Students offer 'a positive' in response to extremists

Hundreds attend Great Lawn rally to 'respond to a negative with a positive'

Photos/Mike Lovett

Students danced on the Great Lawn at the rally.

Hundreds of students, faculty and staff braved biting cold on the Great Lawn Friday morning, Dec. 3, to celebrate Brandeis University’s history of embracing the full diversity of human races, religions, cultures and sexual orientations.

Numerous speakers at the Great Lawn kickoff rally noted that the celebration, which continued throughout the day and into the evening, was a response — but not a reaction — to the presence at the university’s entrance of demonstrators from a small, anti-Semitic, homophobic church based in the Midwest.

“We respond to a negative by creating a positive,” said Andrea Wexler ’11, who is president of Brandeis Hillel, the Jewish students’ organization that was targeted by the church. She thanked the student body, which “rallied around Hillel, not to stand behind us, but to stand with us, as one united community."

She quoted one of the most famous statements of Rabbi Hillel, a highly influential Jewish sage and scholar who lived in the 1st Century BCE:  "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?"

“Today,” Wexler told the crowd, “we are for ourselves and for our community. We are here to show each other just exactly what we are made of and that we stand together … Both Rabbi Hillel and Justice Brandeis would be so proud.”

Hillel Director Larry Sternberg recalled his friendship with the late Lenny Zakim, the longtime leader of the Anti-Defamation League in New England, for whom the bridge between Boston and Charlestown is named in tribute to Zakim’s legendary skill building bridges between diverse communities. Zakim received an honorary degree from Brandeis in 1996.

“Lenny fought prejudice and injustice by embracing humanity, and by his example — always leading with a strong sense of purpose and with infectious enthusiasm,” Sternberg said. He encouraged members of the Brandeis community to follow Zakim’s example by “taking responsibility to seek justice, pursuing and embracing relationships with others as a path to understanding and growth, building community that values differences while seeking common ground.”

Both President Jehuda Reinharz and President-elect Fred Lawrence spoke, and displayed some of the light-hearted byplay that has become a hallmark of the presidential transition, as Reinharz urged students to take the rest of the day off to “celebrate Brandeis,” while Lawrence urged them to celebrate but not cut too many classes, since he would soon be responsible for seeing to it that they graduate.

In a serious vein, Reinharz reminded the crowd that “when we were founded, lots of colleges around here would not admit people who were black, women, people who were Jewish, gays — anyone who was different,” and that Brandeis from its beginnings stood against such prejudices.

Regarding the demonstrators, he said, “these people are living in a different century,” and commended the community for not confronting them and thus “denying them the oxygen of attention” that they seek top spread their message.

Lawrence said that the spirit of celebrating Brandeisian values as a response to hatred “is not about tolerating each other, it is about embracing each other. It is only by understanding how you are different from me that I learn to understand me. We only learn what it means to have a culture by understanding other cultures.”

Following prayers led by the four university chaplains, two student a cappella groups performed, and there was dancing and face painting on the Great Lawn.

Other events on the celebration schedule were a performance and Thai food lunch in the Shapiro Campus Center atrium, and discussion of social justice with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and gay organizations and a teach-in on leadership development.

More than $3,000 was raised to support Keshet, a Boston-based Jewish GLBTQ organization.

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