitz, president of the university, emailed a June 30 statement to the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, a student group.

“I know that members of the Orthodox Jewish community at Brandeis were offended by a recent advertisement in the New York Times,” Liebowitz wrote. “First and foremost, I’d like to apologize for anything that was insensitive. Let me assure you that in no way did Brandeis or the ad agency intend to send any message that Orthodox Jews are anything but welcome and supported here.”

Liebowitz stated that he met with the student group and with Hillel leaders that week. “I want to be clear that Brandeis is proud of its vibrant Orthodox community,” he added. “We are grateful to you for the substance and vibrancy you bring to campus; it is integral to the fabric of Jewish life at the university.”

The broader advertisement campaign was intended to “highlight Brandeis’ Jewish roots and values,” Liebowitz added. “Clearly, the execution of this ad missed the mark.” He concluded by “again offering my apologies.”

“I believe the matter is closed, and the apology was accepted by the Brandeis Orthodox community,” Meshulam Ungar, a rising senior and former vice president of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, told JNS.

Ungar told JNS he is “heartened” by Liebowitz’s letter to Brandeis’ Orthodox community.

“I believe the email was right in both tone and substance. This apology exemplifies why Brandeis remains the best secular university for Orthodox students to attend in the U.S.,” he said. “Our leadership can apologize forthrightly to us, and we can continue to work with them to maintain and strengthen the Orthodox community at Brandeis.”

Eitan Marks, a rising senior at Brandeis and president of its Hillel’s student board, told JNS he is grateful for the “kind letter and apology.”

“The fact that the Brandeis administration was willing to listen to and work with Jewish student leaders shows how great of a home Brandeis is and will continue to be for Jewish students,” he said. (He spoke personally, not on behalf of the student board.)

Joseph Landes, one of the founding members of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization and the Brandeis beit midrash, tweeted that the ad was “sloppy and it is surprising nobody reviewed it ahead of publication.” But he wrote that he was glad to see the president’s apology. “He is well respected and does a lot for the university,” Landes tweeted.

“Since 1990, Brandeis has been an incredibly welcoming and warm place for Orthodox Jews,” Landes told JNS, citing the student group, the beit midrash, daily minyanim (prayer quorums) and Torah study and a full-time Orthodox adviser.

“President Liebowitz has been a strong supporter of the Orthodox Jewish community on campus, and there is no reason to think that will change despite the unfortunate advertisement that likely didn’t get proofed by the right people in the administration,” Landes told JNS. “I believe the matter is closed.”

Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, director of education at NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth wing, and founder of the media site 18Forty, which helps Jews navigate their Judaism in the modern world, told JNS that the president’s was “a welcome statement.”

“It’s heartening to see the dialogue between the university president and the Brandeis Orthodox community. We should always endeavor to share people’s conciliatory steps as loudly, if not louder, as their missteps,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, the matter is closed.”

On June 29, Liebowitz posted a public statement on the website of the president’s office about Brandeis being “deeply disappointed” by a Supreme Court decision. He did not post the apology to Brandeis’ Orthodox community among his “letters and addresses,” instead opting to share it directly with the student group. 

That decision didn’t bother Bashevkin.

“I thought about that. I think he wrote a personal letter to the Orthodox community at Brandeis. Those are his constituents. They were the ones who should be addressed first,” he said. “He shared with express permission that they share with others in the community. I personally am fine with the way this was shared.”

The letter felt “more personal” this way, “from one Jew to another,” rather than a post on a blog, Bashevkin said.

Landes told JNS he doesn’t have a strong opinion one way or another about Liebowitz’s decision to send the statement to the student group.

“I am not sure this issue raises to the level of a Supreme Court decision, and I think addressing the student body directly makes sense,” he said. 

Ungar also thought the apology was handled correctly.

“I found the direct apology to the Orthodox community to be the right means of President Liebowitz’s apology,” he said. “The members of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, Brandeis’ Orthodox Jewish community, were the ones most directly offended by the statement, and it makes the most sense that the apology was addressed to us.”

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