Fred Lawrence and the Brandeis Model

University ex-president: Our roots broaden us; they don’t narrow us.

DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST at Brandeis University against former US president Jimmy Carter’s book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (photo credit: REUTERS)
DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST at Brandeis University against former US president Jimmy Carter’s book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW YORK – When former president of Brandeis University Fred Lawrence created what he calls “The Brandeis Model” on dialogue about Israel, he had in mind what his grandmother, who had only a third-grade education, told him as a child: “You will always be more attractive to people as an authentic version of yourself than as a false version of who you think they want you to be.”
Lawrence’s solution to countering tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus is best summed up in one word: authenticity.
“A model based not on advocacy but on engagement turns out to be the most effective way of dealing with BDS which itself then is left as being an advocate for a particular position as opposed to an endeavor designed to build bridges and connections,” Lawrence told The Jerusalem Post.
When he first arrived at Brandeis in 2011, Lawrence’s goal beyond finding a way to counter boycott, divestment and sanctions was to enhance the overall sense of identity and comfort with the university and its roots within the American Jewish community.
Brandeis University, named after the first Jewish US Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis, was founded in 1948 as an institution sponsored by the Jewish community. While a large percentage of students are Jewish, the university remains nonsectarian.
“The idea is that our roots broaden us; they don’t narrow us,” Lawrence told the Post. “That’s where we started from.”
“You have to know who you are as an institution, and that actually makes it possible for everyone, from every background, to be comfortable with who they are within it,” he told the Post.
One of Lawrence’s first decisions was to hold a campus- wide break-fast after Yom Kippur. It is now held every year on the campus’s main lawn and is attended by thousands of students, not all of them Jews.
One year, as he was attending the annual event, Lawrence started chatting with a Muslim student from Kenya who had come to see it.
“He asked me about what Yom Kippur is all about, and we talked about what it means to have a day of atonement,” he recalled, “Then I told him about different groups of students coming at different times to the break-fast, explaining that some fast longer than others.”
The student then looked at Lawrence and said: “So what you are describing is communities within communities, and that is the essence of community.”
“This is a young man who did not come to Brandeis to come to a break-fast, but he is transformed by that experience because he feels this is something he can be a witness to and he can be in some way a participant in.”
The secret to eliminating tensions over Israel on his Jewish-influenced campus, the former president said, lies in broadcasting real authenticity and confidence in the institution’s roots.
“Part of it is owning it yourself, and then it’s about finding ways to build bridges rather than to confront,” he explained.
Building bridges was one of Lawrence’s main goals during his tenure. He supported several student initiatives to do so including “Brandeis Bridges,” in which Jewish students teamed up with a group of black students to work together on a yearly project and travel to Israel for a week.
“When they got back, my wife and I had the whole group over for dinner, and I asked the African-American members what struck them most about Israel,” Lawrence recalled. “In two separate conversations, I got the same answer: the people.
“They are then transformed in their views about Israel and not because somebody is battling and arguing with them, but because people engaged with them, letting them see what’s there.
“It’s very easy in the times in which we are living, to fall into the habit of defending and fighting, but it just does not work,” he told the Post.
“There is a great message to be spread by reaching out and it’s not going to work instantly on every campus; I’m not naive. But I do believe it’s the right approach.”
Providing students with personal experiences of Israel is, Lawrence says, “how you change the world one person at a time.”
“Non-Jewish students and faculty, especially those from places like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or even Palestinians, are going to be in certain conversations. They’re going to be in certain rooms and they are going to hear things that people don’t say in front of me,” he explained. “And when they do, those people are going to say: ‘Well, that wasn’t my experience there.
I went to Brandeis, I was at the president’s home, I met with Jewish students and that wasn’t my experience.’” The effect of Lawrence’s Brandeis model was very much felt in the dialogue on campus but also in numbers.
During his term, the school’s endowment rose to an all-time high, applications surged 35 percent and the total achievement in fund-raising at Brandeis was $257 million.
In addition, the controversy over the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis, which had sparked a crisis of international impact when Lawrence’s predecessor has decided to close it for budgetary reasons, was settled under his authority.
Lawsuits against the university were dropped and the museum reopened to great acclaim in the fall of 2011.
Carol Saivetz, an alumnus of the school who serves on Brandeis’s Board of Trustees and whose children are also alumni, told the Post she believes Brandeis has a unique role to play in Israel dialogue, not just between Jews and non-Jews but also within the Jewish community.
“It’s a place where the conversation about the issues that are dividing the American Jewish community today, or perhaps American Jewry and Israel, can be had in a warm and open environment bringing together diverse views about Israel in a non-threatening, nonconfrontational way,” she said.
“We hear these stories from so many other campuses about the BDS movement or pro-Palestinians,” she added.
“At Brandeis, there’s a place to have all those conversations. I don’t think the idea that we should listen and be respectful is necessarily well communicated everywhere.”
When asked about what advice he would give to Jewish students battling anti-Israel movements on other campuses in the US, Lawrence said he believes in creating non-political partnerships with other student associations.
“To the heads of institutions I would say: Watch out for what these kids are going to be doing, you have to back them up both with resources and with whatever cover that they need from the institution,” he told the Post.
Lawrence said he knows the implementation his model won’t necessarily work on all campuses, but “once you know this is possible, then there is an obligation to try.”