Louis Brandeis and Jewish Leadership

Letter from the Chair, Jonathan Sarna, to the Hornstein Class of 2016 at their commencement ceremony

This year, Brandeis University has been marking the centennial of Louis Brandeis’ appointment to the United States Supreme Court. The nomination electrified the American Jewish community, for it marked the first time that a Jew had ever been nominated to a position of such authority and prestige. “God be blest!” a Jewish onlooker quoted by the New-York Tribune responded when he learned the news. “In Russia we dreamed of it. Here it is a fact.”

Today, when three Jews sit on the U.S. Supreme Court (and a fourth has been nominated), and when everyone running for the presidency of the United States is either Jewish or has a Jewish son-in-law, it is hard to remember back to those days when the appointment of a Jew to a major position of trust in the United States made headlines. The centennial of Louis Brandeis’ appointment serves as a timely reminder of how far Jews have come in this country over the past hundred years.

In marking this centennial here on the Brandeis University campus, we explored what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called in her address to the Brandeis community last January, “the lessons learned from Louis D. Brandeis.” We devoted programs to his legal record, his transformation of American Zionism, his views on citizenship, speech, labor, the economy and to the implications of his appointment for the diversity of the Court and for the changing character of our country.

What we did not do this past year is discuss the lessons learned from Louis Brandeis that are specifically relevant for Jewish professional leaders, graduates of the Hornstein Program. I cannot quite do justice to that subject here, but I am glad to share one surprising lesson and one key Brandeis teaching that remain timely. I share both with our graduates at this year’s Hornstein commencement.

The surprising lesson is that the group we have come to know as “Jews of no religion” — Jews like the young Louis Brandeis who was alienated, assimilated and remote from the institutions of Jewish life — may at some subsequent point in their lives (in Brandeis’ case it happened in his 50s) find new meaning in Jewish existence and emerge as significant Jewish leaders.

Louis Brandeis was far removed from Jewish life during the early decades of his life. Even when he reached his 40s, many wondered whether he still considered himself Jewish — perhaps, they said, he had become an Ethical Culturalist or a Unitarian. Afterall, he didn’t belong to a synagogue, he didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood, he didn’t join Jewish organizations and he didn’t observe any Jewish holidays. Judaism, it seemed, meant nothing to him. By all measures, he had separated himself from the community.

Fortunately, a few intrepid Jewish leaders like the department store magnate, Edward A. Filene, and the Zionist leader Jacob de Haas, kept in touch with Louis Brandeis. They called upon him for help in solving difficult Jewish communal problems, such as labor unrest and the perils facing Jews abroad. In this way, Brandeis, in his 50s, slowly became acquainted with Jewish immigrants, with Jewish traditions of social justice and with the idea of a Jewish homeland.

Then, on August 30, 1914, with the outbreak of World War I and in the face of the unprecedented crisis confronting world Jewry, Louis Brandeis agreed to take upon himself the chairmanship of the newly created Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs. That changed his life. Within a short time, he became one of American Jewry’s premier Jewish leaders, orators and philanthropists. He transformed the Zionist movement in the United States. For the remainder of his life, even after he joined the Supreme Court, he devoted countless hours to Zionist affairs and to the concerns of world Jewry.

The takeaway lesson for today’s leaders, who likewise worry about the rising number of “Jews of no religion” is: Never give up. Don’t write Jews off. Don’t dismiss them as a “lost cause.” One never knows when some Louis Brandeis will seemingly come from nowhere, experience a life-changing conversion, assume the responsibilities of Jewish leadership and emerge as a hero, a role model, even the namesake of a great university. Such stories have happened countless times in our history going all the way back to Moses in Egypt.

And having mentioned Moses, often considered the greatest of all Jewish leaders, let me close by recalling the qualities that Louis Brandeis considered vital to a leader. He composed this list for the benefit of a struggling Jewish law student who sought to advance, but his words may serve as a guide for anyone entering the field of Jewish professional leadership — or for that matter, anyone running for public office in this election year.

“Be scrupulously honest,” Brandeis wrote. “Live simply and worthily; work hard; have patience and persistence; and don’t measure success by the number of dollars collected. Waste neither time nor money.”

I’ll keep Brandeis’ words in mind next year as I retreat to Jerusalem for a sabbatical at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies. Here’s hoping our graduates likewise find meaning and wisdom in Brandeis’ sage advice as they embark on their professional careers across North America and beyond.

Jonathan D. Sarna
Chair, Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program
University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History