I take a seat second to no one when it comes to alacrity in detecting and pointing out anti-Orthodox bias. Exposing such bias has been a recurrent theme in my writing for many years. A feature article I wrote detailing a long list of anti-Orthodox media slants and fabrications—“How the Press Picks on the Orthodox” was its title—appeared as Moment Magazine’s cover story back in February, 2000. “Stop Otherizing Haredi Jews” was the title of an opinion piece I wrote that was published in The New York Times in February 2022.
Those were only two of many callings-to-task of media, advertisements and individuals—before, after and between those two years—for casting negative light on our community.
However, when what might seem, at first wide-eyed glance, as anti-Orthodox is in fact a lesser crime, a hue and cry is an overreaction.
Like the recent two-page spread ad that Brandeis University ran in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine. Its headline read: “BRANDEIS WAS FOUNDED BY JEWS. BUT IT’S ANYTHING BUT ORTHODOX.”
Brandeis was indeed founded by Jews, in the Boston area in 1948, when elite colleges in the northeast like Harvard and Yale had quotas limiting the number of Jewish students they would accept. The school was named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, features the word emes in Hebrew on its official seal and, while it was always open to students of all, or no, religious backgrounds, it has always boasted a substantial number of Jewish students.
Negative reaction to the “anything but orthodox” ad was quick to come.
Leaders of a student group, Brandeis Orthodox Organization, informed its members that they were “hurt and disappointed to see something like this coming from our university” and declared the ad’s insinuation “unacceptable and antithetical to Brandeis’ values.”
Social media, always fertile ground for nurturing ire, bubbled with antagonism for Brandeis over the ad. “Seriously distasteful” and “problematic” were two of the milder comments. A poster on Twitter contended that there was “no other way” to look at the ad and “not be absolutely disgusted.” Addressing the university, a Washington, DC area writer wrote: “Proudly announcing you’ve moved away from your Jewish roots—in The New York Times!—is definitely one way to change your campus demographics.”
The ad, however, is part of a branding campaign through which the university attempts to use humor to tout itself as special, with an emphasis on its Jewish origins. Another of the campaign ads’ taglines asks “Why is this university different from all other universities?” (get it?), and another teases, “University quotas were a polite way of telling Jews where they could go,” a reference to the history of the college’s founding.
The “anything but orthodox” ad went on to describe the origins of Brandeis, and its raison d’etre: “to fight antisemitism, racism…and to welcome students of all backgrounds and beliefs.” Its closing line was: “Needless to say, Brandeis is still unorthodox. And rest assured, we have no intention of converting.”
Responding to criticism of the ad, the university issued a statement defending its decision to include it by explaining that it was intended as “a play on words meant to highlight Brandeis’ unique story and history of innovation” and that the university is “deeply committed to our Orthodox community members.”
A university spokeswoman told a news agency that “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.”
In fact, the Brandeis campus features an eruv and large kosher catering facilities. Shabbos seudos reportedly draw some 500 participants.
The adjective “orthodox” with a lower-case “o” indeed signals the opposite of innovation (in a negative sense, “stilted”; in a positive one, “faithful to tradition”). And so some oh-so-clever ad writer thought that, hey, since the word with a capital “O” has a Jewish connotation, it would make for a great pun!
Well, it clearly didn’t. But it wasn’t an anti-Orthodox ad. Just an inept attempt at humor.
And so, Brandeis—or its ad agency—is guilty of a crime, and in my book it’s no minor one: failure to be funny
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