No one knows exactly how many Jewish students will be admitted to Yale this year — because the days of mandatory quotas on Jewish students admitted to Yale are over.
But for the majority of Yale’s history, the number of Jews enrolled was a very important figure. Administrators, faculty and alumni wanted to preserve the preparatory-school, Christian student tradition at Yale. Through unofficial quotas, Yale administrators kept the Jewish student population to a minimum.
It was not until the 1960s, under the leadership of Dean of Admissions R. Inslee Clark, that the quota was lifted, and the student body was drawn from wider sources such as public schools and urban areas.
And after centuries of being marginalized and excluded from social organizations, the Jewish presence on campus was finally accepted.
The first Jewish student to attend Yale came to the University more than 100 years after the school’s establishment in 1701.
Moses Simon holds the distinction of being the first Jewish Yale student, followed 17 years later by Judah Benjamin, who never graduated because his father could not afford the tuition.
Benjamin’s departure from Yale is symbolic of the problems of the student body. Admission was largely given to preparatory school students from wealthy families. But Jews were rarely among that group.
By the 1890s, strong feelings of anti-Semitism pervaded the campus and were reflected in the denial of Jews to any of the fraternities and secret societies.
In Dan Oren’s book, “Joining the Club — A History of Jews and Yale,” Oren writes that the members of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity put on an anti-Semitic play as part of their initiation process for the pledges.
Ironically, although Yale administrators sought to protect the student body from Jewish infiltration, the city of New Haven had a strong working-class Jewish community had that settled in the city in the 19th century.
Limitation of numbers
Admissions was a sticky subject for Yale at the turn of the 20th century. Latin proficiency was a requirement for admission, although this would not jibe well with the nation’s public school curriculum.
Complaints from public school parents resulted in fairer admissions to the University during the early 1920s, and Jews seized upon this openness to attend Yale, applying in droves. But fear mounted quickly among conservative Yale alumni that Yale might turn into Columbia University, where about half of the students were Jewish at this time.
The Jewish students, though few in number, thrived academically. In the 1920s their grades were higher on average than non-Jews, and they received more academic awards. This bothered Yale administrators tremendously, according to Oren’s book.
By 1923, the University had decided to limit the number of Jews entering Yale, but not overtly. By declaring a post-World War I housing shortage, administrators could tighten the reigns on admissions without having to publicly deny Jews acceptance.
“It was clearly a veiled attempt to limit the number of Jews at Yale,” Oren said. “I was particularly struck by a University committed to light and truth having a secret policy.”
Those Jews that were accepted in to Yale still faced discrimination from social clubs and were forced to live together.
Judaism goes underground
The Hillel foundation, an organization centered on Jewish life, came to Yale in 1941.
But until the 1990s, the Hillel was housed underground in the basements of various buildings on Old Campus.
“If you came to the Yale campus and asked if there were Jews here, you’d have no above ground sign that there were,” said James Ponet ’68, now a rabbi at the Slifka Center.
But it wasn’t only the physical structures that were underground. Many Jews tried to hide their identities to gain acceptance to extracurricular organizations.
Daniel Rose ’51 said he remembers trying to solicit money for the United Jewish Appeal from the Jewish students at Yale — he had gotten a list of all the Jewish students from the admissions office — and being turned down because the students were denying being Jewish.
“I am not of that persuasion. My parents are, but I am not,” Rose said was a typical response from the students he called.
But it wasn’t the chilly response he received that disturbed Rose the most. Rather it was the list of Jewish students that the admissions office compiled.
“My recollection is that there were 1,100 students in my class, and there were exactly 110 names on that list,” Rose said. He said this list convinced him how precise the quota system was.
The Jewish presence was also missing from the academic curriculum.
“The role of the Jew in western civilization was not a factor to be studied,” Ponet said. “I remember studying the Crusades, and there was zero mention of Jews.”
The days of R. Inslee Clark
After World War II, there was a rising sentiment at Yale that there should be a shift in admissions criteria to emphasize intellectual capacity rather than social status. Oren said the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the launch of Sputnik spurred this change.
“Americans were shocked that our educational system was not up to snuff,” Oren said.
University administrators convoked the Doob committee, a faculty group that was to review Yale’s housing policy. But psychology professor Leonard Doob, who served as chairman of the committee, took his mandate one step further — to explore the fairness of the admissions policy.
But Yale’s doors did not truly open until the leadership of R. Inslee Clark ’57, the public high school graduate who became dean of admissions under President Kingman Brewster. Clark increased the admissions staff, recruited public school students and urged Yale’s peer institutions to end preferential treatment for prep school males. Clark decided that the University had favored too many other factors rather than scholarship to admit students.
The influx of Jewish students that followed these new policies was not received well by everyone. Many alumni exaggerated the numbers, claiming that Jews were in the majority.
In 1985, President A. Bartlett Giammati did away with the formal records that the admissions office used to keep track of Jews.
From underground to Wall Street
Kenneth Davis ’69 knows how different it was to be Jewish in the 1960s than today. He need only look at the experiences of his children, Daniel Davis ’99 and Jordanna Davis ’03.
“When my children are there, being Jewish is hardly a unique status,” Davis said. “It was unusual when I came to Yale to have a Jewish roommate. It’s so different [now] it brings tears to my eyes.”
Today, Jews at Yale are not just more visible in number. The Slifka Center for Jewish Life, built in 1995, is the first building of its kind at Yale, a structure providing kosher food for students as well as a place to have many cultural events.
“I thought, and still do, that religious beliefs and practices should not be put on the shelf when students enroll as freshmen,” said Alan Slifka ’51, the Slifka’s Center major benefactor. “I believe that spirit and matter belong on a university campus.”