Thursday, October 18, 2012

Teshuvah and Emory University

I am a proud Emory University alum. Graduating with a double major in Judaic Studies and Political Science,  my Emory years were everything I hoped they would be. I learned. I grew. I was challenged by and challenged others. I met professors who not only nurtured my intellect, but pushed me to think differently, to think specifically, to think expansively.  I learned to listen better, to lead better.  I developed meaningful friendships that nurture me still, a decade and a half later. I was part of community that, then and now, wasn't afraid to push itself, to stand up for what was right, even if the dialogues were difficult to have. I learned about the importance of "moral engagement" on all fronts - perhaps the most important and life-influencing part of my time there.

As you likely know, a horrible period in the university's history was recently brought to the surface by the work of Emory professor Dr. Eric Goldstein and one of the former dental students, now Dr. Perry Brickman.  As my former professor Dr. Debra Lipstadt recently reported in The Forward:
"From1948 to 1961, the university’s dean, John Buhler, led Emory’s dental school.Every year, a small number of young Jewish men would be admitted to the school.Then, at Buhler’s instigation, often within a year, many would be flunked out.Some of the luckier ones were forced to repeat a year. Their lives were, in the words of one student, “a living hell.” They knew that irrespective of how hard they worked or how well they succeeded, all would probably be for naught. Many were told by Buhler that “Jews do not have it in the hands” for dentistry. Humiliated, they had to explain to parents, many of whom had sacrificed greatly for their sons’ education, that they had been ejected. Parents asked their sons, “Couldn’t you have worked harder?” Many of these men went on to stellar careers in dentistry; one became a cardiac surgeon. Despite their successes, most never spoke to their families about the shame they had felt."  
When the Anti-Defamation League learned about an admission form that Buhler had created where students had to identify as"Caucasian, Jew, or Other," Buhler resigned, but Emory denied any connection between the two occurrences.  

In some respects, the revelation of a university's anti-Semitic past is nothing new.  But for Emory, which has such deep ties to the Jewish community and leaders in its region (of which many of my own relatives are a part), no less my deep personal connection to the school, this news cut particularly deep. It is why it is hard for me to put into words just how proud I felt when I learned how Emory's administration chose to respond to this history.

When brought to the University's attention by Goldstein and Brickman, Emory responded immediately.  Emory's vice president Gary Hauk said: “We need to be fearless in confronting our past as individuals and an institution. There are often things we regret about our past, but there is the possibility of making amends and of building on the acknowledgment of those things. Part of our vision of Emory is being ethically engaged, and that means  wrestling about what it means to have these warts.” (See the New York Times article here)  As part of that process, what Judaism calls teshuvah (repentance and returning), the university invited many Jewish former students to a private meeting on Wednesday with its president, James W. Wagner, and that same nightit hosted the premiere of a documentary film about the scandal called "From Silence to Recognition."   In Lipstadt's words again: "...former dental students descended upon Emory...They brought spouses, children and grandchildren. The president did not say to them, “It did not happen on my watch, but I am sorry.” He did not say that this discrimination was the practice of the times. He unequivocally acknowledged that such behavior diminished the university, and he bemoaned the fact that it took so long for this apology to come." Instead, Emory's President James Wagner said,"I am sorry.  We are sorry." 

Jewish tradition envisions ultimate teshuvah as essentially comprised of 3 main parts. First: a self-recognition of the wrong that has been done.  Second: a face-to-face apology from the offender to the victims.  Third: actions assuring that the offense will not be committed again.  In her article,Dr. Lipstadt pointed out that Emory's holding the meeting the day after Simchat Torah, the day marking the close of the season of repentance and the true beginning of a new year, was imbued with profound meaning, especially in a day and age when real teshuvah-doing individuals  no less institutions, are hard to find. My Alma-matter stands out as a place of "moral engagement" still today, as a place that models what real teshuvah means.  I could not be prouder to say I went to Emory University.