University under fire for 'anything but orthodox' advert

Brandeis university has been criticised for being 'tone deaf' toward Orthodox students


An advert placed in the New York Times by a prestigious American university has been criticised by orthodox Jews for being 'tone-deaf' towards its Orthodox students.

“Brandeis was founded by Jews. But, it’s anything but orthodox,” reads the ad, which runs across a two-page spread.

“It’s a natural mistake to make,” the ad added. “After all, Brandeis was founded by American Jews in 1948, including Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews. But when we say that Brandeis is anything but orthodox, we’re referring to its character.”

The ad—part of a broader branding campaign to mark the 75th anniversary of the college—concludes: “Needless to say, Brandeis is still unorthodox. And rest assured, we have no intention of converting.”

“Disappointing ad from Brandeis,” wrote Dovid Bashevkin, a rabbi and director of education at NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth wing. “But with all that actual Orthodox Jews face I find this seriously distasteful.”

He added: “This kind of pun might be cute on a podcast or a JCC or even a Federation meeting. Not a cute pun as an advertisement in the New York Times.”

Melissa Braunstein, a prominent writer in the Washington, D.C. area, said: “Proudly announcing you’ve moved away from your Jewish roots—in the New York Times!—is definitely one way to change your campus demographics,” she wrote.

The ad drew criticism from prominent Jewish scholars and writers on social media.

“In this ad, ‘Orthodox’ clearly means rigid, antiquated, monolithic, and unevolving. Since Orthodox Jews would reject these adjectives in their self-definition, this line is problematic,” tweeted Malka Simkovich, chair of Jewish studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Simkovich clarified that the ad was not antisemitic. “This ad serves to marginalize Brandeis’ own Orthodox Jewish student population by dissociating their religious identities from the mission of the school,” she wrote. “So no, not antisemitic. But yes, highly problematic.”

When a cantor tweeted that maybe Brandeis wanted to welcome non-Orthodox Jews, Simkovich responded, “A rule in inter-religious and intra-religious dialogue: You never need to raise one group up by pushing another group down.”

Eitan Marks, a senior at Brandeis and president of the Brandeis Hillel’s student board, called the ad “yet another publicity blunder by my school” and tweeted that Brandeis has “a tone-deafness when it comes to speaking to the orthodox community. This ad is the perfect example.”

Julie Jette, assistant vice president of communications at Brandeis, told JNS that the university is highlighting “our Jewish roots and values” in a branding campaign.

“This ad was a play on words meant to highlight Brandeis’ unique story and history of innovation,” she told JNS. “We are proud to support students of all Jewish denominations, along with students with other religious backgrounds.”

In response to a JNS question about whether, in hindsight, it would have approached the advertisement differently, Jette said: “We are committed to our orthodox community members, and the ad was intended not to offend, but to underscore both the diversity of our community and our unusual origin story.”

“We would encourage people to read the full ad, which discusses how Brandeis was founded by American Jews of all denominations,” she added. “The overall campaign has highlighted Brandeis’ Jewish roots and values as well as the fact that we have always been welcoming to students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds.”

Brandeis is one of the most Jewish universities in America, taking its name from Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish member of the United States Supreme Court.

According to the university, over a third of students identify as Jewish, which includes the full spectrum of Jewish identity from Orthodox to those who culturally identify. It was ranked the third-best university for Jewish life by the Forward in 2018.

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