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  • "The Envy of the World and the Pride of the Jews":Debating the American Jewish University in the Twenties
  • Zev Eleff (bio)

Scholars of American Jewish history have documented the complex relationship between American Jews and their Gentile neighbors through a variety of perspectives. 1 Similarly, over the past several decades more attention has been paid to researching the interaction between the Orthodox Jews who organized themselves in the U.S. during the twentieth century and the liberal Jewish community that had been firmly established in America by the turn of that century. 2 Few articles or books, however, account for the variant manners in which non-Jews engaged, if at all, the traditional and liberal communities.

The following presentation is an attempt to move that discussion by analyzing two contemporaneous yet independent initiatives undertaken by members of the orthodox and nonorthodox communities during the 1920s. In that decade, both groups attempted to build Jewish-oriented colleges. The reactions from both Jews and Gentiles reflect differing attitudes toward the more socialized liberal Jews and traditionalist Jews, whose conservatism and irreconcilable religious differences absolved them from leaping into America's melting pot. Most Jews and non-Jews shared the opinion that a school of higher education sponsored by liberally minded Jews was unacceptable. These critics believed that despite its good intentions, an institution of this kind was fraught with parochialism, a quality viewed as unequivocally un-American. In contrast, reaction to an orthodox attempt to form a Jewish college was split between Jews and Gentiles. While liberal Jews feared that an orthodox college threatened to hold up American Jewry's continued attempt at cultural assimilation, non-Jewish observers viewed this initiative quite differently. They supported it, hoping that a Jewish college, while inherently exclusionary, would add to the cultural and intellectual diversity of American life. [End Page 229]

First the liberal attempt. On October 27, 1922, Rabbi Louis I. Newman published a lengthy article advocating for the establishment of a Jewish university on American soil. As spiritual leader of the well-heeled Temple Israel in Manhattan and a faculty member of the recently established Jewish Institute of Religion, Newman held the attention of many within the ranks of American Jewry. 3 That Newman championed the formation of a Jewish institution of higher learning in the U.S. at this time is not surprising. The Reform rabbi drew considerable inspiration from the news from Palestine concerning the ongoing plans for the establishment of the Hebrew University. Judah L. Magnes and other prominent New York Jews had been constantly reporting on the development of the Jerusalem school, calling on American Jewry to support it by all means necessary. 4

A Jewish university was also a solution to a growing problem for American Jews. In the 1920s, Jews were becoming more attuned to the rise of antisemitism at America's most prestigious universities. Much has been made by historians of Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell's comments in 1922. "Where Jews become numerous they drive off other people and then leave themselves," stated Lowell. Harvard's leader was unsure of whether this predicament he observed resulted from Jewish "clannishness" or a Jewish tendency to "form a distinct body, and cling, or are driven, together, apart from the great mass of undergraduates." 5 What he did claim, though, was that "segregation by groups" was wholly undesirable at his school. Jews at this time made up 22 percent of the total Harvard undergraduate population, having more than tripled in size since 1908. Sensing a "Jewish problem" at Harvard, Lowell put a limit on the number of Jews to be accepted at his college in order to maintain the school's "character as a democratic, national university, drawing from all classes of the community and promoting a sympathetic understanding among them." 6

Once Harvard imposed restrictions on Jewish admission, many private American colleges followed suit. Adelphi, Barnard, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, NYU, Princeton, Washington and Lee, and Yale all instituted Jewish quotas. Although Jewish quotas were less common at state universities, there were noted exceptions. Qualified Jews faced strong prejudice when applying to Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and the Universities of Cincinnati, Illinois...


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