The Jewish Journey
Now ‘vital, visible and celebrated,’ campus life for Jews has come a long way
by Sherri Kimmel
January 1, 2011
The Asbells, Yale ’78 (foreground) and father Milton ’37 (seated), celebrated the dedication of a Jewish life center named for Milton in 2003. From left, behind them are cousins Matthew Skalak and Sarah Skalak Maffey ’07, Mildred Rosenwasser and Leslie Skalak.
Around about spring 1945, Hitler was dead, Germany was collapsing, and a glossy-haired girl in the Philadelphia suburbs was piloting herself toward an Ivy League education. The only Jewish girl at Upper Darby High School, Estelle Bernard had grown up culturally Jewish but had little religious affiliation until she began attending synagogue at 14. There she felt ill at ease with the posh girls in their high heels with their Hebrew-school training.
So it’s little wonder that Jewish life on campus was not something that concerned her during her college search. Even though Bernard’s guidance counselor urged her to apply to Dickinson College, her heart was set on Wellesley. He thought Dickinson would be the better fit.
The months passed. By mid-August, the Japanese had surrendered, and Estelle was still waiting for Wellesley—waiting, that is, on the wait list. Finally, an envelope arrived, a slim one at that. “I got a letter that said they filled all the people in my category. I knew what that meant. I was used to this.”
With the start of fall semester mere weeks away, she returned to her guidance counselor. “Now will you think about Dickinson?” he asked, then picked up the phone. “He made a call to [freshman dean Lewis Guy] Rohrbaugh and got a verbal acceptance right on the spot,” she recalls.
And so Estelle Bernard ’49 arrived in Carlisle, no longer the only Jewish girl in school, though only one of a handful. The 30 men had a good support system in their Jewish fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi. (Read more on the fraternity.) But there was no Greek organization that would accept her as a full member. “I was offered social membership in two sororities [the national charters had a Christian creed].”
Josephine Brunyate Meredith, class of 1901, dean of women and an active Methodist, got wind of her dilemma and invited Bernard to her home on Louther Street. “She said, ‘Miss Bernard. You are Jewish, aren’t you? You know, I think if I were Jewish I would be as Jewish as I possibly could be. Don’t deny your Jewishness to be [in a sorority].” Meredith encouraged her to start a group for independent women and furnished meeting space in the basement of Denny Hall.
A Jewish Leader Emerges
The Jew who never stood out back home was soon standing out plenty. Before she took over as president of the Jewish subgroup of the Dickinson College Religious Association, the leaders “would call a meeting once a year to see who all the Jews were on campus, and that was it.”
Bernard held regular meetings, invited Harrisburg Rabbi Philip Bookstaber to lecture and, in 1948, speakers on the formation of Israel. She won the Abe A. Yellen Memorial Service Award, given to the Jewish student most active in the campus religious organization.
“I was the most well-known Jew on campus. I flaunted my Jewishness,” she says proudly.
Flash forward 60 years, and it would be hard to identify the most active Jew on campus. There are now so many of them—with a staggering array of Jewish-oriented activities in which to engage. The thought of that makes Estelle Bernard Solomon, whose hair is still luxuriant but white instead of black, smile as she sits back in her cavernous Phoenixville, Pa., home decorated with paintings fashioned from Israeli newspapers, antique Torah covers and other Jewish artifacts.
How did Dickinson progress from there to here? The Jewish journey starts with Samuel Deinard, who enrolled for one year, 1895, then transferred. A future rabbi who was nicknamed The Rabbi, Deinard was the first and last Jewish student for about a decade. Alfred Louis Tuvin, class of 1910 and benefactor of the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium, claimed to be the next.
Taking on Jim Thorpe
But perhaps the most storied early Jewish student was football great Hyman Goldstein ’15 from Portage, Pa. Not only did he found the Jewish fraternity that was so prominent in Estelle Bernard Solomon’s day, but he challenged Jim Thorpe, then at the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, on the gridiron.
His nephew, Marvin Goldstein ’48, a retired physician, proudly quotes from a 1975 book by Richard Newcombe titled The Best of the Athletic Boys: The White Man’s Impact on Jim Thorpe: “Goldstein was able to stop Thorpe every time they met, one on one, a source of pride for the little quarterback.” Thorpe called “Goldie,” just 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, “the trickiest I ever saw.”
