jawJews at Williams: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Class at a New England Liberal Arts College by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is both an interesting read and a source for dozens of fascinating anecdotes. Let’s spend a month or so going through it. Today is Day 1.

From The Record in October 2013:

Last Saturday, the College community gathered together for the release of Jews at Williams, a book that details the struggle and growth of the Jewish community at the College from the institution’s founding to the construction of the Jewish Religious Center (JRC).

“This is a big deal for this college,” President Falk said at the book release. The book, commissioned by the College, shines a light on both the positive and negative aspects of Jewish life.

How much does it cost the College to “commission” a book like this? We amateur Eph historians certainly think it is worth it! Any suggestions for other books? I would love ones about the history of admissions and about the history of the endowment.

Wurgaft believes the book deals with two main concerns: “First, the structural factors that contributed to a distinctive pattern of Jewish experience at Williams, and second, the kind of response to that experience that the JRC instantiates,” he said. Jews at Williams examines the minority identity in higher education. “This is a story about college, class and American life, about who has access to which social networks and why and what happens when an immigrant group begins to move into pre-established networks,” Wurgaft said.

This seems a strange summary to me. Although the history of the JRC is covered, that history is a fairly small part of the entire story. Of course, if you are speaking at an event hosted by the JRC, you might shade things a bit!

To Wurgaft, one of the most important eras in Jewish history at the College was the 1980s. “[This] period matters a lot because it helps us understand what can happen when an institution attempts to engage with the prejudices and unsavory practices of its past,” Wurgaft said. During this time, President Francis Oakley moved the College beyond its anti-Semitic past to a welcoming future. While the fraternity system was disbanded prior to Oakley’s appointment as president, the College’s stigma as an unfriendly environment for Jews plagued admissions and Jewish enrollment.

Huh? The book offers zero evidence for this claim. Just how “unfriendly” towards Jews was the Williams in the decade before the start of Oakley’s presidency in 1985? Not very! Also, just how low was Jewish admissions and enrollment? The book offers no details. I think that we have a bunch of fake history in which everyone pretends that Williams was horrible and then, mirable dictu, Frank Oakley saved the day.

The truth is probably more boring. After 1965, Williams was as accepting of Jews as any elite college (or at least any elite college located in a rural setting with few Jewish residents) and this acceptance only get better over time, as it did elsewhere. But these improvements were smooth, without Oakley providing a major change from the Sawyer/Chandler eras. By 1995, with the appointment of Hank Payne as Williams’ first Jewish president, the process was complete.

“The College was not attracting the talented Jews in the numbers we should,” Oakley said during the panel, at the book’s release. To resolve this issue, the College constructed the (JRC). “The perception [of Williams] beyond the campus was trumping the realities,” Oakley said, but the JRC fixed that issue. His deepest wish was that the “opening of the JRC would speak to the depth of the College’s aspiration to be a community of hope.”

Again, the book offers little evidence about this claim. Certainly, there were specific Jewish high school students who did not apply to Williams (or did not enroll once accepted) because the College did not, for example, have (any?) Kosher meal options in the 1970s. And it is a good thing that the College now provides those options. But tossing around terms like “unfriendly” is an unfair slur against the men, like John Chandler and Jack Sawyer ’39, who ran Williams in the pre-Oakley era.

For Wurgaft, one of the most important purposes of the book is demonstrating “the persistent importance of social networks in modern times.” Social networking at the College was, until 1962, driven by the fraternity system. Jewish students were for the most part excluded from this system. There was discussion among Williams Jews in the 1950s focused on potentially creating a Jewish fraternity, but the idea was not pursued for fear that it might further divide the already isolated Jewish community.

OK. But how can the Record fail to report the most important finding in the book: Williams, unlike Harvard/Yale/Princeton, did not have a Jewish quota. This is the conclusion that most readers who be most surprised about, and impressed by. Instead of being “unfriendly,” the Williams of the pre-Oakley era was one of the most philosemitic elite collegse in the country. That is the central message of the book. Was it even mentioned at this event?

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