Latest update: February 23rd, 2012
“Rabbi, did you ever think you would see this day?”
It was 1971, and the university official who asked this question was inviting the rabbi to the dedication of the kosher dining room in Stevenson Hall on the campus of Princeton University.
In light of the anti-Semitism that had prevailed at elite schools until the 1950s, the official was right. But the rabbi he invited was Rav Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, zt”l, who would indeed have imagined this moment could come.
Rabbi Teitz called America “golus [exile], but the best golus the Jewish nation has experienced.” He thought President Harry Truman, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and Governor Thomas Kean represented the best qualities of America: a commitment to fairness with a generosity of spirit.
True, these qualities had not always been evident in the Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges.
Barnard College, for example, had been founded and supported by Annie Nathan Meyer, and later received large donations from Jacob Schiff, both of whom were Jewish. But when Virginia Gildersleeve became the head of Barnard in 1911, her spirit of anti-Semitism prevailed.
In 1916 Schiff gave half a million dollars for the construction of the main building, which was called Students’ Hall. In 1926, after Schiff’s death, the building was named Barnard Hall rather than for the donor. Annie Nathan Meyer protested the blatant anti-Semitism and the pain caused to the Schiff family, but Gildersleeve – who had the support of Columbia’s Nicholas Murray Butler in her approach – did not retreat.
The sole memorial of Schiff’s generosity is a marble plaque set in the floor of the Barnard Hall lobby; when I was a student there we referred to meeting in the lobby as meeting “on Jake,” but we did not know the story behind this.
Gildersleeve and Butler were also perturbed by the number of Jews enrolling in their schools, particularly those whose families had come from Eastern Europe and had excelled in high school here.
Before World War I, forty percent of Columbia’s students were Jewish, and Barnard in the 1920s was heading toward the same percentage. They agreed to stop basing admission on academic achievement and to instead consider interviews, letters of recommendation, and “geographic distribution” as criteria. The last phrase is a code name for non-Jews since Montana, Idaho, and similar locales could be counted on for fewer Jews than the East Coast. Hewitt Hall, a dormitory at Barnard, was built to enable students from distant parts of the country to live on campus.
The irony is that a number of the professors who made these schools renowned were Jewish, at least one of them born in Lithuania – the supposedly “uncultured” Eastern Europe – Meyer Schapiro, who made the department of art history a force in American culture.
Other Jewish notables in the ensuing decades included Isidor Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1944, Lionel Trilling in English literature, and Franz Boas at Barnard, who developed the fields of anthropology and linguistics.
Gildersleeve was so intent on favoring admission of women from rich Protestant families that she organized the Seven Sisters with Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley to promote her policy of excluding Jews. When she left the deanship in 1947, she lobbied against the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
* * * * *
But change was coming. After World War II there was an increased sensitivity to the horrific consequences of anti-Semitism. Although other groups had not suddenly become philo-Semites, outright discrimination was becoming unacceptable. And the pioneers in Israel upended all the old stereotypes of Jews.
Day schools opened across the United States and Canada. In the middle of the nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch had initiated the model of a school with both Jewish and secular studies. Before World War II there were day schools in New York, Baltimore, Boston, Elizabeth, and a handful of other cities. In the postwar years tens of new schools were established. The law of unintended consequences operated; many of the teachers in these schools were European refugees who had managed to arrive in America after the war.
At the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the ‘60s a few graduates of yeshiva high schools were admitted into the top colleges. College administrators were nonplussed by the requirements of observant Jewish undergraduates. No exams on the Sabbath? Who ever heard of a holiday in May called “Shavuot”? Kosher food?
I recall that when I asked to defer a final that was scheduled for Shavuot, the registrar at Barnard said, “Miss Teitz, I’ve heard of your New Year; I’ve heard of your Day of Atonement; I think you’re making this holiday up.”
