Friday, October 2, 2015

Beautifully Together: A Look Back at the Brandeis University Three Chapels on their 60th Anniversary

     The Brandeis University Chapels make up one of the most celebrated locations on the University campus, a place of spiritual and serene reflection for the Brandeis community. Situated in a shady, tree-lined corner of campus around a heart-shaped reflecting pool, the architecturally placid and peaceful buildings are designed so that none casts its shadow on another. The Three Chapels together form a unified whole, and each building is as important to the master plan as another. This, in its philosophical essence, is the message of these buildings. In October of 2015, the Three Chapels will celebrate 60 years as a part of the history of Brandeis University. The history of the Chapels is a fascinating narrative of the vision of the University’s founders, the power of community action, and the unity that interreligious cooperation and respect can provide for a campus. 
     The building of a place of worship at Brandeis had always been part of the plan for the University’s first president, Dr. Abram L. Sachar. In the May 1954 press release announcing the plan for the Three Chapels, he noted that it was traditional for the founding faith of a university to build the chapel as a place of worship for their given denomination.  Given the Jewish-founded yet non-sectarian status of Brandeis, this tradition presented an intellectual and architectural conundrum—how to avoid giving more weight to Judaism over other religions. By the third year of the University’s existence, money had been donated by noted Boston surgeon Dr. David D. Berlin to build a Jewish chapel on the Brandeis campus, named for his parents, Mendel and Leah Berlin. When this was announced in February of 1953, the Student Union protested vehemently, stating that it supported instead the original plan for an interdenominational space, which had been designed by Brandeis’s first master planner, Eero Saarinen.  With funding for the Jewish chapel already set, Sachar was thus presented with the need to build at least a Catholic or Protestant Chapel as well, and he began at once to fundraise.
     Abram Sachar and the other founding leaders of Brandeis saw the new demands of the project not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. Together, the Chapels were designed to emphasize the uniqueness, individuality, and equality of all creeds. There would be no shared space of worship, but instead a common outdoor area with an altar and reflection pool. Collectively, the Chapels were intended to create a space of unity, interreligious dialogue, and a celebration of faith. Max Abramowitz, the renowned architect who had designed may other elements of the early Brandeis campus, prepared plans for each chapel to have a unique character and identity.  By October of 1953, the plan was announced with much fanfare.

Building sketch ca. 1953

     A large fundraising effort for Catholic Bethlehem Chapel was led by former Massachusetts Governor Paul A. Dever and businessman and owner of the former Boston Braves Baseball franchise Louis Perini. It was praised and supported by Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Richard Cushing, who was a major leader in the fostering of positive relationships between Catholics and Jews.  Catholics from across the country sent in donations. Major contributions included the donation of the chapel organ by the Callahan family in honor of their son William, who had died in combat, and religious vestments donated by Cardinal Cushing.  However, not all members of the Boston Catholic community were supportive; leaflets were distributed with noticeable anti-Semitic rhetoric, urging Boston Catholics to prevent a “Jewish university” from building such a chapel.  The Chapel itself, designed to evoke the styling of a cathedral, was named "Bethlehem" to connect it to religious scripture.
     Fundraising for the Protestant Harlan Chapel was another communal effort by its represented religious community and Brandeis. Spearheaded by C. Allen Harlan of Detroit and Associate Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II, the chapel was designed to evoke an open bible. The namesake of the chapel was the Associate Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the grandfather of the chapel benefactor, Harlan II. The elder Harlan was the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that racially segregated American life (and which his grandson would reverse as a member of the Warren Court), who noted “[t]he Constitution is color-blind.” 
     The Jewish Berlin Chapel was given many features to symbolize particular religious ideas. The ark was designed to evoke the tabernacle the Jews carried in the wilderness, and noted fabric artist Helen Kroll Kramer created curtains to reflect the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. The outside fa├žade of the chapel was designed to be simple and humble, taking inspiration from the prophet Hosea, who said to “[w]alk humbly before God.”  It was built as the largest of the three chapels, in representation of the history and community of the University. The Brandeis University Hillel would oversee the Jewish chapel, while the Newman Club oversaw the Catholic chapel, and the Protestant Christian Students Association oversaw the Protestant chapel.