Goldstein was well accepted as a Jew at Dickinson, but off campus was another story. His nephew recounts an incident at a University of Pennsylvania game. The players called out names on the field, “Goldstein, Pearlman …” A Penn fan shouted back, “Don’t they have any Americans on that team?”
Comments Marvin Goldstein, “This was the atmosphere that this Jewish boy from a coal town encountered, fought and overcame.”
Hyman Goldstein stayed on in Carlisle after graduating from the Dickinson School of Law and became a respected—if colorful—member of the Cumberland County Bar, which he served as president.
Some of his principled legal stances made big news. When 31 students were arrested for hauling a horse into the chapel on the second floor of Bosler Hall, Goldstein put his house up for their bail, says his nephew. The New York Daily News reported on his repeated defense of a singular client, Bessie, the town madam. “He once referred to her as being in the fine, outstanding tradition in Carlisle, one who didn’t suffer ruffians or college students,” Marvin Goldstein relates.
Advent of the Asbells
Several years after Goldie graduated, Dickinson began to acquire a reputation—as a college that welcomed Jews when many institutions rejected them outright or limited their numbers. Though a long train ride away from any large urban area, Dickinson attracted Jews from Philadelphia and south Jersey, including the Asbell brothers—Nathan ’29, Leo ’32, Milton ’37 and Joseph ’47.
Their immigrant parents, Isedor and Sarah, had started in business with a pushcart, then owned a fruit and produce store and ultimately a large wholesale potato enterprise in Camden, N.J. Isedor, who’d taught himself to read and write, worked 16-hour days to pay his sons’ Dickinson tuition. The investment paid off: two sons became lawyers, one a dentist and another a surgeon.
Years later, Yale Asbell ’78, asked his Uncle Nathan “why he came to Dickinson. ‘Because the school accepted Jewish students,’ he said.”
Dickinson’s embrace of the Asbell boys would pay big dividends seven decades later.
The steady trickle of Jewish students that began in the 1920s continued through the next decade, when Ben James ’34 played alongside Jewish athletes on the basketball and football teams. “I don’t think there was any time that anyone said, ‘Because you’re Jewish we’re agin’ ya,” he reminisces to a visitor in his spacious apartment near the college campus.
James tells how, when he was a new member of the Raven’s Claw men’s leadership society, he realized that the group was supposed to include members of all 10 fraternities but that Phi Epsilon Pi was not among them. He succeeded in seating a Phi Ep representative with the Raven’s Claw class of ’34.
James was even more dedicated to Jewish inclusion when he became Dickinson’s first dean of admissions in 1946. Before accepting the deanship, he said Dickinson would need to continue open enrollment for Jews. (For more on Jewish quotas, see the sidebar.)
Early on, James chose Estelle Bernard as a student representative on the admissions committee.
Where the Girls Weren’t
“He told me there were a number of girls from Long Island who had applied to Dickinson,” Bernard says. “He said they were qualified unconditionally, but he wanted to know if I thought they would be happy at Dickinson because there were so few Jewish women. ‘Well, I’m happy!’, ” she says she blurted out.
Even though there weren’t many Jewish women on campus, Phi Epsilon Pi provided plenty of companionship, she says. The Harrisburg community, which welcomed the students for Shabbat and holiday services, offered even more dating options.
“I exhausted the supply of Gitlins and Cohens in Harrisburg,” says Bernard with a laugh. She met her eventual husband, Macy Solomon, an aspiring physician from Sunbury, Pa., through one of the Harrisburg Cohens.
While the dating ratio was favorable for women, it was bleak for the men. If they wanted a Jewish girlfriend, they often had to maintain ties to women back home or score dates with Jewish coeds at other colleges or nursing schools.
Leonard Tintner ’52 recalls crossing the Susquehanna River for Sunday-night dances at the Jewish community center. “I’ll tell you, there was nothing worse than being a college student at these dances, when all the girls would want to dance, but all the [Harrisburg] guys would hate your guts. You were an outsider, and even if they didn’t care for the women, it was just the idea.”