My sisters and I came to Barnard in the first place because of anti-Semitism. In a public high school in New Jersey, a teacher had said to a student, “I graduated from Barnard, but you will never be accepted there. You’re a rabbi’s daughter; your letter of rejection is guaranteed.” It was 1931, in an era when a Jewish student could not protest such a remark and such a policy. The rabbi’s daughter was my mother, who determined that if she had daughters they would attend Barnard.
Some administrators in the 1950s thought the new cohort of students should be thankful that the quota system excluding Jews was being eased; they saw no reason to consider religious observance. Those who looked to the future realized yeshiva graduates could be a positive force on campus; they were serious about learning, were used to a double schedule of classes, and usually completed their degrees within four years of entering college.
* * * * *
Princeton, which had been a bastion of exclusion, accepted several observant Jewish students, among them Daniel Greer (now Rabbi Daniel Greer, rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva of New Haven) and Abe Kaufman.
They formed a chapter of Yavneh, the National Religious Jewish Students Association. They decided to provide kosher food at Princeton, where social life revolves around eating clubs. They aimed for an opening at the beginning of the Autumn Term in 1960, but encountered obstacles: landlords did not want to rent to a student group; the Hillel rabbi opposed them; parents felt they were paying tuition and did not want to cover the expense of setting up a kitchen, buying appliances, furnishing a dining-room, and paying a cook.
Abe and Daniel knew how lonely it was to subsist on sandwiches eaten alone in a dorm room, with occasional meals together supplied by Mrs. Greer, but the parents of other students did not want the financial responsibility.
My father, Rabbi Teitz, was on Yavneh’s National Advisory Board. When he heard about the difficulties Daniel and Abe were facing, he told me he knew the person who would help them make kosher dining at Princeton a reality. He called Milton Levy, a”h, a member of the Elizabeth community who owned Levy Brothers, the largest department store in town.
Rabbi Teitz knew about Mr. Levy’s experience years earlier as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. Twelve students had signed up to eat kosher dinners at the home of a woman who would cook for them. On the second night only two students came, and at the end of the year Mr. Levy was eating by himself. He transferred to NYU, but decided that whenever students would want kosher food on campus, he would help.
He and several friends committed themselves to work without fanfare for Jewish values; they wore small gold pins in their lapels that said “441,” the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for “truth.” They financed the kosher kitchen at Cornell. Mr. Levy also underwrote the kosher facility at Stevens Institute of Technology.
He was happy to help the students at Princeton found the Yavneh House. At a meeting with parents at the Greers’ home in Manhattan, he did not have to persuade the hosts or the Kaufmans, but he could not get the other parents to pledge adequate sums. When he drove me home to Elizabeth that night he told me he was not discouraged; he thought these parents did not realize how important it was to have a place where their sons could eat together with other observant students.
He told me to consult with my mother in making up a list of everything that would be necessary for a kosher home and to bring the list to his store. When I came to his office, he handed me his charge plate and told me to go through the store and order everything on the list.
Where would it be delivered? Abe had found a house at 21 Olden Street, but the owner would not accept a student’s signature on the lease. My father signed it.
The house had bedrooms on the second floor that could be rented out. Mr. Levy supplied the furniture, in addition to the dining room table, chairs, refrigerator, freezer, dishes, silverware, pots and pans.
My father provided the Torah scroll, prayer books, chumashim, and everything else necessary for praying together. He arranged delivery of meat from a kosher slaughterhouse he supervised; when the students didn’t pay on time for the meat they were getting at a wholesale price, he paid the bill. He was involved in every detail, including talking to college administrators, hiring the cook, and arranging shiurim.
Daniel and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Moses Greer, a”h, were the dynamic initiators. Abe, who was in charge at the Princeton site, learned Yiddish in order to communicate with Mrs. Fleischer, the cook who came each weekday from Trenton. Abe was the menu-planner, residence manager, accountant, chief operating officer – it’s a tribute to his organizational abilities that he completed the school year. My brother, Rabbi Elazar Mayer Teitz, and my husband, Rabbi Yosef Blau, drove to Princeton to study Talmud with the Yavneh chapter.
