Profile: Jehuda and Shulamit Reinharz
University president and professor, historian and sociologist, husband and wife: A look at the careers and lives of a great Jewish power couple.
Ask Shulamit and Jehuda Reinharz if they have to make a conscious effort not to talk shop at home and they look at you curiously. Conversations about Brandeis University don’t qualify as shoptalk for these two, because the school is both career and pride and joy. “It’s true that Brandeis has become our family and our family a part of Brandeis,” Shulamit explains.
“As a couple, they’re all-Brandeis, all the time,” says Marty Krauss,
the school’s provost. “You can see how much they’re enjoying themselves here and you can see the electricity bouncing between them.”
Indeed, whereas other university presidents may have supportive first ladies, Jehuda Reinharz has his Shula, a smiling ball of energy, vision and ambition as well as the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and the director of the Women’s Studies Program. Despite hectic, over-the-top schedules and after 37 years of marriage, the two continue to inspire and reinvigorate each other.
Walk into Jehuda’s office and you will see arranged on the sofas the four pillows of Brandeis University. Not the four pillars, the fourpillows. Having spent the past decade hearing her husband expound on the importance to Brandeis of excellence, pluralism, social justice and Jewish sponsorship, in trademark Shula fashion, she had pillows embroidered accordingly.
These principles set the school apart from other top research institutions in the country, says Jehuda, who likes to call Brandeis “the rye bread in a white-bread world.”
Rye or no rye, Brandeis isn’t a Jewish university, he insists. But, as serious as he is about pluralism, he’s equally proud of—and dependent on—support from the Jewish sphere. “Jewish-sponsored, yet nonsectarian,” is the school and its president’s mantra.
The two met as teenagers in New Jersey; both were children of survivors (Shula was born in Amsterdam and moved to the States when she was young) and had spent time in Israel. They became fast friends. She helped him acclimate to public high school, no easy feat for the Israeli-born Jehuda who had just arrived from Germany and spoke no English.
Marrying in 1967, they came to Brandeis to work on Ph.D.’s a few years later (his in modern Jewish history, hers in sociology), then taught at the University of Michigan. Returning to Brandeis in 1982, they both taught and he soon rose through the ranks of institute director and provost. In 1994, he became the school’s 7th president, the first alumnus and Israeli to hold the job.
A 57-year-old institution, the ’Deis, as it is lovingly called by its undergraduates, has a student body of 4,000, with more than 1,500 faculty and staff filling nearly 100 buildings, with new ones under construction or in the blueprint stage. These days its students represent 101 countries and 17 religions, including 250 Muslims. Roughly half the population is Jewish.
Each new building, each alumni book (think Mitch Albom’s best sellers Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven), each professor’s Pulitzer, Fulbright or Guggenheim is Jehuda’s personal victory.
So is each new academic center and institute. (Recent additions include the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, a think tank to study developments in that hotly contested region; and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, funded by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.)
“We have worked to create an atmosphere where all Jews learn from and support each other in a university open to everyone,” says Jehuda. “You could be at Brandeis and not be affected by Jewish life, but it would be hard.”
Orchestrating this delicate balance is a man who, at a preternaturally young-looking 60, is one of the world’s experts on Zionism with nearly 20 books under his belt, including the definitive biograpy of Chaim Weizmann (Brandeis University Press) and the classic textbook, The Jew in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, edited with Paul Mendes-Flohr).
But the scholar is also a Midas-touch fund-raiser. In 11 years, he’s driven Brandeis’s endowment from $195 million to nearly $500 million. Launching a capital campaign in the midst of the post-9/11 economic slump, he was told, was an invitation to disaster. “But in times of distress, people are more careful to only give to institutions they have faith in, that inspire them,” he says.
Still, raising the funds the school needs to grow is not without its challenges. Unlike other top schools with generations of alumni to rely on, Brandeis hasn’t been around that long. “Though alumni gifts are beginning to build, we could never be where we are without the American Jewish community,” he says. “Every president has multiple constituencies—students, parents, faculty, trustees. But I have another constituency: the Jewish people.”
How does he answer the biggest argument he faces: “The school was founded as a reaction to discrimination. We don’t have that problem anymore, so why support Brandeis?”
“Brandeis,” he likes to say, “is more important today than ever. Our commitments to the Jewish community and social justice have to be taken very seriously now when those things can no longer be taken for granted.”
In the middle of all his work is Shula who, Provost Krauss says, “is very much the wife of the president and is both gracious and energetic in that role.”
Of both Reinharzes, friend Harold Grinspoon, a mega-Jewish philanthropist in western Massachusetts, says that “They inspire each other. They are a team that vibrates with energy.”
