Scholar and Mentsh
Kim Lifton Special to the Jewish News
Son of Detroit Jewish immigrants will bring a vibrant voice to Harvard as its next president.
The official residence of Harvard University’s president has had a rich history of owners and tenants since its construction in 1767, including the father of gerrymandering, an owner of plantations in Antigua, an American Revolutionary War loyalist, a Harvard professor and a romantic poet.
But it’s never had a kosher kitchen. Until now.
Pontiac native Lawrence “Larry” Bacow, who takes over the helm of Harvard’s presidency July 1 after Drew Gilpin Faust retires, will hang a mezuzah on the front door of the residence and kasher the kitchen. It’s what he does; Bacow’s Jewish heritage is important to him.
He kashered the kitchen at Tufts when he served as that university’s first Jewish president from 2001 till 2011. (Before taking the Tufts job, Bacow was the chancellor at MIT.)
“I am a vegetarian and I keep kosher,” explained Bacow, 66, an economist, attorney, professor, environmental policy expert and one of the most experienced and respected leaders in American higher education. He will be Harvard’s 29th (and third Jewish) president. “My wife (Adele) and I started keeping kosher when we bought our first house. I say the Motzi and Kiddish and light Shabbat candles on Friday night.”
He follows Jewish presidents Neil Rudenstine (1991-2001) and Lawrence Summers (2001-2006).
Bacow’s late father, Mitchell, an attorney, came to the U.S. as a refugee from the pogroms of Eastern Europe when he was a child; he worked during the day and attended Wayne State University at night. His late mother, Ruth, was a survivor of Auschwitz who arrived in the United States after World War II at age 19. The Bacows lived in Pontiac, and later Orchard Lake. They attended Congregation B’nai Israel in Pontiac; during high school, Larry Bacow was the regional treasurer of Central Region United Synagogue Youth.
“I would not be standing here today, literally, if this country had turned its back on my parents,” Bacow said during a news conference following the announcement he would lead Harvard. “My parents came to this country with literally nothing. I wouldn’t be here if my father hadn’t had the opportunity to get a college education.”
Bacow On Higher Education
Are colleges out of touch and
out of reach?
“The gap in lifetime earnings between college grads and non-grads is bigger than ever. While real cost has increased, the return has never been higher. We need to do a better job of explaining this to students and their families and explain the degree to which financial aid is available. At Harvard, if total family income is $65,000 or less, [a student] pays nothing to attend. About 20 percent of the students at Harvard come from families that meet that test.”
Your thoughts on rising tuition and decreasing government funding?
“When I was at Tufts, I testified at the Massachusetts State House for increased funding to the University of Massachusetts. Costs have gone up in Michigan because the state has withdrawn support for universities, shifting the costs to students and families. That’s shortsighted. I hope to be an advocate for that. I am worried about state support and federal support.”
Advice to students who want
to get into Harvard?
“Study hard. Have the courage to find your passion and then pursue it. There are many great universities. I never applied to Harvard (undergrad). All great universities are looking to attract students who are willing to push themselves and try and be true to themselves in what they do.”
Advice to a parent who asks if you can get a child into Harvard?
“Admissions is above my pay grade,” he jokes.
“Where a kid goes to college is not a grade on their parenting skills. It’s not a feather in their cap. It’s about their child, not about them. Kids feel too much pressure from their parents.
“I would say, as parents, relax a little bit. They should help their son or daughter achieve what they want to achieve and find a place that is good for them You can get a good education almost anywhere as long as you make the big decisions right.”
Advice on picking the right college?
Bacow poses four basic questions
1) Do they want big or small?
2) Urban or rural?
3) To get on an airplane to get there?
4) Do they want to wear flip-flops in
“Beyond that, you can be happy almost any place. Kids can find their niche within any school because there are great teachers everywhere.”
Bacow’s road to the top Harvard job was not intentional. After leaving Tufts in 2011, he began planning for his retirement. When his name emerged as a perfect candidate, he was teaching and fundraising for Harvard, and was also on the search committee to replace President Faust.
The Harvard job was tough to turn down. He had already enjoyed a storied career in higher education with experience on the teaching and administrative sides, plus a history of successful fundraising. Perhaps making him even better for the job was the fact that he is known as a bridge builder who is not only gifted intellectually, but also committed to diversity in education — and genuine, understated and approachable.
“I try to be an effective advocate for higher education,” Bacow said. “That requires us to engage with all sorts of different people in both political parties.”
Those who know him say Bacow is well prepared for the financial and other responsibilities that come with running one of the world’s richest universities.
“I was not surprised he was offered the job,” said his cousin, Joel Bacow of Huntington Woods. “But I was surprised he took it. He is genuine and approachable with a larger-than-life personality that is completely disarming. It’s so inspiring to our family how humble he is. Larry is always aware of where he came from.”