Phi Epsilon Pi Provided Anchor
Tintner, a Harrisburg lawyer, says in the 1950s, Jewish life on campus revolved around Phi Epsilon Pi. That included religious services.
“We were fortunate enough in our fraternity to have somebody who knew how to daven [lead prayers], and we had a group on Friday nights [in the house on College Street]. We’d get together, the 10 of us, and we’d have a service, and unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them [attending] unless they needed me for a minyan [quorum of 10 male Jews required for an official service].”
During the holidays, students who didn’t go home for services were welcomed by the Harrisburg community. “Beth El would always save the back row for students, and there was an opportunity for people who wanted to come to dinner,” says Tintner.
Though there were two Jewish professors, Frederick Sandels and Arthur Prinz, “we had no Jewish courses,” says Tintner. “The only thing that was close was philosophy, and we took a Bible course on the Old and New Testaments.”
Dickinson, a Methodist college, required chapel twice a week for all students for most of the 20th century. One service was religious, the other academic in nature. Students were allowed to skip half the sessions. Jewish students of the ’40s and ’50s—and those who followed—say that faculty and administrators gladly excused students to observe Jewish holidays.
By the time Mort Levitt ’58, now a retired Temple University English professor, arrived at Dickinson, the Jewish student population had risen from its decades-long level of 6 percent to 10 percent. But the male/female ratio was still radically unbalanced. “There were 100 Jewish men but only about five Jewish women,” he says.
Grace Eva Katz Wolf ’55, a Delaware native who lives near Philadelphia, confirms that there were few Jewish women during the mid-’50s, and like other alumni questioned, offers no explanation for the sparseness.
Besides the lack of potential dates, social life was frustrating for Levitt because it was entirely Greek based, though to its credit, Phi Ep was the most diverse fraternity on campus—admitting blacks as well as Jews, he says.
Levitt says that he never “experienced anything negative” on campus because he was Jewish. However, he felt that “it was clearly the feeling of Jews a generation ago that to succeed you would have to be better than anyone else.”
Attracting a Future Rabbi
In 1964, Barry Friedman ’68 eagerly arrived on campus. “A number of things attracted me about going to Dickinson College,” he says. Academic quality and a significant number of Jewish students topped the list. “I had decided to become a rabbi when I was in 10th grade, so this was my career path by the time I started at Dickinson.
“What I didn’t calculate on was the significant overbalance of men [to women],” he adds. “This was very perplexing. Not everybody found it important to date Jewish women, but it was for me. I was lucky. I found [Nancy Rosenhoch ’69], and 42 years later, we’re still together.”
Besides prospective dates, Friedman also found Jewish activity on campus somewhat limited. “We had Friday-night services in the basement of Old West that were student led, and the Harrisburg Jewish community opened their homes to us. Overall, I was getting enough Jewishness.”
As for the curriculum, “there were no specific classes in Jewish studies. But my philosophy major was a very good education for going to seminary,” Friedman explains. “I did an independent study with George Allan in Jewish philosophy. That one course was enough to give me a step up when I got to Hebrew Union College after Dickinson.”
By the time Friedman, who is a semi-retired rabbi in St. Louis, graduated from Dickinson, the seeds of a more robust Jewish campus life were germinating. In the mid-’60s a nascent Hillel (Jewish student group) began, with Neil Wolf, a physics professor, and Herb Alexander, a psychology professor, as early advisors.
“The college bent over backward to make Hillel an important campus institution and to recognize Jewish holidays,” recalls Lou Grossman ’73, a Philadelphia public-relations professional. “I never felt there was any institutional anti-Semitism in admission or treating Jewish people differently.”
Rosenbaums Ramp Up Activities
During a sabbatical in Israel in the late ’60s, Herb Alexander met a lanky young scholar and interviewed him for a sabbatical-replacement post at Dickinson. That encounter led to an eventual permanent position in classics and religion for Ned Rosenbaum, who with his wife, Mary ’75, spurred significant growth in Jewish life after they arrived in 1970.
