A special anniversary and milestone birthday recently brought together alumni and supporters of Harvard University Hillel. At a Nov. 1 gala held at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, the 25th anniversary of Rosovsky Hall—the building in which Hillel is housed—was celebrated, along with the 90th birthday of its namesake, Henry Rosovsky. A renowned professor, dean and fellow at Harvard, perhaps no one has done more in Harvard’s history to advance Jewish life at the university than him.
Three Harvard presidents were on hand to commemorate Rosovsky and to launch a $25 million capital campaign for Harvard Hillel. Lawrence Summers, Harvard’s first Jewish president, participated in the evening’s festivities via video.
In her introductory remarks, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust called Rosovsky a “towering figure” in Harvard’s history. Faust noted “the essential role that the Jewish community plays in our university. And no one has been more essential to Harvard University than Henry.”
Henry Rosovsky was born in 1927 in Poland and immigrated to the United States when he was 13 years old. By the time he arrived at Harvard in 1949, he had earned his undergraduate degree at the College of William and Mary. He graduated with a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 1959 after a stint in the U.S. military. Following graduation, he left Harvard to teach at UC Berkeley, returning to Cambridge in 1965.
Hillel has seen momentous changes during Rosovsky’s decades-long tenure with the university. Among the more notable events has been the relocation of the Hillel building closer to the center of campus. During the evening, Rosovsky commented that he had initially been against the move. “I tried to talk [Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, who led Hillel for three decades beginning in 1958] out of moving Hillel,” he said. “But he was right, and I was so wrong. The move changed Harvard Hillel and its role within our community. That is also true of the building.”
Famed Israeli architect Moshe Safdie realized Hillel’s pluralistic vision in his design of Rosovsky Hall. “Moshe designed it,” said Rosovsky, “so that all the different minyanim [prayer groups that accommodate Reform, Conservative and Orthodox services] could see each other. This underlines the unity of our people.” Rosovsky further noted that Hillel’s reach extends to other groups on campus. Muslim students frequently eat in the dining hall because the food conforms to halal standards. And Hillel’s programs “are beneficial to the entire Harvard community,” he said.
Among the books that Rosovsky wrote or edited in his much-lauded career is “The University: An Owner’s Manual.” Gilpin Faust described the book as “a fount of sage advice.” Summers said that he frequently consulted the book during his tenure as president. “There is no better guide to what a great university is and the kind of issues that arise,” noted Summers. “And no one is as committed to decency, what is right and the maintenance of academic freedom as Henry.” In addition to his professorship, Rosovsky served as Harvard’s dean of faculty and was acting president numerous times in the 1980s.
Gilpin Faust went on to read a passage from Rosovsky’s book that conveyed his vision for Harvard’s campus. Remarking on the portraits of important Harvard figures in the faculty room, Rosovsky wrote: “All the faces are white and male, mostly WASP, and that is an accurate portrait of our past. I hope to live long enough to see other categories represented.” In response, Gilpin Faust asserted that the university has made progress, albeit “glacial progress. But I’m glad to say that we have several women and an African-American looking down on us when the faculty meets. It’s a visual and powerful reminder of the kind of changes that Henry contributed so much to making.”
Rosovsky’s commitment to change and diversity is further reflected in his role as one of the founders of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies in 1978. Rosovsky also championed the establishment of Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies. He had a key role in recruiting Henry Louis Gates Jr. to the university more than two decades ago.
Throughout the evening Rosovsky was praised for his wisdom, thoughtfulness and patience. Gilpin Faust perhaps said it best when she recalled that Rosovsky coined the phrase: “‘The students are here for four years. The faculty is here for a lifetime and Harvard is here forever.’ We need to recast this a bit: We are so lucky and fortunate that Henry has been here forever. We know that his impact on this institution is forever.”