Duke University Alumni Magazine



n its 1999 student guide to Jewish life on college campuses, the International Hillel Foundation describes Jewish life at Duke as "undergoing a renaissance" with the building of the Freeman Center. But as Judaic Studies professor and Freeman Center for Jewish Life board member Eric Meyers points out, "Before there was a center, there was an active Jewish life here. Jewish life transcends the center."

James B. Duke was instrumental in establishing a solid Jewish presence in Durham in the late nineteenth century, bringing a large group down from New York to work in his tobacco concern. From that time on, the Jewish community has been a part of the Durham community, including Trinity College. University archives show that Louis Jaffe '11 was among the first Jewish students at Trinity. Jaffe was editor of The Chronicle and went on to a distinguished career in journalism, culminating in a 1929 Pulitzer Prize for anti-lynching editorials in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. Biographical research has shown that Jaffe was Jewish, but until 1944 his Who's Who entries give his religion as Episcopalian, and subsequent editions list no religion at all.

The first Jewish faculty appointments came in the 1920s in the medical school, as Duke sought to establish itself by raiding Johns Hopkins' faculty. Another influx came in the 1930s, when Duke provided sanctuary to a distinguished group of emigrŽs from Germany. As noted in the book If Gargoyles Could Talk, by University Archivist William E. King '61, A.M. '63, Ph.D. '70, those professors included William Stern, the psychologist who developed the IQ test, and Walter Kempner, whose research into controlling disease through diet led to the Rice Diet. To this list, historian Len Rogoff adds the name of Raphael Lemkin, a law professor from the University of Warsaw wounded in the Polish resistance, who coined the word "genocide" and went on after World War II to write the United Nations' genocide convention.

The numbers of Jewish students were low and remained so for decades. When Bernice Levenson Lerner '53 entered the Woman's College, she was one of only seven Jewish women in her class. "There were two Jewish girls from North Carolina," she recalls, "and I was one. We had one Jewish sorority, AEPhi, and that was the only sorority that would take Jewish girls. There were only ten or maybe twelve of us at the most. I didn't really care about sororities, but I felt compelled to join. It was a responsibility to join."

Lerner, who grew up in Salisbury, North Carolina, was used to the demands of being in a very small minority, and the conditions of Jewish life at Duke did not seem to faze her. "We had Hillel, from Chapel Hill, so we had the services of a rabbi once every month," she says. "There was a girl from New York, and she was amazing, because she knew Hebrew." So she would conduct services the rest of the time --services held "in the basement of the Divinity School, and we turned the cross sideways."

University archivists released a statement saying they "have found no evidence of an admissions quota system here based on religion or ethnicity. In keeping with James B. Duke's expressed desire to build a university in and for the South, however, preference seems to have been given to students from the South in general, and North and South Carolina in particular. The number of Jewish students admitted here probably reflects the South's small Jewish population as a whole."

It is not an explanation that satisfies everyone ("written shmitten" is one reaction to the denial of a quota), but whatever the reason for the low percentage of Jewish students, most people agree that Terry Sanford's presidency was a time of great change and growth in Duke's Jewish community. "I loved Terry Sanford. He opened up the world of North Carolina to fresh air," says Lerner. Judith Ruderman, university vice provost and FCJL board member, adds, "When Terry Sanford was president, I think we first started to feel a more open-armed embrace of diverse people. Sanford is the one who began to make Duke more inclusive."

"Terry was the major innovator in that regard," says Eric Meyers. Meyers says university benefactors Mary D.B.T. Semans '39 and Jim Semans "were always here, they have always been visible, and they were no less influential and welcoming."

Steve Schewel '73 was at Duke during the first years of Sanford's presidency. "What I remember, basically, is there were just a few of us. When I went to Duke, it was not a great national university. It was a great regional university. And a lot of Jewish kids from the North didn't want to come South. There was still the throes of some of the important years of the civil-rights movement, Easy Rider had come out--so there was a lot of fear. I think maybe if you were a liberal Jewish family in the North, you didn't want your kid to come South."

Not only that, but he says the atmosphere at Duke was "still very much a few Jews in a Christian environment." The light-hearted example was the common nickname for Wallace Wade Stadium--"Methodist Flats." But there were stronger issues as well. "For a Jew to go to a school that's built in the shape of a cross--for those of us in the South, we were used to it, it was easy for us to negotiate that territory. But it took a lot of change for people that came from the North."