According to Rosenbaum, Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967 had ignited an interest in all things Jewish on college campuses. While he and other religion-department colleagues set about building what he calls one of the first Judaic-studies majors at a small liberal-arts college, his wife helped cultivate Hillel, which became an official affiliate of the national organization in 1975, the same year Judaic studies was approved as a major. They also helped connect the campus with Carlisle’s Jewish families by starting Congregation Beth Tikvah.
“The ’70s were a very dynamic period,” Rosenbaum contends. “We had a great Israeli-dance troupe and a Hillel newspaper and baseball team. We had more than 200 people at Seder during Passover in the [HUB] siderooms. We built a sukkah [hut constructed for the Jewish harvest festival] every year, and people stayed in it. And we had non-Jewish officers in Hillel.”
In the late ’70s Jewish enrollment had risen to 15 percent, with the male-to-female ratio finally balancing out. “We were like Sugar Ray Robinson, pound for pound, the best there ever was,” Rosenbaum declares. “We had the academics and enough Jewish students to provide a comfortable social life and all these activities.” Due to his varied religious experiences, Rosenbaum created a comfort zone.
“I was married to a Catholic and had gone to Presbyterian Sunday school as a teenager,” he says. “People felt comfortable with me. I feel I was ideally suited to teach at a liberal-arts college.”
Yale Asbell and Rick Epstein, both class of ’78, were not big joiners—neither belonged to a fraternity (Phi Ep was no longer exclusively Jewish by then) nor were they active in Hillel. But both relished their courses in Judaic studies and religion and attended Passover services when kosher food was provided in the siderooms.
Epstein had come from a strong Jewish community near Philadelphia. Through courses with religion professors Harry Booth, Ralph Slotten and Rosenbaum, “I became more tolerant,” he says. “I was more skeptical of Christianity before that. Being the only Jew in a lot of my classes exposed me to Christians and made me realize how open-minded they could be.”
From Rosenbaum he also learned a teaching style that he has emulated for 30 years while teaching Jewish history and culture at several Hebrew schools. “Ned wasn’t proselytizing. He was very constructive about me constructing myself as a Jewish person. Kids who take my classes leave respecting persons [of other faiths]. Dickinson served me well.”
Elizabeth Pincus Rubin ’78, who authored a seminal 1976 paper on Jewish college life for an American Ethics seminar, possessed an identity that was more about being an American than a Jew, especially a religious one.
A Culture of Giving
Yet after she graduated, her parents began making generous yearly gifts in her honor to support Dickinson’s Hillel activities through their Marjorie and Irving Nat Pincus Fund. “My parents thought there should be a fund to celebrate Jewish life at college and that the activities shouldn’t have to be Orthodox.” The fund has provided key support for Dickinson’s Jewish activities for decades.
Her classmate, Yale Asbell, a lawyer and authority in bank-stock investments, also contributed significant funds to benefit Dickinson’s Jewish life. One of 11 family members to attend Dickinson, Asbell began his support as a student who had a penchant for wearing a suit and tie and trading stocks.
During his sophomore year, Asbell heard that Dickinson was planning to eliminate the popular Passover celebration due to a $1,000 funding shortfall. When he met with President Sam Banks to express his displeasure, Banks offered a solution. Charge $10 per person.
“You could see Bruce Springsteen on campus for $5. Who’s going to pay $10 to attend services?” Asbell wondered. He said he’d put up $200, and Banks said he’d match him. That left $600, so Asbell made a call home to his father Milton ’37, who closed the gap. Twenty-five years later, Asbell would make much more substantive gifts to further Jewish life.
No Impediment to Leading
From Asbell’s student days and into the ’80s, Jewish life flourished at Dickinson. That was important to Sally Fletcher Gerstein ’83 from Allentown, Pa. “You never had to hide the fact that you were Jewish,” she says. “I took advantage of the Sunday bagel brunches and activities and services. I also took Judaic-studies classes, which weren’t just religion classes. I took one on how Jews are portrayed in film.
“Being Jewish on campus didn’t preclude me from doing anything,” she recalls. “I was Spring Festival chairperson, on Student Senate and freshman-year rep.” She also was pleased that the college provided kosher food during Passover.
