University quotas were a polite way of telling Jews where they could go.

 For the first half of the 20th century, American universities were rife with antisemitism. Jews who wished to attend were met with closed doors rather than open arms. To say they were unwelcome is an understatement. According to past Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, “Where Jews become numerous, they drive off other people.” A folder that is now in the Yale archives is labeled “Jewish Problem”; inside is a memo from the Admissions Chairman of 1922 urging limits on “the alien and unwashed element,” which is to say, eastern European Jews. To limit the number of Jews, these and other universities established quotas.

Several headlines about antisemitism on torn pieces of paper. The top one reads, "How antisemitism shapes the Ivy League as we know it."

Quotas on Jewish enrollment were enforced by several universities. Brandeis’ doors have been open to every race, religion, and gender since its inception.

Jews had no choice but to take up their own cause. And in 1948, a group of American Jewish clergy, academics, attorneys, and businessmen founded Brandeis University. It was the first non-sectarian university founded by the American Jewish community, established to counter antisemitism, racism, and sexism. From its beginning, Brandeis welcomed students of all backgrounds and beliefs.

Infused with values rooted in the Jews’ turbulent history, Brandeis is as much a movement as it is a university.

Brandeis is also renowned for its academic excellence, a reflection of the age-old Jewish reverence for learning. No other university has placed more emphasis on intellectual integrity and critical thinking, a key to success in whatever arena graduates choose to enter.

The successful combination of activism and scholarship explains the millions of dollars in external funding that Brandeis annually receives for research. It explains why Brandeis was invited into the leading association of research universities in the U.S. and Canada, the Association of American Universities, sooner than any other. It explains why just thirteen years after its founding, Brandeis was granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter (a distinction earned by fewer than ten percent of U.S. colleges and universities). Once again, it did so sooner than any other college or university.

Black and white photo of a Commencement ceremony outdoors on the Brandeis campus. Graduates sit on stage while spectators are seated in the audience.

One of the first Brandeis commencement ceremonies.

It’s important to note that Brandeis not only welcomed students of all backgrounds and beliefs. It also welcomed, and continues to welcome, faculty of all backgrounds and beliefs. In fact, Brandeis soon became a kind of homeland for Jewish scholars fleeing Europe. Among the eminent teachers and scholars, past and present, are internationally acclaimed composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein; Pulitzer Prize winners David Hackett Fischer, Eileen McNamara, Yehudi Wyner, and alumnus Thomas Friedman; Nobel Prize winners Michael Rosbash, Jeffrey Hall, and alumnus and biophysicist Roderick MacKinnon; philosopher and political theorist Herbert Marcuse; historian and alumna Deborah Lipstadt; Kavli Prize winner and alumna Eve Marder; father and son Judaic Studies pioneers Nahum and Jonathan Sarna; academic and activist Pauli Murray; and alumnus and research scientist Vivekanand Pandey Vimal. Former First Lady and social reformer Eleanor Roosevelt was  an early trustee who played an important role in decisions that shaped the university.

A bronze figure seated on a rock holding a book gazing out into the distance

Brandeis campus statue, “Student and Knowledge.”

With the dramatic rise in antisemitism, particularly on college campuses, Brandeis’ founding values are as relevant in 2023 as they were in 1948.

Jewish students can feel comfortable knowing they’re at a university that has been dedicated to fighting antisemitism for seventy-five years, and whose steadfast commitment has been energized by recent events.

Brandeis clearly has much to recommend it. Still, we’re a bit reluctant to tell prospective students where they should go; that’s a decision they should make themselves. But keep this in mind: regardless of religion or identity, there’s no quota on how much a Brandeis student can accomplish.

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