Skulls, Bones and Jews at Yale

By | Apr 04, 2011
Culture, History

by Amanda Walgrove

On March 28, TIME published an article “outing” Yale’s Eliezer Society, entitled, Yale’s Secret Society That’s Hiding in Plain Sight. Truly a baby in terms of Yale’s history, Eliezer’s 1996 conception was the brainchild of three Jews and a Baptist—Rabbi Shmully Hecht, Ben Karp, Michael Alexander, and Corey Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey—who formed an underground community that encouraged Jewish leadership and intelligent religious discussion. Far from actually being “secret,” the society is known for its invitation only membership and self-selecting channels of private networking. Approximately ten students are nominated and tapped annually by members and founders.

Yale University, founded in 1701, has produced its fair share of infamous secret societies, most notably, Skull and Bones, whose creation dates back to 1832. Dominated by Christian males for decades, Skull and Bones alumni include President Taft and George Bush Sr. and Jr. Contrastingly, Eliezer was founded by four men who, sixty years ago, “would have been shunned by Bones.” As opposed to the membership restrictions of centuries-old societies, Eliezer prides itself on its diversity. Not only does it include women (something it took Bones many years to do), but the club has never discriminated against race, ethnic background, or orientation.

Originally named “Chai,” meaning “life,” the society officially changed its name in 2006 to “Eliezer,” meaning “May God help.” Aside from the religious connotation, the name is wittily reflective of Elihu Yale, the namesake of the university. In a New York Times article from 2000, the Jewish intellectual cabal is referred to as the Chai Society, an intellectual salon for “blacks and Jews at Yale.” Dan A. Oren also refers the society in his book, Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale. Additionally, an article in The Jewish Week from 2006 quotes the society President Joshua Ezra Burns as saying that the motto of the group was “uniquely Jewish, uniquely Yale.” Gradually garnering publicity and recognition, world leaders have been known to “clear their schedules to attend Shabbat dinner” with the members of Eliezer. Speakers have included former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Muslim activists Tarek Fatah and Mona Eltahawy, talk-show host Jerry Springer, and Moment columnist Eric Alterman.

Yale’s history is strongly tied to religion. The university was founded as a religious training school that required students to attend daily chapel services until 1926. Yale’s famous blue and white crest proudly totes the Latin motto “Lux et Veritas,” meaning “truth and light.” However, unmistakably included on the crest of the stereotypically “WASP-y” university, is the unique addition of Hebrew lettering. “Urim v’Tumim” is a Biblical phrase that has been translated to have several meanings, but in this case reads, “Truth and light.” Still a thriving aspect of campus life today, a 2010 Yale Daily News article discussed the growth of religious tolerance and expression at the Ivy League university, citing the existence of eighteen registered undergraduate religious organizations. Flexing its political muscles in 2006, the New Haven school founded the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, the first university-based center in North America dedicated to the study of Anti-Semitism.

While groups such as Eliezer offer an opportunity for Jewish students to gather and share experiences and information, anti-Semitism is still a problem on many campuses. It was recently announced that the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is investigating claims of anti-Semitism at the University of California Santa Cruz in response to lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint that the university was failing to repined to “hostility and demonizing criticism” aimed at Jewish students. Similar problems have arisen at the University of California Berkeley and most recently, Canada’s York University. These acts of hostility infringe upon personal safety as well as the idea that college is a place where students should be able to expand their academic backgrounds freely and explore any spiritual or religious aspirations without inhibitions, violence or peer pressure.

In promoting religious tolerance on campuses, does the label of a “secret society” insinuate an exclusively elitist view of Jewish intellectuals in a way that makes the group removed and inaccessible? New York Times critic Edward Rothstein, a member of the society, said, “There was no question that Eliezer was a Jewish association, but also no question that along with its elements of religious observance and allusion, the aura was nonsectarian intellectual.” While the “secret” society, intimate by nature, was not created to advertise a public religious message or battle anti-Semitic issues, the influence of the society is expected to exceed its collegiate bounds. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is working on a foreword to a book about the society and suggests that Eliezer’s influence is wider than just a college campus, but rather it is a “global network of activists who care deeply about the Jewish people and about the world.” There have even been talks about expanding the Eliezer community to Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and eventually rest of the country. While Eliezer is currently a private and selective society within a private and selective school, its impressive efforts to stimulate intellectual conversation among the Jewish leaders of tomorrow may encourage the religious youth of America to reach out, gather, and discuss.

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