A Milestone of Faith
After directing the admissions committee to require photographs of applicants and select candidates based on “an estimate of personal character,” A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, succeeded in cutting the number of Jews at Harvard from 21 to 10 percent.
Last month, a crowd of 1,300 watched the 27th president of Harvard University hold up a Torah scroll during a service ushering in Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
And today, 80 years after Lowell’s attempts to root out those who would not modify their “peculiar practices,” Lawrence H. Summers will be officially installed as the first Jewish president of Harvard University.
“That fact has been hardly noticed,” says James O. Freedman ’57, president emeritus of Dartmouth College. That lack of fanfare is precisely what makes it so significant, he says.
Most of the Ivy League colleges have already had Jewish presidents, notes Freedman, who was Dartmouth’s first Jewish president. Penn has had two.
“Perhaps 20 years ago it would have been a story,” says Nitza Rosovsky, former curator of Harvard’s Semitic Museum.
There is even less hoopla surrounding Summers’ Judaism, says Benjamin Z. Galper ’02, chair of Harvard Hillel, because many—including Galper himself—mistakenly assumed that Harvard has already had a Jewish president: Neil L. Rudenstine.
In fact, Rudenstine’s two grandfathers were Jewish, but the former University president is Episcopalian. According to Galper, Rudenstine visited Hillel only twice during his decade-long tenure as president.
Summers—whose surname, anglicized from “Samuelson,” is not distinctly Jewish—has made it clear that he intends to be more visible in the Harvard Jewish community.
“He’s very excited about being a Jewish leader on campus and in the world,” Galper says.
According to Galper, Summers has been in touch with him as well as Hillel Executive Director Bernard Steinberg and plans to attend a Friday night Shabbat dinner at Hillel later this semester.
On Sept. 21, Summers spoke both at Memorial Church’s Morning Prayers and at a Lowell Lecture Hall gathering of Harvard Muslims, but his most dramatic religious appearance—on Sept. 26 at Sanders Theatre—was silent.
At one point during the special worship-study service commemorating the start of Yom Kippur, Summers and Galper held up Torah scrolls as Rabbi Norman Janis chanted a Hebrew prayer.
Perhaps, though, the silence was a bit too much for Summers. Galper says that the president appeared to have been following the service, but later on, he dozed off.
“I’m sure he wasn’t alone,” jokes Jay M. Harris, Wolfson professor of Jewish studies, who claims there is a great Jewish tradition of falling asleep during prayer.
Snoozing aside, Summers has been actively involved in his faith, say those who know him.
Since 1993, he has been a member of Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., a 1,500-household Reform synagogue that has been called the nation’s most powerful congregation—its members include “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, New York Times bureau chief Michael Oreskes and Harvard’s Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Shorenstein Center for Press and Public Policy’s Washington office.
Fred N. Reiner, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, says one of Summers’ biggest contributions to the synagogue was his keynote speech two years ago at an annual Shabbat service celebrating Sinai House, a temporary shelter for homeless families. He also noted that Summers attended High Holy Day services while he was Secretary of the Treasury.
“He came to some of the services that we have which not everybody comes to,” Reiner says. “I certainly got the feeling that his membership was important to him, that Judaism was important to him.”
According to friends, Summers has done his best to make sure his children grow up in the Jewish tradition, as well.
Summers enrolled his twin daughters in Temple Sinai’s nursery school during the school’s first year of existence and sent his son there the following year, says Perri B. Iger-Silversmith, the school’s director.
Family friend Pam Brown says the importance Summers places on faith is evident in the life he leads.
“As with most of my peers who are Jewish, their actions speak for their faith,” Brown said. “The fact that his children and family are immersed in this community says it all.”
Harris doubts that Summers’ religion will make much of a difference for Jewish life on campus.
“If he were hanging out at Hillel all the time, I suppose that would make things more interesting,” Harris says.
According to Freedman—who plans to attend today’s installation—Summers should not feel overly pressured to be visible within the Jewish community.
However, the milestone is not insignificant, Freedman says, given the history of anti-Semitism at Harvard and throughout the Ivy League.
Former President Derek C. Bok views Lowell’s attempt to establish a Jewish quota as an aberration in Harvard’s history, calling it “one unfortunate venture that got nowhere.”
Yet prejudice against Jews persisted, according to former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, who has said that he was startled by the anti-Semitic nature of Harvard’s social life when he arrived in 1958.
Freedman says he believes a quota limiting Jewish students was still in effect when he was admitted to Harvard in the 1950s.
But with the end to structural anti-Semitism in the 1960s, Freedman says Jews began to flourish in top levels of academia and were well-placed to move into top positions a couple of decades later.
Yet Jews were not completely comfortable with their success.
Henry Rosovsky, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, was offered the presidency at Yale in 1977, but turned it down.
“I represented bitter medicine to them,” Rosovsky has been quoted as saying. “I was a Jew. In style and appearance I wasn’t their kind of guy.”
In 2001, however, there are no such concerns.
Indeed, rather than viewing Summers’ presidency as proof of how far Jews at Harvard have come, Bok says Summers’ appointment should almost have been expected.
“There are an awful lot of extremely talented people of Jewish faith in academia and, you know, it would be odd if we did not have a Jewish president,” Bok said.
“I don’t see it as earth-shaking,” says Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals and minister in Memorial Church. “Harvard is a very traditional place, and it looks to its traditional constituents. The Jewish community at Harvard is a phenomenon of the mid-20th century.”
But for some, at least, Summers’ installation represents history in the making.
“I’d like to think that this is in some ways a step in the right direction not only for Harvard, but also for higher education,” Reiner said.
—Staff writer Juliet J. Chung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer David C. Newman can be reached at email@example.com.