Vanessa Ochs: A place to gather — New Brody Jewish Center at University of Virginia sparks discussion of Judaism

Vanessa Ochs: A place to gather — New Brody Jewish Center at University of Virginia sparks discussion of Judaism

Source: The Cavalier Daily, 4-26-11

Jewish life at the University found a renewed identity April 10, when the Brody Jewish Center building — Hillel’s 10,000 square-foot addition to its existing space at 1824 University Circle — officially opened.

“There’s now this glorious space to be Jewish in together and to invite others in to experience what Jewish life is like,” said Vanessa Ochs, associate professor of religious studies and member of the Jewish studies program. “The big difference is to have a glorious and capacious and welcoming space that doesn’t feel like a grandma’s attic, because that’s what it used to feel like.”

The new building, made possible by more than $2.4 million in private funding, including gifts from lead donors Dan (Class of 1973) and Nad Brody, features study spaces, student lounges, new offices and a dining room that can comfortably seat 180 students.

“We haven’t before had a space where you could comfortably fit 100, 150 students for services, high holidays,” said Rabbi Jake Rubin, executive director of the new center.

He said the University takes seriously the charge of creating facilities for students “to learn and to work.”

“Up until this point, Jewish students haven’t really had that at U.Va.,” Rubin said.

He added Jewish students felt “a sense of pride” in having a new facility to call their own.

“You can see on the faces of students when they walk into that building — they’re blown away,” Rubin said.

In terms of the University’s history, however, vibrant Jewish life is a relatively recent development, explained Phyllis Leffler, a professor in the history department.

“It’s very hard for us to say that there were active quotas or that there was active discrimination,” Leffler said. “But I do think it’s fair to say that the University was never perceived, until the mid-20th century, as a place where Jewish students felt particularly welcomed or comfortable.”

Few Jewish students attended the University during the 19th century, something Leffler chalks up to immigration patterns and the small number of Jews in the South, among other factors.

“In the 19th century, there was probably less of a view that higher education was even possible because so many people had come from immigrant families and entered into businesses,” Leffler said.
The early 20th century, however, saw a rise in the number of Jewish applicants.

“There was a belief, of course, and there always has been, that education was absolutely critical,” Leffler said. “By the early 20th century, there was a whole different group of people that were now looking to education as a way to achieve economic mobility.”

Formally or informally excluded from joining existing fraternities, students organized two chapters of Jewish fraternities in 1915: Zeta Beta Tau and Phi Epsilon Pi.

Leffler said these fraternities “created a sort of comfort zone” for Jewish men at the University amid growing national anti-Semitism.

“There was an upsurge of [anti-Semitism] in the immediate aftermath of World War I,” Leffler said. “Jews came with odd traditions, or so it appeared, and they became more of a scapegoat.”

In years following, she said, “there was a watchful eye over the number of applicants believed to be Jewish.”

Leffler said Ivey Lewis, appointed dean of the University in 1934, organized applicants into three categories: Virginians, non-Virginians and Hebrews.

Diverse applicants posed a threat to the sense the University had of itself as “a place for aristocratic Virginia gentlemen,” Leffler said.

But as Jewish faculty came in larger numbers in the 1960s, the tone of the University began to change.

“For every group of people, having role models that students can somehow see themselves in … is terribly important in terms of creating diversity at an institution,” Leffler said.

Jewish faculty members at the University also have made possible what Ochs described as “one of the finest Jewish studies programs in the country.”

“At many universities, Hillel might be the only place where a student can learn informally about Judaism,” Ochs said. But here, she said, students can explore their Jewish identities through “intensive academic study, which is often much more satisfying than the kind of Jewish study they might have done when they were children and forced to go to Hebrew school.”

Ochs said about 500 students a semester enroll in Jewish studies courses, working under 25 professors from various departments….READ MORE

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