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Alumni mark century of Jewish life on campus
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Alumni mark century of Jewish life on campus

Reunion at Princeton celebrates move from ‘periphery to center’

Armand Derfner, standing, class of ’60, said of his years on campus, “It was a very hard time,” for Jews; with him are his Princeton classmate Joel Davidow and his wife, Gwenn Rosenthal, of Washington, DC.     
Armand Derfner, standing, class of ’60, said of his years on campus, “It was a very hard time,” for Jews; with him are his Princeton classmate Joel Davidow and his wife, Gwenn Rosenthal, of Washington, DC.     

At an April 14-16 reunion celebrating 100 years of organized Jewish life at Princeton University, alumni, nearly 900-strong, encountered a welcoming and diverse Jewish community that contrasts sharply with a murky past of quotas and discrimination.

Rabbi Julie Roth, director of Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel, told NJJN that the purpose of the conference, in addition to bringing Jewish alumni together, was “to celebrate 100 years of Jewish life and to look the early and difficult years straight in the face and see how far Princeton has come.”

Margaret Miller, associate vice president for alumni affairs at the university and one of the conference organizers, agreed that one goal was “to tell everyone the story of Jewish life on campus and for alumni to meet each other, meet students, and see how Princeton has changed since they were students here.” 

Regarding conversation about difficult issues, she said in an interview with NJJN, “Luckily we are in a place where we do talk about the good and the bad.”

The idea for the “L’Chaim: To Life” conference was sparked by Abigail Klionsky’s senior thesis, published in 2014, which covers the development of Jewish student life at Princeton University from 1915 — the year when, according to her research, the first rabbi-led Jewish service was held on campus — to 1972. 

Rabbi Edward Feld, Princeton’s Hillel rabbi from 1973 to 1993, told NJJN in a phone interview after the conference that at the beginning of his tenure, he would hear that “some Jewish students came to High Holiday services wearing trench coats because they didn’t want their classmates to see them wearing jackets or suits and going off to services.” 

The thesis reveals that Jews’ discomfort on campus was there from early on. Although the first Jew attended Princeton in 1859, Jews on campus remained a rare sight; in the fall of 1915, there were only 50 out of approximately 1,400 undergraduates. 

But those few Jewish students were not entirely in favor of the efforts of Marcus Lester Aaron, class of ’20, to gain university support for on-campus services. Klionsky quotes a letter that Aaron wrote to Rabbi Louis Egelson of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation, complaining about Jews who avoided religious services on campus, because of their “fear of arousing prejudice.” Aaron wrote that students worried that services “would serve merely to accentuate the difference between the Jewish students and others” and were concerned that “someone should make fun of them, and their position as amateur Gentiles should be compromised.”

Their fears were not groundless; discrimination was a reality that all Jewish students at Princeton had to contend with in the early years. 

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American-Jewish history at Brandeis University (and the husband of Aaron’s granddaughter), spoke about the history of Jewish life at Princeton on the second day of the conference. Edwin Slosson’s 1910 volume, Great American Universities, said Sarna, quoting from the book, “argued that the mission of Princeton is homogeneity. It offers one particular kind of college training to one rather limited social class of the U.S.…. The exclusiveness of the upper class clubs, and the prejudices of the students keep away many Jews.… Anti-Semitic feeling seemed to me more dominant at Princeton than at any of the other universities I visited.”

Talking about the period of the 1958 Dirty Bicker, a scandal surrounding Jews not being admitted to Princeton’s eating clubs — the campus fraternity-like social clubs, where most juniors and seniors still eat their meals — Charleston, SC, attorney Armand Derfner, class of ’60, told NJJN after the Friday morning session on April 15, “It was a very hard time. There were a large number of Jews coming to Princeton for the first time. Princeton was not used to it and couldn’t digest them all.” He added that he had “always felt Jewish, but not here, except when they made me feel Jewish by exclusion.” 

Even later, Eric Nauenberg (’86), an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, told NJJN by phone after the conference, “When I was at Princeton, I always felt like the Jewish students didn’t want to stand out too much; they weren’t as proud of their heritage…. I felt like there was a dominant feel on campus of who it was designed for and meant for, and you were inside or outside of that.”