Jewish Teachings And Values
No matter what he is doing, Bacow imparts the musings of Talmudic scholars into his philosophy. He has “picked up Talmud from his friends who are rabbis,” notably Wes Gardenswartz of his current shul, Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass., and Jeff Summit, the Hillel rabbi at Tufts.
He has taught at some of the world’s greatest institutions (Harvard, MIT and Tufts) and says he learns just as much from his students as they learn from him.
“I am who I am,” Bacow said. “There is a lot of richness in our Jewish teachings that goes to important issues of values. I have spent a lot of time in my life talking to students. I learn from all people. I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and most from my students. We can learn from anyone; it’s important to understand that.”
Bacow recalls learning one of his greatest life lessons from a student at Tufts. Anna was homeless when she arrived on campus. He was her academic adviser. After her first week on campus, Anna showed up to his office in tears.
She had not enrolled in student health insurance because she was trying to save money. She received a standard email from the registrar, saying if she did not enroll or demonstrate that she had health insurance, her registration would be withdrawn.
“She was in hysteria,” he recalled. “If her registration were canceled, she would have no place to live.” He helped Anna work it out, but the situation was eye-opening. Today, she is working on her doctorate degree in sociology.
“I learned from her the struggles that students who don’t have families that preceded them to college, who are on their own, the issues they deal with in trying to accommodate to Tufts, that we needed to do more than admit them. We had to ensure that once they arrived on our campus, they would thrive.”
The Jewish values Bacow’s parents taught him have stayed with him and follow him wherever he goes. He references the Talmud when he delivers speeches, and he often talks about the concept of tikkun olam or repairing the world.
“I don’t know anyone who thinks the world we live in is perfect,” he said. “If you don’t think it is perfect, it is your responsibility to repair it. It’s important for each member of our community to engage. It’s our responsibility to make the world a better place.”
Under The Chuppah
Bacow has been married for a long time. In fact, he and Adele recently celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary. “They are an amazing team; Harvard is lucky to be getting them both,” Joel Bacow said. The couple has two grown sons, Ken and Jay.
On the side, he’s officiated at four weddings. In Massachusetts, the governor can authorize a person to be a justice of the peace for one day. That made it easy for Bacow to say yes to a request from his best friend, Alan Spoon, also from Detroit, to officiate at the first of his three children’s weddings. He served as justice of the peace for the other two children as well.
“Who knew my kids better?” said Spoon, his friend of 48-plus years. “He conducted the ceremony in Hebrew with explanations. We had a cantor there, too.
“Larry talked about the kids because he knew each of them. Then he told the bride and groom to turn around and look at the faces of love that were looking at them.”
Added Bacow: “I probably shared some advice Adele and I got from our mothers. 1) Treat your spouse as well as you would treat a stranger. 2) It’s not a 50-50 proposition. Sometimes it is 90-10.”
Spoon, a partner at Polaris Partners (a venture capital firm) in Boston, a member of the MIT corporation and former president of Newsweek and president, COO and a director of the Washington Post Company, described Bacow as “family.” Ironically, the two never crossed paths while living in Detroit. But they knew about one another and finally met during MIT’s freshman orientation in 1969. They each joined the school’s sailing team and roomed together at Harvard Law School.
Spoon said his friend is a perfect fit for the top Harvard job.
“He is unflappable and as gracious as can be, and grateful for the life he has had,” Spoon said. “He is sensible. He understands everything from science and tech to current politics and how to run a university.”
Proud Of Detroit Roots
Bacow has strong ties to Detroit. His father’s sister Evelyn and brother Marty still live in Detroit. He keeps in touch often and visits Detroit a few times a year. He came to Detroit last spring for Joel and Deneen Bacow’s youngest son’s bar mitzvah held at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park. He doesn’t like to miss family gatherings.
And, while he could not get to Detroit for Pesach, he called his aunt and uncle the morning of the first seder to check in and offer holiday greetings.
“He is a great nephew,” his Aunt Evelyn Grant boasted. “We are so proud of him. He is very family-oriented and keeps in touch, always.”
Added Uncle Lou Grant, “He gives us bragging rights.”
Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Lou, along with their daughter and son-in-law, Steve and Linda Munson of Orchard Lake, are among the Detroit relatives making the trek to Cambridge for the July ceremony.
There, an academic procession will feature representatives of universities from around the world. Thousands of members of the Harvard faculty, staff, students, alumni and the community are expected to attend. His bonus family, the Spoons, are saving the date and planning to attend the festivities as well.
Kim Lifton, a former Jewish News reporter, is president of WowWritingWorkshop.com.