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The truth behind Einstein ‘folklore’: Uncovering the origins of Jewish community on campus

<h6><em>Courtesy of Ethan Sterenfeld&nbsp;</em></h6>
Courtesy of Ethan Sterenfeld 

On Jan. 13, 1947, an article ran on the front page of The Daily Princetonian entitled “Einstein Attends First Campus Jewish Service.” It described a Friday night of “discussions” led by Professor Albert Einstein — “the first opportunity for students of the Hebrew faith to worship on Campus.”

Thanks to this article, Einstein became known as one of the founders of Jewish student life on Princeton’s campus. 

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Abby Klionsky ’14, who wrote her thesis on Jewish student life on campus in the 20th century, remembered: “The sort of story that I heard and that I’d adopted as the narrative — until I started doing my thesis research and doing a bit of digging — was that Jewish student life began with Einstein in the 40s. That was what the folklore was.”

But the folklore was wrong. As Klionsky would soon discover in her thesis research, Jewish student life began on campus three decades prior to the publication of that article in 1947. It began with students such as Marcus Lester Aaron class of 1920 and developed with the efforts of students like Dr. Joseph Schein ’37, the oldest living Princetonian. 

Contrary to the widely accepted narrative, the story of the creation of a Jewish community is not Einstein’s. Here, we tell the story of these students, of their repeated efforts to create a religious and social community on campus despite small numbers and a continued lack of institutional support. This is a story about the challenges of creating institutional memory when generations of students strive to make change for four years — and then graduate. And, this is a story about Klionsky and the process of uncovering a history over 100 years in the making.

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During her sophomore year, Abby Klionsky received an email from a friend whose grandmother had discovered a box of letters from her father, the friend’s great-grandfather, to his family. The letters’ contents described his life when he was a student at Princeton in the late 1910s, specifically his experiences as a Jewish student during that time.

Klionsky’s friend was curious whether the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) might be interested in the letters. As a prospective history major, Klionsky was interested in the letters herself. Recalling her reaction to that email, Klionsky said, “How many people get to do history research on things that have literally not seen the light of day in 100 years?”

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The great-grandfather’s name was Marcus Lester Aaron ’20. His letters have since been donated to the University archives and are available to the public. Although Aaron’s letters touched on Jewish student life at Princeton from 1915-1920, with him, a thesis topic spanning decades was born.

In “In the Tiger’s Lair: The Development of Jewish Student Life at Princeton University, 1915-1972,” Klionsky details a story of Jewish student life from its beginnings in the fall of 1915. According to her research, that September, 19 Jewish students enrolled in the University’s first-year class — the highest number of Jewish students in one class the University had recorded up until that point. The roughly 50 Jewish students on campus in 1915 was significant enough for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) to send Rabbi Harry K. Jacobs to make monthly visits from Trenton to meet with Jewish students on campus.

Despite Rabbi Jacobs and the UAHC’s efforts, Aaron’s letters revealed he was unaware of the meetings of Jewish students that occurred during his early years at Princeton. By the fall of 1919, Aaron began to organize his own meetings of Jewish students for worship and other religious purposes. What began as weekly gatherings of a few Jewish students over the winter of 1919 became the official University Jewish Student Congregation (JSC) in March 1921. 

University recognition of the JSC mainly had an impact on one crucial aspect of Princeton student life: the chapel requirement. 

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A fixture on campus from 1746-1964, chapel service required Princeton undergraduates to participate in non-denominational Christian services in the Chapel on campus. If the student did not attend regularly, they would receive punishments as grave as suspension.

Prior to 1921, there had not been an opportunity to substitute Jewish religious services for chapel service attendance — they were simply exempt from the requirement. Following the official University recognition of the JSC, Jewish students were now required to attend services at either the JSC or in the Chapel rather than be excused from services.

Just as these new developments began to strengthen Jewish community on campus, the University presented a new challenge. According to Klionsky’s research and other sources, in 1924, Princeton set an under-the-table Jewish quota for admission at roughly three percent. After the quota, Jewish enrollment at Princeton fell dramatically. Klionsky also found in her research that notices for Jewish services in the ‘Prince’ fell, too: one notice per semester in the 1923–1924 academic year, then no notice published for three years after October 1925, and then the next notice another three years after that. 

***

Despite the lack of advertisement, Jewish services continued — in part because they still fulfilled the necessary chapel attendance required of Jewish freshmen and sophomores. By the mid-1930s, information about Jewish services became more regular again in the pages of the ‘Prince.’

