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Marquette: Keeping its arms open to Jewish students

By David Iancu

December 28th, 2009

David Iancu

David Iancu

When I tell my Jewish friends, family, and acquaintances that I attend Marquette University for my legal studies, the typical response is“that’s wonderful!”

Beneath that enthusiasm, however, there is often a hint of skeptical curiosity: “What’s a nice Jewish boy doing at a Catholic school?” For anyone who has ever wondered, but been too polite to ask, I’ll tell you why I’m both happy and proud to be at this Catholic-Jesuit staple of Milwaukee.

The proof is in the pudding. To illustrate how some Marquette-Jews feel about their experiences, I think it best to start with the bottom line: In recent years, some of Marquette’s biggest donors have been Jewish graduates.

For example, last year, Marquette announced a $30 million donation by Jewish graduate Joseph J. Zilber to support both scholarships and part of the construction of the new Law School building. Though this is a particularly large donation, it is just one of many that Marquette has received from its Jewish alumni.

Having yet to put my Marquette legal education to practical use and earn enough to donate so much as $5 to anyone, I can only speak from the standpoint of a student. For me, Marquette has been a bastion of learning, understanding and stimulation.

I realize that my experience in the law school may differfrom that of the typical undergraduate experience, but I suspect it’s not by much. Zilber, who attended Marquette as an undergraduate and a law student, obviously found the school to be a welcoming place for Jews, even back in 1941, when he graduated.

While I can’t comment on how well Marquette accomplishes its stated vision of “providing a Catholic, Jesuit education,” I do know that it excels at making students of other faiths feel welcome. I have encountered only kindness, understanding, and respect for my faith in my interactions with fellow students, professors and administrators alike.

If anything, the Jesuit-inspired morals of Marquette are more complementary to my own Jewishideals than thoseofcertain public schools I have attended.

A typical illustration of Marquette’s accepting attitude was demonstrated when my criminal law professor, who also happens to be an ordained Jesuit priest and sometimes leads the mass at the Gesu Church on campus, sent me an unprompted e-mail wishing me a “Happy Hanukkah.”

“We [Marquette] want to be a diverse place, a place where people of different faiths are not just welcome, but also present,” said Joseph Kearney, Dean of Marquette’s Law School, in answering a question about Marquette’s attitude toward the admission of Jews and people of other faiths. Dean Kearney also elaborated on Marquette Law School’s long history with Jews.

“For a long time, the law school was a place where Jewish immigrants would send their children to study,” said Dean Kearney. I happen to be one of them.

Marquette president Father Robert Wild, S.J., gave me a little more insight into the undergraduate side of things. He helped confirm my previous intuition that Marquette’s undergraduate schools also prioritize makingJews and other non-Catholicstudents feel welcome.

“I firmly believe that every student that comes to Marquette should feel that Marquette is their university, that they belong, and that it’s not just a place they have to tolerate,” said Father Wild.

He pointed out that the Jewish presence in several of the graduate programs, such as law and dentistry, is much stronger than at the undergraduate level. Nevertheless, he assured me that if Jewish students looking for an undergraduate education at Marquette think they would be alienated, they are mistaken.

“We are not in the business of force-feeding people and we try to encourage people to develop in their own faiths.”

Perhaps one of the most famous and interesting Jews to grace the halls of Marquette Law School is 1965 graduate, Rabbi Aaron Twerski, M.D., a renowned professor at Brooklyn Law School.

According to Dean Kearney, Twerski once told him that Marquette was remarkably accommodating when it came to Jewish holidays. In a winter 2006 cover story in the Marquette Lawyermagazine, Twerski recalled that Marquette Law School looked out for him not only during his education but also throughout his subsequent career.

“I found Marquette to be extremely hospitable […] it had an orthodox religious faith, and they understood, not only my appearance [Orthodox dress] but that if there was a religious demand made on me, it came first.”

An example of Marquette’s embrace of Jews was the appointment of Howard B. Eisenberg to serve as dean of the law school in 1995. After his sudden death in 2002, Marquette published a special book in his honor, in which more than 50 individuals, from Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices to Marquette professors, praised and remembered Eisenberg.

Included in the book is an essay titled, “What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Like Me Doing in a Place Like This?” written by Eisenberg before his death, in which he described his fondness for the university.

Eisenberg’s Jewish identity was well known at the school, and he did not have to hide it one bit, as was evidenced by the mezuzah on the doorpost of his law school office.

The law school dedicated a beautifully ordained study hall in his memory (donated by Attorney Robert Habush, whose late father Jesse was another Jewish Marquette Law School graduate).

 Other notable Jewish-Marquette Law graduates include Jerry Stein, Bert Bilsky, Rosalie Schlitz Gellman, Frank Gimbel and many others. I think Dean Kearney had a point when speaking to the Economic Forum of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation in 2007 when he said, “It is not too much to say that we [Marquette] are part of the Jewish community.”

Of course, with its small Jewish student population Marquette cannot be as sensitive as, say, Milwaukee Jewish Day School, to the needs of its Jewish students.

Just this year my fiancé, Marissa Maling, a Marquette graduate student in speech pathology had an exam fall on Yom Kippur. “When I told my professor that I was Jewish, he was eager to make any accommodations necessary.”

Marquette should be highly esteemed within our own Jewish community. Even in Zilber’s time, when being a Jew in Milwaukee, or anywhere else in the world, was extremely difficult, Marquette kept its arms open, and continues to do so today.

Marquette has endowed scores of Jewish graduates with the skills necessary to become active and respected members in our own community. Many of the Jewish communities’ leading lawyers are Marquette graduates.

Any Jewish student looking to receive an excellent education, be it at the undergraduate or graduate level, should look seriously at Marquette. Its Jesuit ideals of philanthropy, leadership and academic rigor hold truer to the Jewish ethic than do many public or unaffiliated universities.

David Iancu is a third-year law student at Marquette University Law School.