“It was good enough that I don’t remember anyone going home and bringing food back from their family,” says Gerstein, today the owner of Central Pa.’s Kosher Mart, a kosher concession inside Hersheypark.
Gerstein’s steady commitment to fundraising for Jewish causes registered with a classmate, Sandy Hoeppner Brown ’84, who was the great-granddaughter of a Lutheran minister. Most of Brown’s girlfriends were Jewish, and she enjoyed attending Hillel events, particularly the bagel brunches. There were only two Jews in her Philadelphia-area high school, so Dickinson offered an introduction to the faith she would embrace a few years after graduation. “There was something so appealing about Judaism,” she says.
Today an active volunteer and financial supporter of Jewish day schools near her home in southern New Jersey, the mother of three says she enjoys the fact that being Jewish has such a strong religious and cultural dimension. So engrossed is she in all things Jewish that, she notes, “My mother says, ‘You must have been Jewish in another life.’ It just makes sense to me.
“Judaism has such a concept of giving back,” she adds. “It’s inbred and so pervasive in Jewish culture. Even a portion of the bar mitzvah money [given to a boy] goes to the charity of his choice.”
The ’90s Downturn
While Jewish life had been vital at Dickinson in the late ’70s and into the ’80s, it faltered in the ’90s. Jennifer Gordon Ross ’93 recalls Passover meals on campus and involvement with Carlisle’s Jewish congregation, Beth Tikvah. Still, “I had to work more than students do today to make Judaism a part of my life. It wasn’t very active here. It would be a better setting for me today,” says Gordon, who directs a statewide association and was recently elected president of the Jewish Family Board of Greater Harrisburg.
Dava Wiener Yanoff ’01 agrees that Jewish life wasn’t very fulfilling in the late ’90s. “I didn’t make strong Jewish connections on campus. A lot of kids would have been more Jewishly engaged when I was here, but there wasn’t a lot of opportunity.”
Food options were one obstacle. “I kept kosher as a student and really struggled,” Yanoff recalls. “I ate vegetarian in the Dining Hall. But over Passover, it was a problem. I packed food from my [family] home [in Harrisburg] and ate in my room all week. When I went to the Dining Hall to be social, a friend said they had kosher for Passover meal. Kosher meant a hot dog on a bun. Nice try, but there wasn’t a strong sense of engaging the Jewish community on campus,” says the dance instructor and wife of a Philadelphia-area rabbi. “I’m so pleased to see how things have changed in the last 10 years.”
That return to an active Jewish campus began in the early 2000’s, when, like the arrival of the dynamic young Rosenbaums three decades earlier, a vibrant young couple appeared on the scene.
A New Dynamic Duo
In 1998, Andrea Lieber replaced Rosenbaum as the head of Judaic studies, and two years later, her husband, Ted Merwin, began teaching in the department and guiding Jewish campus life. Merwin not only energized and broadened the array of activities but encouraged student leaders like Tal Rosen ’04 to step it up.
“I got to lead in ways I couldn’t at other campuses,” says Rosen, now the executive director of the 450-family-unit KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago. “This [leadership opportunity] was formative in my becoming a Jewish professional.
“When I arrived, Jewish life was kind of dormant,” he recalls. “Then we started doing some pretty sophisticated things that caught the eyes of the administration and trustees. My junior year, we were called [as Jewish leaders] into the first-floor seminar room in East College. The trustees and administration rolled out blueprints.
The Asbell Advantage
“They said, ‘This is going to be the Asbell Center for Jewish Life.’ We said, ‘Great! But why are you doing this?’ The answer was, ‘You guys are doing things to show how vibrant Jewish life is on campus. This is a way we can enhance and support this.’ It was an exciting time to be here, for the opening of the Asbell Center.”
Providing the seed money for the new center was the second significant act by Yale Asbell after he reconnected with the college in 2001. The first was starting a scholarship for first-generation college students named for his parents.
Shortly thereafter, during a visit to his Cherry Hill, N.J., home by President William G. Durden ’71 and Robert J. Massa, former vice president for enrollment and college relations, Asbell learned that Jewish enrollment had dropped. “I asked how I could make a difference,” he recalls. “If you want something to happen, you need to pay for it. Bob said, ‘We need a better Hillel house.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
In 2003, the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life, a three-story, yellow-brick former fraternity house nestled between the Weiss Center for the Arts and the Waidner Admissions House, opened, with Merwin as director.