    From the start, the Three Chapels were intended to form a central place for student and campus religious life on campus.  The dedication of the Three Chapels took place on Sunday, October 30th, 1955, and was a very prestigious event for the campus community. There was music from faculty member and organist Caldwell Titcomb, and the University Chorus preformed works by Christopher Tye, Herbert Fromm, Giovanni Gabrieli, and Igor Stravinsky. Two major addresses were given, by Brandeis President Abram L. Sachar and Associate Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II. Honorary degrees were awarded to major religious thinkers in each tradition represented by the Chapels: Paul Tillich for Protestantism, Jacques Maritain for Catholicism, and Leo Baeck for Judaism.  In his speech, Sachar referenced the writing of 18th-century Christian playwright Gottfried Ephraim Lessing and his work Nathan the Wise. Upon seeing the sacred beauty in the life of Nathan the Jew, a friar says: “There was never a better Christian,” to which Nathan responds: “We are of one mind. For that, which makes me, in your eyes, a Christian, makes you, in my eyes, a Jew.”  Sachar’s speech introduced the Chapels as forming a space for religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation and conversation.


     The dedication of the Three Chapels was picked up by many major national publications, including the New York Herald Tribune, Time Magazine, and Life Magazine. From this auspicious beginning the Chapels developed into a center of rich intellectual and religious life at Brandeis. The Chapels project was referred to in University publications as a prime example of the mission of Brandeis and the social diversity it encouraged. In 1965, for the 10th anniversary of the Chapels dedication, the University hosted a three-day academic conference on religion, academia, and social justice, which featured talks by academics, activists, and public religious figures from across the United States.  To this day, the Three Chapels at Brandeis University continue to stand as testaments to the history, mission, and legacy of the University and to provide a sacred space of religious observance and personal reflection for the entire University community.

Written by Matthew Chernick, a triple major in Classical Studies, European Cultural Studies, and Film Studies at Brandeis University and University Archives Student Assistant.

All Sources used as part of this article are from the Three Chapels Collection. The collection is available for scholarly and community use at the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections at Brandeis University.

1 Abram L. Sachar; Press Release for The Three Chapels
2 The Justice; February 19th 1953
3 Architectural Record
4 Richard, Cardinal Cushing; “The Cushing Letter”
5 Abram L. Sachar; “Speech at Dedication of Chapels”
6 Anonymous; “Catholics of Boston” leaflet
7 Ibid.
8 Micah 6:8
9 Sachar; Dedication Speech
10 Brandeis University; Dedication of the Three Chapels Program Card
11 Sachar; Dedication Speech
12 10th Anniversary Conference Program

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Early Documents of the Formation of Brandeis University

Scroll of Signatures to Establish Middlesex University, 1937, 
Middlesex University Collection
          The Brandeis University archives hold many documents which illustrate the activities surrounding the founding of the institution in 1947.  Brandeis University opened on the grounds of the former Middlesex University, which built its Waltham campus in 1928.  Due to a lack of AMA accreditation for its Medical program and enrollment numbers during World War II, the school became fiscally untenable.  Middlesex University enrolled many Jewish students and was both racially and religiously diverse.  Many people at the time attributed the lack of AMA accreditation for its medical program to Anti-Semitism, because other AMA accredited university programs had admissions quotas to limit the number of enrolled Jewish students.

Albert Einstein Foundation Brochure, c.a. 1947, 
University History Collection
          In 1946, the Albert Einstein Foundation for Higher Learning, Inc. was established in order to raise funds for the founding of a “university without quotas…where no barriers exist because of race, sex, color, or creed.”  This university was to be, “a Jewish contribution to American education” and “a great school where democracy is enhanced through its practice.”  The foundation subsequently purchased the 100 acre Waltham campus, and the name of Middlesex University was changed to Brandeis University on March 13th, 1947, and the charter to grant degrees was transferred.