Milton Levy supported the Yavneh House until he passed away. After the funeral, Leonard Diener, a”h, another member of the community who felt a responsibility for all students who wanted to keep kosher, told my father, “I know what Milton has been doing; I’ll take responsibility for Princeton now.”
After all this assistance from the Jewish Educational Center community in Elizabeth, I was upset when the New York Times ran an article about kosher dining at Princeton and quoted the Hillel rabbi who had given us grief. My father advised looking at the upside; since he had taken credit, that rabbi could no longer work against the Yavneh House.
* * * * *
Many colleges today provide kosher food; they welcome yeshiva high school graduates who are used to working hard at a double curriculum and who most often graduate within four years. Hewitt Hall, the dormitory at Barnard that was built to exclude Jewish students, now has a kosher kitchen and reserves one dining room on Friday night and Saturday for Shabbat meals. The Kraft Center is filled with minyanim, shiurim, and activities for all Jewish students at Barnard and Columbia.
Fast forward to this month – February 12 – and the Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration of Jewish dining at Princeton, held in the Center for Jewish Life, which was built on campus in 1993.
One hundred eighty guests came to the event. The brainpower of the graduates and of the current students could light up the world. I enjoyed hearing how Marilyn Berger, in the first female cohort admitted to Princeton, asked a member of the Fortunoff family, based on their forebears having owned neighboring stores in Brooklyn, to donate the silverware for Stevenson Hall in 1971. He did – and donated a second time when they needed more.
Today students benefit from the presence of Rabbi David and Sara Wolkenfeld, the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus couple at Princeton. (Visit www.JLIC.online.org to see the range of services provided by Torah-educated young marrieds who live near campus; Rabbi Menachem Schrader initiated the program, which is now supported by the Seif family through the OU.)
Avital Hazony, president of Princeton Yavneh, told me the students were fascinated that all these people worked for others without personal benefit or a thought of recognition.
I remembered back in the 1970s the Nakash family would send Jordache jeans to my father to give to people in need in Russia. My father was born in Latvia, my mother in the United States; the Nakash brothers came from Israel, but I believe their family emigrated from yet another country. The sale of a pair of Jordache jeans at that time in Russia could support a family for months. Without knowing who the recipients would be, one family sent assistance with a couple who also did not know in advance who needed help, because kol Yisrael areivin zeh ba’zeh (Shavuot 39a) – we are all responsible for one another.
I told the students the saying I heard as a child: “Think for yourself; do for others.”
Point to ponder: Princeton reaps important dividends from its association with the Institute for Advanced Study. The institute was Jewish from its inception, founded in 1930 by the Bamberger siblings, Louis and Carrie Fuld, who had made their fortune with the stores that bore the family name. They asked Abraham Flexner, who had revolutionized medical education in the United States with a report he wrote in 1910, to head it. Flexner made it a center for intellectual growth with Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Panofsky, and other brilliant members, some of them saved from the Holocaust through Flexner’s invitation.
In recent years, noteworthy mathematicians who were observant Jews and who earned degrees or worked in Princeton include Leon Ehrenpreis, a”h, (for whom the Malgrange-Ehrenpreis Theorem is named); Hillel Furstenberg (for whom the Furstenberg Boundary is named); and Saul Kripke, the greatest mind in symbolic logic in the last half-century.
Dr. Rivkah Blau teaches English at Fairleigh Dickinson University. A member of the editorial board of Tradition, she is the author of “Learn Torah, Love Torah, Live Torah” and the editor of “Gender Relationships: In Marriage and Out.”
About the Author: Dr. Rivkah Teitz Blau is a professor of English, an author, and a lecturer. She edited the volume on "Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out" for the Orthodox Forum.
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