Asbell made two more gifts, totaling nearly $2 million, to create a chair in Judaic studies and start a scholarship that would bring four Jewish students per year from Uruguay and Argentina to Dickinson.
As Provost and Dean Neil Weissman points out, the South American Jewish students have had an enormous campus impact. “They are very able students but also very active in the campus community. Their perspective has challenged us in many ways. They are activists with diverse interests.” (Read more about the Global Campus Scholarship recipients.)
Yale Asbell’s generosity, adds Weissman, “has been transformative” for Jewish life at Dickinson.
Activities Increase Apace
A decade after Asbell’s initial jumpstart, “There are a number of ways to be involved on and off campus in high-impact, meaningful and developmental activities that didn’t exist when I was a student,” notes Tal Rosen.
Still tapped into campus life, he appreciates what he sees is as “a more comprehensive strategy about reaching out to Jewish prospective students, and they are looking to cultivate Jewish leadership in a way that wasn’t available, like the Alternative Spring Break program [which takes Dickinson’s Jewish students to Jewish communities abroad or on the West Coast] and Birthright Israel [a free program, which sends Jewish students to Israel for 10 days].”
Emily Weiner ’13, president of Hillel, rattles off a dizzying array of activities, including pancake and bagel brunches, theme Shabbats (such as Moroccan) that feature related food and music, smoothie nights, challah sales every Friday to benefit charity, joint monthly services with Beth Tikvah and women’s, men’s and kosher cooking groups. All attract non-Jews as well as Jews.
Notes Merwin, Dickinson’s Jewish students are well integrated into the fabric of the campus, with deep involvement in virtually every student activity. “They are very self-sufficient, which isn’t the case on every campus.” (See "Going Viral" to read more about current activities.)
Like Rosen, Josh Gensler-Steinberg ’06, another former Hillel leader, keeps tabs on current Jewish life. And likes what he sees. During a recent visit, he saw that the former apartment on the third floor of the Asbell Center had become a comfortable lounge with a kitchen. “To see a social space as well as an academic, religious and cultural center—real kudos to Dickinson,” he says. Gensler-Steinberg, who teaches at a K-8 Jewish school in Fairfax, Va., was ecstatic to hear that the college had added a kosher serving line in the Dining Hall this fall. “There’s no question that the kosher option will help attract more Jewish students. It will increase the amount of comfort for someone who is keeping that religious tradition alive.” (See "Mucho Matzo" for more about kosher food.)
A Kosher Revolution
Jacob Grossman ’11, one of the students instrumental in developing the kosher option, agrees. “It will revolutionize Jewish life on campus.”
He predicts that the kosher commitment will attract students from more-observant families than in the past and make “Jewish alumni more involved. In my four years here the Jewish community has become more organized, tight-knit and active. Dickinson’s approach to Jewish life is strategic and welcoming.”
Part of the future strategy, says Merwin, is to better connect Jewish life to other college initiatives, like global engagement. Hillel’s international-outreach activities and recently revived and expanded study-abroad programs at Ben-Gurion and Hebrew universities, led by Andrea Lieber, will enhance that connection.
Increasing the numbers overall and the diversity of Jewish students from outside the United States and the East Coast is an additional goal.
Another necessity Merwin envisions for enhanced Jewish life is “expanding the space in this building or moving it to another building. We don’t have the space to accommodate large groups in the Asbell Center. I’d like the option to host social events, dinners and celebrations.”
While it may be clear why Dickinson is attractive to Jewish students, Weissman articulates why Jewish students are desirable to the college:
“Jewish teachings, particularly as they have unfolded in the United States, resonate well with a liberal-arts college. There is a strong emphasis on learning and debating and discussion and investigation of multiple perspectives. This resonates well with our core values. They take learning seriously.”
With the college’s current Jewish population at 11 percent, Weissman says, “the numbers have been substantial for some time, but in Dickinson’s self-concept, Jewish life has not until recently matched those numbers. Now it is vital, visible and celebrated.”