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Long before Hillel, Jews found a home at MIT

In the 1920s, many elite US schools began limiting the number of Jews they would accept. But at MIT, the Jewish community—and the Institute’s Menorah Society—continued to grow.

old black and white image of a group of seven men posed
The officers of MIT’s Menorah Society in 1922.MIT Museum

Paul Samuelson, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, was finishing his Harvard PhD thesis in 1940 when he was offered a job in the Harvard economics department. It was only an instructorship, but Samuelson, who was already gaining an international reputation, accepted.

A month into the semester, MIT offered Samuelson a tenure-track position. As Harvard made no effort to keep him, he left. Thirty years later he won the Nobel Prize in economics, the third awarded to an MIT faculty member. 

Why didn’t Harvard fight for Samuelson? Possibly because he was Jewish. In 1940, Harvard was more than a decade into its program of intentionally suppressing the number of Jewish students and faculty on its campus.

“You could be disqualified for a job if you were either smart or Jewish or Keynesian,” Institute Professor emeritus Robert M. Solow once said of Harvard’s economics department. “So what chance did this smart, Jewish Keynesian have?” (Solow, who is also Jewish, joined the MIT economics department in 1949 and was awarded his own Nobel in 1987.)

portrait of Paul Samuelson
Paul Samuelson accepted a tenure-track position at MIT in 1940.

MIT’s economics department and the Institute in general “were remarkably open to the hiring of Jewish faculty at a time when such hiring was just beginning to be possible at Ivy League universities,” wrote Duke University economics professor E. Roy Weintraub in a 2013 paper.

That spirit of openness can be traced to MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, who was deeply troubled by the religious intolerance he saw as a faculty member at the University of Virginia after a Jew and a Catholic joined the faculty in 1841, MIT historian Philip N. Alexander noted in his book A Widening Sphere. Still, the Institute didn’t have its first recorded Jewish student until Gerard Swope, Class of 1895, enrolled during the tenure of MIT’s third president, Francis Amasa Walker. Though Walker himself held negative views of Jews, Blacks, and non-Nordic Europeans in general, Alexander explained, he “was less concerned about individuals or local academic policy than about the grander scheme of things—population shifts, birth rates, immigration patterns—that he had observed and analyzed.”

Few Jewish students attended MIT in the first two decades of the 20th century, likely because Jews were more attracted to finance and medicine than science and engineering, according to “Professional Tendencies Among Jewish Students in Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools,” a 1920 study (which did not include MIT). The study found that while 31% (20,850) of non-Jewish students were pursuing engineering degrees in the 1918-’19 school year, only 16% (1,325) of Jews were. The study, conducted by the Bureau of Jewish Social Research, found that Tufts College had the highest percentage of Jews (18.9%) in the Boston area, followed by Harvard (10%) and Boston University (9.9%).

It was at these other schools, especially Harvard, that the Jewish community flourished and rose to national prominence—at least at first. 

On October 25, 1906, 16 Jews at Harvard gathered to create the Harvard Menorah Society—an organization “devoted to the study of Jewish history, literature, religion, philosophy, jurisprudence, art, manners, in a word, Jewish culture, and to the academic discussion of Jewish problems,” according to the 1914 book The Menorah Movement

MIT’s own Menorah Society started in 1914 with about 10 members, according to an article in The Tech. A meeting in October 1917, led by president Hyman P. Selya ’19, drew over 50 men. That fall, chapters at Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston University, Emerson College, Radcliffe, and Simmons formed the Intervarsity Menorah Council, creating the first Jewish intercollegiate movement. It sponsored lectures and concerts; the proceeds from two events held in 1920 went to Eastern Europe, where a wave of pogroms would ultimately kill more than 100,000 impoverished Jews. 

Jews had been moving from Europe to New York City and other East Coast centers in large numbers since the 1880s; by the mid-1920s they made up more than 25% of New York City’s population. Many of their children took top spots in their high school classes and applied to prestigious colleges, which author and historian Mark Oppenheimer attributes in his 2022 podcast series “Gatecrashers” to the strong work ethic often found in immigrant families. Rising Jewish enrollment soon engendered a reaction. 

Columbia was among the first to explicitly limit Jewish enrollment, going so far as to establish a separate campus in Brooklyn for Jews and Italians, called Seth Low Junior College. Columbia also instituted admissions interviews, geographic diversity goals, and requirements that students be “well rounded,” all in an effort keep Jews out of its Morningside Heights campus, explains Oppenheimer.

In 1922, anyone with a high school degree who passed an entrance exam could attend Harvard. But when Jewish enrollment reached 20% that year, President A. Lawrence Lowell tried to limit the figure to 15%, lest the traditional recruitment pool of upper-class Anglo-Saxon Protestants start to turn away. His private letters advocating a quota—which he claimed would decrease antisemitism and thus benefit Jews—were printed in the New York Times. But a faculty committee advised against it, and Harvard’s Board of Overseers voted down an explicit limit. The percentage of Jews at Harvard reached a high of 27% in 1925, when Lowell adopted the Columbia model of requiring interviews, recommendation letters, and assessments of “character.” This had the intended result: Jews made up just 10% of Harvard’s population when Lowell left office in 1933. Yale and other prominent universities on the East Coast adopted similar approaches.

The goal, as Oppenheimer makes clear in his podcast, was to ensure that the classes of the 1930s looked, sounded, and had last names like those of the 1900s and 1910s, in order to appeal to alumni who were in the process of choosing schools for their children and increasingly making big donations.

Schools such as Harvard also saw themselves as a key mechanism for “passing on the dominant culture of American elites to the students they trained,” wrote Weintraub. And that culture focused on a narrow canon of literature, philosophy, and the arts that was decidedly western and Christian. “At MIT, where the science and engineering faculty defined the institution … the issue of Jewish faculty and their lack of ‘culture’ could not arise,” he wrote. 

For Jewish students, too, MIT was more open than its competitors. Membership in the MIT Menorah Society jumped from 42 in 1928 to 72 in 1929. Rumor had it, The Tech reported, that the very active chapter planned to collect data to launch a dating bureau when the Institute hosted the Intercollegiate Menorah Dance in Walker Memorial in November of 1935.

But Jews weren’t welcomed on campus unconditionally. According to Alexander, President Karl Taylor Compton thought it reasonable to set hiring limits for faculty of “Jewish origin.” Although Alexander cited no evidence of such limits, he noted that Compton worked to get a faculty appointment for Albert Einstein’s assistant (and the “R” of the EPR Paradox) Nathan Rosen ’29, SM ’30, ScD ’32, “somewhere other than MIT.” In April 1935, a group calling itself the Tech Militarist and Anti-Semitic Society distributed leaflets with swastikas ahead of a conference on the growing civil liberties crisis in Germany and Italy; two of the conference’s student organizers were assaulted. And when future Nobel laureate Richard Feynman ’39 wanted to join a fraternity on his arrival at MIT later that year—having been rejected by Columbia, which had already admitted its Jewish quota—his options were limited to just a handful of the 20 on campus. “In those days, if you were Jewish or brought up in a Jewish family, you didn’t have a chance in any other fraternity,” he recalled in his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Feynman wound up in Phi Beta Delta.

In 1945, MIT’s Menorah Society affiliated with the fast-growing national Hillel Foundation, which now works to end antisemitism and enrich the lives of Jewish students worldwide. Today, Jewish students at the Institute find community through MIT Hillel and other student-run organizations.

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