In his talk, Sarna outlined the development of Princeton’s relationship with its Jewish students and how that paralleled changes in acceptance of Jews in America.

He described the small number of Jews at Princeton before 1915 as “religiously lonely,” without even a local synagogue for fellowship and support.

Although monthly services led by a Reform rabbi began in 1915, the university did not officially recognize the Jewish Student Congregation, so named in 1919, until 1921, after Aaron graduated. That recognition meant that attendance fulfilled the mandatory obligation for Jewish men as an alternative to the university’s chapel requirement.

Through the 1920s the Jewish population of Princeton remained at 3 percent, in comparison to 10 percent at Yale. In 1937, even Henry Morgenthau, grandson of a U.S. ambassador and son of the sitting U.S. Treasury secretary, said on receiving no invitation to join any of the eating clubs, “From then on I was a social paraplegic.”

Jewish life began to change with the opening in Princeton in 1930 of the independent Institute for Advanced Study, which was funded and conceived by Jews, particularly after the institute brought in Alfred Einstein in 1933, who “made it respectable to be Jewish and Jewishly active on campus,” Sarna said.

The 1944 GI Bill brought more Jews to campus. In 1947 the Harvard-Yale-Princeton Colloquium was created to promote Jewish visibility and pride on all three campuses. At the same time, across America, Judaism was becoming “an increasingly accepted American form of religion,” said Sarna.

In 1950 the question about religion on application forms was dropped, and in 1958, after the Dirty Bicker controversy, the university repudiated eating club quotas. Also in 1958, Yavneh House was established off campus for more observant Jews. 

In 1971 Princeton was the third university, after Yeshiva and Brandeis, to operate its own kosher kitchen, which it did in Stevenson Hall, located at the edge of the campus.

After nearly 230 years of the Princeton University presidency being held by either a member of the Presbyterian clergy or the son of one and then the assumption of the presidency in 1972 by non-Presbyterian William G. Bowen, there came in 1988 the appointment of Princeton’s first Jewish president, Harold Shapiro. In a video screened at the conference, Shapiro talked about the reaction of Jewish students and alumni to his appointment: “They were excited; they were also very worried that I might fail and how it would reflect on them.” 

Christopher Eisgruber, appointed as Princeton’s 20th president in April 2013, is the university’s second Jewish president — although he discovered only in 2008 that his mother was Jewish. At the Friday morning session, he told the alumni in response to a question, “I wanted to embrace this identity, and the fact that the tribe was immediately welcoming was reaffirming for me.… Now I regard myself as Jewish.” 

In 1993 the university opened the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel. For Feld, who began laying the groundwork for the CJL in the 1980s, it symbolizes the movement of Jews from the periphery of campus life — like the kosher kitchen at Stevenson Hall — to the center. CJL’s accessible location, across from the student center, he said, “meant that instead of students’ feeling that they were newly arrived guests at the university, they felt that they were an integral part of the university.”

Looking at the vibrant Jewish life today at the CJL, Roth wondered whether Einstein could have envisioned “the best-resourced Hillel in the world, that built an eruv, that is recognized for its educational vision?” She cited other signs of Jewish life that might have surprised the great scientists: a kosher dining hall that serves 46,000 meals a year and a center that reaches more than 70 percent of Jewish undergraduates and houses over 20 student groups, whose interests encompass worship, social action, dialogue with Muslims and African-Americans, and even a basketball team, Gefilta Swish. 

Roth added that she hoped the conference would bring “increased appreciation of how great Jewish life is at Princeton” and fill in the “gap between the perception of Jewish life and the reality.”

For alumni and staff at the conference, the differences between past and present were profound.

Nauenberg, who said that the conference would be one of his strongest Princeton memories, was impressed with the current students’ relationship with their Judaism. He said they “were more spirited about it, carried themselves with confidence, and seemed very comfortable with themselves.” 

Derfner, who arrived on campus in the mid-50s, said, “I would never again come to the Princeton I came to then, but I’d matriculate here in a minute.”

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