However, knowledge about Jewish services on campus was still scarce. When Joseph Schein matriculated to Princeton in 1933, he was unaware of the efforts of former Jewish students to organize these services. Today, on Feb. 23 — his 107th birthday — Schein is the oldest living Princeton alum. Back in 1933 when he began his studies at the University, he was one of just 11 Jewish undergraduates. 

Rather than by fellow Jewish students, Schein was invited to get involved in Jewish services by Dean of the College Christian Gauss — whom he met as the result of a series of events initiated by a practical joke. 

“I was registered in the ROTC as a prank by a good friend of mine,” recalled Schein. He enlisted, but eventually the aspiring doctor realized he would not be able to complete all of his pre-medical requirements if he were to continue with the ROTC.

Schein contacted Gauss to get assistance leaving the ROTC. Through the difficult release process, Schein and Gauss developed a close relationship, often conversing in the Joseph Henry House.

Schein’s son, Dr. Oliver Schein ’76, explained that the two also got to know each other through language classes, as Dean Gauss served as chairman of the Department of Modern Languages. 

“My dad was unusual in that he was interested in eventually becoming a physician, but he majored in romance languages — and basically spent [his undergraduate years] not so much in literature, but in history,” Oliver Schein reflected. “And I think it was through those kinds of courses that he met Dean Gauss.”

“We became fast friends to the point that long after I graduated I would come to Princeton and visit him,” the elder Schein reflected.

During one of their conversations, the topic of compulsory chapel came up. “‘Joseph, don’t you think it would be a good idea for the Jewish people to have their own chapel?’” Schein remembers Gauss asking him. Presumably, neither knew anything of the efforts of the JSC.

“I was Jewish, I was proud of being Jewish. I was not Orthdox, I was not practicing,” Schein said. Although Schein was not observant, he was nonetheless excited about Gauss’ proposal. “I was very proud to have been picked out by him [Dean Gauss] to [organize the services].”

For Klionsky, Schein and Gauss’s seeming lack of knowledge about the groundwork laid for them by Aaron and the JSC is unsurprising.

“Institutional memory is short,” Klionsky said. “One generation of students has no idea what the previous generation of students did, or tried to do, or was on the verge of organizing.”

For his part, Schein organized a Friday night Jewish chapel service, which by no means assumed the form of a traditional Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening) service. “My preaching was one page, with one Hebrew phrase,” Schein recalled. This Hebrew phrase was a central prayer in Judaism, the Sh’ma

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad [Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one],” recited Schein, recalling the services he led. 

Soon enough, Schein — and his Friday night services — had become very popular on campus, for non-Jews as well as practicing students. By attending Jewish services, undergraduates got an exemption from attending Sunday morning chapel and could go away for the weekend. 

“Princeton back then looked very different,” Oliver Schein said, “and all the [wealthy students] would get into their cars and go away for the weekend. But they couldn’t go away for the whole weekend because they had to be back Sunday morning.”

According to Schein himself, “All I had to do was sign a piece of paper that said they attended.”

Eventually, though, Schein looked for ways to make Jewish services more engaging and communal. “I wanted it to be more than just a way for people to fulfill their requirements,” he said.

Klionsky’s research showed that many Jewish students wanted services to be more than an attendance-check as well. 

“I think in the early days there was the surface level reason [to have Jewish services], which was that [they] shouldn’t have to go to the Christian services,” Klionsky said. “And then there was this sort of shadow level, tacit need for support, to have this experience with other people whose backgrounds are like [theirs] and a chance to just feel comfortable and free.” 

After all, for these Jewish students, anti-Semitism remained a pervasive threat. But even decades later, when Klionsky worked to interview the Jewish male alumni of this period, including Schein, she found that many students were unwilling to self-identity as victims of antisemitism.

“I very explicitly asked every single person I interviewed, ‘What was your experience of antisemitism on campus?’” Klionsky said. “Almost without fail, the men I interviewed said, ‘It was absolutely there. And it didn’t happen to me.’”

In an effort to bolster a sense of Jewish community on campus, Schein began conversing with Abraham Flexner, who was the first director of the Institute for Advanced Study, located in Princeton. “I had become a protégé of [Flexner’s],” recounted Schein.

