Dr. Evelyn Handler killed at 78
Amidst the cheery holiday hustle and bustle surrounding the holiday season, tragedy struck in Bedford, NH late last month, claiming the life of Dr. Evelyn Handler (nee Sass), former president of Brandeis University. The 78-year-old Handler, a cell biologist who served as Brandeis’s first (and so far only) female president, was killed in a pedestrian accident while crossing the street with her husband on December 23rd.
Handler’s 1983-1991 tenure as Brandeis’s president was marked by controversy over many of her views and policies, namely what some saw as an effort to “de-Judasize” Brandeis in order to attract more non-Jewish students. The university, founded in an era when Jews faced quotas at many private colleges, faced financial struggles when Handler came on board, despite being considered a top-tier liberal arts institution. As president, Handler made a concerted effort to diversify the student body – which was then 70 percent Jewish – by strengthening the sports program, removing Hebrew wording from the school seal, and, perhaps most controversially, introducing non-kosher foods such as pork and shellfish to the dining hall menus.
That last change started what many referred to as the “Trefah War” (trefah means ‘non-kosher’ in Hebrew). Handler’s defense was that she sought to internationalize the campus’s dining halls by making their menu options more appealing to non-Jewish and international students, including those of Asian descent, for whom pork and shellfish are dietary staples. Nonetheless, the decision alienated and infuriated observant Jewish students and alumni, leading at least one major donor to withdraw funding from the university. That donor, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman, declined to be involved with the university financially or otherwise while Handler was at its helm.
Despite broad criticism, Handler was determined to secularize aspects of the university in an effort to attract a broader demographic: “I don’t relent,” she told the Boston Globe in 1983. “I don’t give up. You don’t get done what an institution needs if you give up the fight too early.” Still, Handler resigned two years after the so-called Trefah War, saying the university was not prepared to commit to the sort of changes she had been brought on board to make. Upon her departure, the Hebrew word emet (truth) was returned to the school seal and the dining halls were once again free of shellfish and pork.
Handler’s positive effect on Brandeis, however, is still of note. She presided over a fundraising campaign that netted more than $200 million for the school. The New York Times reports, “She was widely credited with laying the groundwork for a business school, a center for human and artificial intelligence research and the first sports and recreation center on campus, and for the diversification of both students and donors.”