Questions and Answers About Brandeis Brochure c.a. 1948, 
Office of Admissions Collection
Brandeis University was set to welcome its first class in the Fall of 1948.  Brochures were sent out by the Albert Einstein Foundation such as “Questions and Answers about Brandeis University” and “This is Brandeis,” which outlined the objectives of the new institution.  According to the “Questions and Answers” brochure, the University, “is being established at a time when additional educational facilities are sorely needed, and proposes to help meet the growing problem of discrimination against minority groups in American universities.”

Class of 1952 Application Form Letter, 
Office of Admissions Collection

          The application letter sent out to prospective applicants for the Class of 1952 noted that the university is, “co-educational, non-sectarian, and will be ‘quota-free.’”  Furthermore, the application letter states that, “no applicant will ever be asked to identify his religion or color because to do so would violate a fundamental principle of Brandeis University.”

These materials, which are available in the University Archives, are a reminder of the context in which the university was founded.  Furthermore, these documents are testament to the University’s mission of diversity and inclusivity from its founding.

Written by Renee Walsh, graduate student at the Library and Information Science Program at Simmons College, July 27, 2015.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Brandeis National Women's Committee: The First Fifty Years

Brandeis University National Women’s Committee  (BUNWC) is Founded by Eight Visionary Women
By the time Brandeis opened its first library in a converted horse stable, an inspired group of eight women had already organized a small army of volunteers to raise funds for its operation. Membership in BUNWC, now one of the largest "friends-of-a-library" groups in the world, swelled overnight with women from coast to coast anxious to make this Jewish-sponsored nonsectarian university a success and its library first rate.

Faculty Create Study Groups
Brandeis faculty linked BUNWC members nationwide to Brandeis by
creating study group materials for use in chapters throughout the country. Thousands of members continue to meet in small groups in homes, public libraries, and community centers to study everything from Shakespeare to American Jewish humor, using almost 100 syllabi and discussion guides written by the faculty.

BUNWC’s Used Book Sales Benefit Libraries
“New Books for Old” is the hallmark project of the Boston and North Shore, Illinois chapters; their initial used book sales benefit the Brandeis libraries.  Many chapters have since launched annual book sales in their communities.

BUNWC’s Awards First Sachar Medallion
BUNWC established the Abram L. Sachar Silver Medallion Award to honor Brandeis's founding president and to recognize women who made outstanding contributions to public education and awareness. Awarded annually, recipients have included actress Helen Hayes, opera director Sarah Caldwell, historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, scientist and antinuclear activist Helen Caldicott, Jehan (Mrs. Anwar) Sadat, Nobel Prize winner Rosalyn Yalow, journalists Nina Totenberg and Anna Quindlen, a cancer specialist Susan Love, M.D., and Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Gerda Weismann Klein.

Faculty Goes on the Road for BUNWC
Brandeis faculty members "hit the road" for the first time to lecture in BUNWC chapters, giving Brandeis greater visibility in communities all across the country and providing a vital link to the University for supporters thousands of miles from campus. More than 100 faculty members have participated in what is now called "University Outreach," attracting 5,000 people per year to stimulating lectures on culture, history, politics, world events, and the arts.

BUNWC Funds Student Salaries for Library Work
BUNWC combined financial support for the libraries and for students working there through its new Library Work Scholar program. Approximately 150 students work in the libraries each year as part of their financial aid packages. Library Work Scholar has become one of BUNWC’s most popular programs, raising as much as $250,000 per year.

BUNWC Grant Launches Automation of Libraries
A $250,000 grant from BUNWC helped fund the automation of the card catalogue in the libraries. This marked the start of a multi-million dollar technology program, much of it funded through the BUNWC’s Library Technology Fund.  BUNWC donations eventually upgraded the libraries' wiring infrastructure and computer network to create 900 state-of-the-art access points to the Internet for students, faculty and library staff.

BUNWC  Brings Library Holdings to 1 Million Volumes

A major fund raising campaign BUNWC brought to one million the number of books in the libraries' collections, making the Brandeis libraries the fastest growing of almost any other private university library in the country. BUNWC presented the millionth book to the libraries, a rare first edition set of The Law of God by Isaac Leeser, the first English Bible published for the American Jewish community, along with more than $500,000 raised to establish an endowment for the American Judaica collection.

Written and posted by the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections staff.