With the rise of Hitler’s regime abroad, Flexner worked to bring over European scientists to the Institute for Advanced Study who, had they remained in Europe, would have likely been persecuted by Nazis. Among this group of scientists was Albert Einstein, who came to Princeton in October of 1933 — just one year after Schein began his undergraduate studies at Princeton. 

“He simply introduced me to him,” remembered Schein, “Flexner, being Einstein’s boss, and me, being a protégé of Flexner.”

Schein began to talk to Einstein about his Jewish services on campus. “I went to see Einstein to ask him whether he would join me from time to time, [because] that would certainly draw a crowd.” Einstein complied, and Schein began meeting Einstein at his house and spending an hour or so with him before the men strolled together to the Jewish service at Murray-Dodge.

“That interaction, it was very public,” Schein said. “People could see me walking with him on Nassau Street.”

Schein recalled more private moments with Einstein, too. 

“I remember Einstein getting down on his knees to look for a book and he couldn’t see that well,” he said, “and what I remember is him holding a candle because his white hair looked very yellow, kind of golden [in the] light.”

Schein — who, throughout his 70-year medical career, practiced first as a pathologist before transitioning to a career in psychiatry — understands the brain’s tendency to romanticize memories. 

“In my memory, it’s interesting, I remember it as a candle, but I don’t believe that to be true at all,” he remembered. “I believe he had a flashlight. The fantasy that it was a candle is stronger than the knowledge that it was a flashlight.”

***

Schein’s memory of the candle is a small example of a larger tendency to romanticize Einstein’s time at Princeton, particularly in the context of early Jewish student life. 

As a result of the efforts of Schein and Flexner, Einstein was indeed present at some Jewish services on campus beginning in the 1930s. But Klionsky’s historical research clarified that Einstein did not have a formal role in the campus Jewish community. 

“My sense from what people have written and said in interviews is really just about like, he would attend sometimes, and he would speak sometimes, but not as an organizing function,” she said.

“[The] narrative was that Jewish student life began with Einstein in the ’40s,” Klionsky continued. “And it fell apart really quickly and really easily. Like I didn’t even have to pull the string very far to find way more than that.”

This narrative identified by Klionsky is not a mere consequence of a fond remembrance of the past. It existed, too, among community members and within campus reporting during Einstein’s time at Princeton.

The aforementioned 1947 front page ‘Prince’ article tells readers in its headline that Einstein attended the “first campus Jewish service.” The article explains that the service was “highlighted by the attendance of Professor Albert Einstein,” and it asserts that the service “marked the first opportunity for students of the Hebrew faith to worship on the campus.” 

As Klionsky’s research on the JSC and other elements of early Jewish student life demonstrated, the 1947 gathering was far from Princeton’s first Jewish service on campus. Nor was it the first time that Einstein had addressed Jewish students: Klionsky notes in her thesis that there exist records of similar forums taking place between Einstein and Jewish students in both 1937 and 1943. 

“I think it’s a compelling story, right?” Klionsky said of the misleading coverage of the 1947 service. “Einstein was there, the ‘Prince’ announced that he was at the founding, there it is.”

“I don’t think the ‘Prince’ was trying to lie. I think they didn’t know, ” she continued. “But it’s a compelling story. And if it’s in print, you know, we rely on being able to rely on what’s in print.”

For Klionsky, the misattribution of Jewish student community building to Einstein partially stems from the lack of an institutional apparatus to consistently support Jewish students throughout the early-to-mid 20th century. She compared her experience as a Jewish student on campus, particularly with the Center for Jewish Life (which opened its doors in 1993), with these early decades. 

“There are now professional staff [at the Center for Jewish Life] who have been there a long time and they hold some of that responsibility and students don’t have to. And so things can continue along a progression in a way that, previously, it was kind of like, ‘start, stop, start, stop, start, stop’, because there was nobody who was consistent throughout that time.” 

With the framework for institutional memory now in place — and Shein’s own willingness to share his memories — there is a unique opportunity to immortalize a more truthful history of Jewish life on campus. This story has been told before, yet prior to Klionsky’s research, not by the people that actually experienced it: the allure of celebrity largely obscured the truth and credit was misattributed to Einstein. But, as an 107-year-old alum knew and a former Princeton history student discovered, this was not his story.

Alex Gjaja is the co-head Features editor for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at agjaja@princeton.edu.

Julie Levey is an assistant Features editor for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at jlevey@princeton.edu.

Ellen Battaglia is a Features writer for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at eb23@princeton.edu.

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