As an undergraduate, Lauren Eichler '94 went out with friends early one morning and sneaked into the skeletal frame of what in 1993 would become the Center for Jewish Life.
Once inside, Eichler said she had the distinct sense she was doing something wrong – or even dangerous – by trespassing on the construction site. However, as she visualized where each room in the structure she had helped design would be, there was also something right about the whole thing. "We felt like this was our home being built," Eichler said.
Last Tuesday, Eichler was among five panelists Ð including President Harold Shapiro, the University's first Jewish president Ð who discussed the history and the experience of Jewish life at Princeton in a symposium closing out Jewish Heritage Week.
The symposium, held in a packed Dodds Auditorium, was designed to celebrate the past 50 years of organized Jewish life at the University since Hillel – an umbrella organization for collegiate Jewish groups – came to campus in 1948.
A 50 year tradition
In opening the symposium, Michael Bosworth '00, chair of the heritage week committee, noted that Princeton's anniversary also coincided with the celebration of 50 years of Israeli statehood. "In both, we see a resisted progress, but an undeniable momentum," Bosworth said.
That idea proved a common theme among the speakers. Historian Marianne Sanua '82 outlined the history of Jewish life at the University, citing World War I and World War II, as well as the construction of the CJL, as turning points. In relation to the last event, Sanua said, "There was nothing in Princeton's past that would indicate that would ever happen."
Because the University began as a Presbyterian institution, for most of its history, there were no Jews at Princeton. Even when Jewish students started to attend in significant numbers after World War I, there was major discrimination in admissions decisions. From 1922, partially to prevent the influx of Jewish students, the admissions office used, among other things, photos of the applicants to determine who had Semitic appearances, Sanua said.
"You had to fill out a form stating your religion," Sanua said. "You could leave it blank, of course, but that was a dead giveaway."
History professor Anthony Grafton said that even getting beyond issues of discrimination, Jewish life on campus has become far more vibrant and multidimensional in the past 50 years. In the 1950s, for instance, Grafton said that Jewish life could be described as "intellectual" yet "grumpy."
Eichler, who spoke after Grafton, discussed the recent history of Jewish students at Princeton by describing her stint as a member of the committee responsible for creating the CJL. "It forced us to articulate our own vision of Jewish community," Eichler said, adding that that vision was a pluralistic one which embraced all streams of the Jewish faith.
Richard Joel, international president of Hillel, rounded out the presentations by issuing a challenge to Jews everywhere to go beyond issues of discrimination and to do something with their newfound freedom.
"This is the first generation of Jews where being Jewish is not a condition, it's an option," Joel said. "We're not defined by people who keep us locked in and locked out."