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Brandeis University apologizes for ad that offended Orthodox Jewish student group

The university’s newest ad campaign, “Anything but Orthodox,” offended some Jewish students.

The president of Brandeis University in Waltham has apologized to Orthodox Jewish students for a national advertising campaign celebrating its 75th anniversary that left them feeling offended.

The ad ran in The New York Times Magazine on June 25 and included the statement “Brandeis was founded by Jews. But, it’s anything but Orthodox.”

Though the university initially defended the advertising campaign, Ronald Liebowitz issued an apology to the Brandeis Orthodox Organization last week.

“I am especially sorry that members of Brandeis’ Orthodox Jewish community, in particular, were hurt by the ad,” Liebowitz wrote on June 30 in an e-mail to the students. “You play a key role in our ongoing success: You bring energy, intelligence, and creativity to our Jewish community, to student life more broadly, and to the rigor of the academic experience that Brandeis offers.”

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Orthodox students at the private university saw the ad as critical of their beliefs.

Shoshana Solomon, a junior and vice president of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, said she was “pretty taken aback” by the advertisement.

“I was immediately defensive because, at first glance, the headline made it out like Orthodox students at Brandeis are not in line with the university’s values,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

Solomon, who met with Liebowitz after the advertisement was published, said the conversation “went very well” and that she was “very satisfied” with the way the university handled the backlash.

“I felt that my concerns were heard and that the university was genuinely apologetic for the harm the advertisement made to some, including myself,” she wrote. “I feel that Brandeis has seriously listened to the communal outcry and has immediately begun working to ensure an incident like this will not happen again.”

Brandeis, founded in 1948, enrolls just under 6,000 students. Thirty-five percent of its students identified themselves as Jewish, and according to the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, approximately 250 identify themselves as Orthodox.

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According to the university, the feedback given from students representing Orthodox and other Jewish student groups like Solomon have been shared with the advertising firm that created the campaign.

The controversy drew the interest of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an international wire service that published a story on July 3.

David Bashevkin, the founder of 18forty, a Jewish media site, also covered the issue closely.

“I was very moved and pleased by the statement from the president,” he said in a phone interview. “My goal was to highlight the fact that even gentle jabs at any minority class but that includes Orthodox Jews is simply unacceptable. We’re not a pawn and we’re not a punchline, we’re a real community.”

The advertising campaign was announced by Brandeis in May. It featured two-page spreads in media outlets such as The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as digital ads on Facebook

The university wrote in a May press release that the campaign had a “mix of humor, seriousness, and an emphasis on [Brandeis’] Jewish heritage.”

The university added “the campaign will serve to reinforce four pillars on which Brandeis was built: Jewish values and reverence for learning, academic excellence, and the continual fight against hatred and discrimination.”



Elllie Wolfe can be reached at ellie.wolfe@globe.com. Follow her @elliew0lfe.