On campus and beyond, Shula put Jewish Women’s Studies on the academic map, with Brandeis boasting the world’s first graduate program in Jewish women’s studies.S
After becoming director of the women’s studies program in 1992, she founded both the Women’s Studies Research Center and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.
What’s more, Shula, who turns 59 this month, had the vision and passion—and the skill to communicate them—to raise the $2 million to transform a ramshackle warehouse into a state-of-the-art exhibition space and home for both the center and institute. Today, the building houses dozens of researchers.
“Women’s studies used to be the thorn in the side of universities,” she says. But as a sociologist, she saw the tragedy of ignoring the contributions of half the population. “And I’m eternally fascinated by gender roles and how change is made in society.”
But change, as they say, begins at home. Early in their marriage, when she tired of typing Jehuda’s papers as well as her own, she bought him a typewriter. When their two daughters—Yael, 28, and Naomi, 23—were young, she made sure that she and Jehuda taught on alternate days so there was always a parent on hand. And when it became clear that Jehuda would never match her love of dancing, she decided to go without him.
Similarly, when Shula discovered there was precious little documenting Jewish women’s historic strength, she was determined that their stories get told. In 1997, Hadassah teamed up with Brandeis after Shula had chaired its National Commission on American Jewish Women (Shula is a popular particpant at Hadassah conventions and other organization forums). Diane Troderman, who is married to Grinspoon, served as founding chair of the institute.
To support HBI’s mission, Shula and cochair Sylvia Barack Fishman work closely with the board that helps raise funds and provide direction. The honorary chair is Barbra Streisand, and the president of Hadassah always has a place at the table.
While acting as midwife to others’ research and writing, Shula also continues to publish herself. Her recent books include an anthology with coeditor Mark Raider, American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise (University Press of New England), and The JGirl’s Guide: The Young Jewish Woman’s Handbook for Coming of Age(Jewish Lights) with Penina Adelman and Ali Feldman.
So much of what she’s accomplished reflects Shula’s fearlessness in the face of challenges. “If someone asks me to do something I’m not qualified for, I immediately say ‘yes.’ Then I find the backup needed to make it happen.”
“Shula possesses an inexhaustible curiosity about the lives of Jewish women and the impact of gender on Jewish life in every age and every place,” notes Fishman.
Over tuna sandwiches in his wife’s office, Jehuda says the center is a prime example of her entrepreneurial spirit. “It took vision to see the potential in this place and focus to raise the money,” he says with obvious pride. “I had nothing to do with any of it. It was 100-percent Shula.”
His wife is also his most trusted adviser. “In this job, people tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, or they want something. So, even with my top-level administrators, I often get the best advice at home.”
Calling her his “severest critic but also biggest supporter,” Jehuda says he can rely on Shula to ask, “‘What’s good for the university? What’s good for Jehuda?’ She knows the university and the people well and she doesn’t have an agenda.”
And, if a steady stream of new challenges prevents burnout, Brandeis’ first couple is virtually fireproof. The Crown Center for Middle East Studies is the realization of a 30-year dream, Jehuda said at the opening seminar in April. Funded in large part by Chicago’s Crown family, the center eschews all political agenda and intends to study the passion-filled region dispassionately with teachers and students from all over the Middle East.
“I don’t pretend the faculty won’t have personal beliefs, but they won’t bring them into the classroom,” adds Jehuda. “We want students to make up their own minds.”
And in the rare time that they do spend away from Brandeis, they indulge their interests in parasailing and riding motorbikes (Jehuda) and doing the Sunday New York Times crossword (Shula).
Together, they like to attend sporting events, often sitting in the personal suite of Robert and (Brandeis alumna) Myra Kraft at New England Patriots home games (in addition to owning the football team, the Krafts are active in Jewish communal life). Jehuda also makes a point to catch at least one game of every sports team at Brandeis each year.
Though their children no longer live in Massachusetts—Yael is an assistant director of an arts organization in New York and Naomi works in Latin American affairs for the American Jewish Committee in Washington—the family remains close. When they are in town, Shabbat dinner is reserved for family time. The Reinharzes are members of Conservative Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Massachusetts.
The Reinharzes are also world travelers—recent trips include Russia and Aspen. When they visited Taiwan, a guide innocently asked them, “In America, don’t the Jews control everything?” Their answer was to buy him a book on Jewish history.
That story reveals much about the couple’s philosophy. If ignorance is dangerous, the solution is to teach.
“Shula has taught us all so much, to look at research and everything else that reflects our world through the lens of gender,” says Troderman. “And, though you can’t exactly call Shula the power behind the throne because she’s not at all behind it, at Brandeis, with her by his side, Jehuda has found his roots and discovered he can soar. The two are a wonderful partnership and a gift to the Jewish world.