The hiring of Eric Meyers in 1969 "was a big moment," Schewel says. "To have a distinguished Jewish professor who was teaching, to have someone teaching the Bible from a Jewish perspective, that was important."

"The department was all Christian," Meyers says, "and dominated by the old rubrics of the Divinity School--very old- fashioned, really, as a department of religion. We were just at the cusp. Things were changing, and I wouldn't have come if I didn't think things were changing." Meyers, who established the Duke in Israel program in 1970 and worked with colleague Kalman Bland to found a program in Judaic Studies in 1974, has gone on to make significant archaeological discoveries in Israel with his wife, Duke religion professor Carol Meyers.

The university archives statement about the lack of evidence of a quota goes on to say that as Duke began to draw from a larger national applicant pool, the numbers of Jewish students increased. Three of those students in the late 1970s and early 1980s were the children of Bernice and Mort Lerner: Richard I. Lerner '79; Mark H. Lerner '82, M.D. '87; and Dena P. Lerner '85. Their experience, Bernice Lerner says, was vastly different from hers, both growing up in Salisbury and while attending Duke. "They had B'nai B'rith youth groups. We had Sunday school every week. We had services every week in our little temple. By that time, they could join any fraternity." The irony was that, while Lerner had felt a responsibility to support the few Jews at Duke from 1949 to 1953 by joining her sorority, her children were part of a much stronger Jewish community and didn't feel the need to be "as involved in Jewish life as much as I was."

Daniel Cohen '86, now a rabbi at a New Jersey synagogue, says he wasn't concerned with being involved either. "When I was looking at college, Jewish life at college was not a selling point. I was not looking for a Jewish experience at all." But he had been to Israel several times before coming to Duke, and when the Duke-Israel Political Education Committee was being founded, "I very quickly found myself getting involved," he says. Until then, "it really felt like Jewish life at Duke was an afterthought. But I discovered as I got involved that there was a rich Jewish life here. If you expressed interest, it was easy to get very involved very quickly."

This involvement led Cohen to intensive study with Eric and Carol Meyers, a year-and-a-half in Israel, and the eventual realization that he wanted to become a rabbi. At the same time, he was a Kappa Alpha, and while the two worlds never conflicted, he says, they clearly were not the same. "I found myself leading a split life almost. I was spending a lot of time with my fraternity brothers and a lot of time in Jewish studies, but they were separate for me."

Cohen has a place in the history of Jewish life at Duke as the student who helped bring about an alternative class ring. "A couple of us started getting uncomfortable with the fact of all the Christian symbolism. It makes sense, of course, with Duke's Methodist background, to have the cross in the crest. But when I buy a T-shirt, I don't have to buy a T-shirt with that crest. I can buy one that just says 'Duke.' So it was reasonable to ask that there be an option that doesn't change the history of the school, the symbolism of the school, but would give an option for a student like me who is a proud Jew and also proud to be at Duke."

The episode led to the only recollection Cohen has of overt anti-Semitism in his college days, a letter "that basically said if 'Cohen doesn't like the Christian symbolism of the school, he should get the hell out of here.' Luckily, sane heads prevailed and individual idiocy didn't and people understood what the goal was. And the goal was to create options so that everybody could be proud." Cohen wears the ring today.

After Sanford's presidency, says Judith Ruderman, Keith Brodie continued to open doors. "He made Duke even more inclusive. It was in Keith Brodie's era when you could really see the complexion of the student body changing, literally and figuratively."

It was also in Brodie's era that Gilbert D. Scharf '70 had the idea for a Center for Jewish life--an idea that evolved during the tenure of Nannerl O. Keohane. "She's been very much in the vanguard of multiculturalism and welcoming greater numbers of Jews here," says Eric Meyers.

Ruderman agrees, even anticipating the potential tone of Keohane's remarks at the October dedication of the Freeman Center. "I'm sure what she will say is that the Center for Jewish Life is one evidence of the fact that Duke is a more hospitable place, a diverse population, not out of any do-gooder kind of thing, but because we recognize that's what it means to be fully educated. It means to learn from people with backgrounds that are different, and to live in the modern global society."

"It's a signal to outsiders that Duke is committed to becoming a national and international place where people of all sorts are welcome," says Eric Meyers. "It sends a message that we've arrived, and we're no longer a regional university with a tiny Jewish population."

That message is beginning to be heard throughout the community. In fact, when Keohane began her remarks at the dedication, she looked at the throngs of people in attendance and delighted her audience with a simple Yiddish word: "I'm kvelling," or filled with joyous pride, "to see you all here."

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