Jewish Life at Duke Freeman Center 20th Anniversary Spotlight: Judith Ruderman, PhD '76

photo of Judith Ruderman, PhD '76, former Duke University vice provost for Academic and Administrative Services and Adjunct Professor of English
Judith Ruderman, PhD '76, former Vice Provost for Academic and Administrative Services and Adjunct Professor of English at Duke University

As we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, one of the ways we honor its history and importance to our Jewish community is by collecting and sharing the statements, stories, and memories of those impacted by Jewish Life at Duke's Freeman Center.

Were you on campus before, during or after the construction and opening of the Freeman Center? Are you currently or more recently affiliated with Jewish Life at Duke and have a story about how Jewish Life at Duke or the Freeman Center has made a difference in your life? Please share your story here. To include a photo, email Lena Wegner.


On May 16, 1998 Judith Ruderman, PhD ’76, then Vice Provost for Academic and Administrative Services and Adjunct Professor of English at Duke University shared the following remarks given at the 1998 Jewish Baccalaureate ceremony:


If you pass by the future home of the Duke Center for Jewish Life, on the corner of Campus Drive and Swift Avenue, you will understand why I would like to devote my few minutes to that topic. As I look around the room at all of you, I have a feeling of bitter sweetness. The bitter part comes from the realization that, precisely when there is great activity on the site of the Center for Jewish Life, you are getting ready to leave the campus. This project is now 11.5 years old, and in that time about three generations of Duke students have graduated. For each one of those generations I thought – or at least I hoped – that this was the crop of students who would have use of the Center during their time at Duke. Yet the first two students I worked with on that project are now practicing physicians, and here you are, about to receive your diplomas and march off into the sunset, and we did not get you a Center for Jewish Life to house Hillel and other programs. So much for the bitterness.

On the other hand, as I look around this auditorium, I feel the sweetness that comes from knowing that you are, in fact, the reason that we've all stuck with this project for all these years. As long a time as 11.5 years is, it's nothing in the span of time of the Jews. We've been around a long time, and we know how to wait and how to endure. I always like to quote novelist Walker Percy, who marveled that you can walk down the street in any modern city and never find a Hittite, but you can always find a Jew. It's for the Jews to come, and the Jews to come after those Jews to come, that we seek to build a Center for Jewish Life at Duke University.

I thought about such things last month when I sat in the Duke Chapel at the funeral of Terry Sanford. You all know who Sanford was: governor of the state of North Carolina (in fact, voted one of the 10 best governors in the 20th century), United States Senator, and president of Duke University from 1970 to 1985. I heard something about Mr. Sanford at that funeral that I’d never known, part of the eulogy by Joel Fleishman, who is a former vice president of Duke and now heads a philanthropic organization in New York City though he still teaches in the Duke Public Policy program that he helped to found. What I heard from Joel Fleishman is that it was Terry Sanford who lifted the quota on Jewish students at Duke, early in his presidency. The times they were a-changin’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s- for women, for Blacks, for Jews- and Terry Sanford was always in tune with the times. In a way I suppose I am myself evidence of those times and of his decision to lift the quota, because I received my doctorate in English from Duke in 1976- he handed it to me, by the way, and I’ve never forgotten how it felt to shake his hand and look into his smiling face. But you are also living, tangible evidence of Terry Sanford’s decision, because you help to constitute the ever-growing presence of Jews on this campus, especially in the undergraduate student body- a presence that he helped make possible. The last time I’d sat in the Duke Chapel for a funeral was for the funeral of Kenneth Pye, who was at the time of his death the president of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but who had before that been Chancellor at Duke University and Dean of the Law School, among other titles. The reason I mention Ken Pye is that I was invited to Dallas right after he assumed that presidency, to speak before a meeting of the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. The woman who invited me- the mother of a recent Duke graduate- told me that she was quite pleased with the new president of SMU because he’d told her group that he wanted to make SMU a better school, and so he was going to deliberately accept more Jewish students. Twenty years early, Terry Sanford may have had the same notion when he eliminated the quota on Jews- along with the motive of righting a wrong. Pye may have learned that lesson from Sanford, under whom he had worked. Sanford succeeded in making Duke a better school, and you here today are living proof of that. You are the fruit of the seed that Sanford sowed, just as the generations of Jewish students to follow will have been influenced by your presence on this campus for your four years.

As I sat in the Chapel marveling over Joel Fleishman’s disclosure about Terry Sanford, I never once thought, “What’s a nice Jewish girl like me doing in such a Christian place as this!” The Chapel as a symbol represents the historicity of Duke—its embeddedness in a certain tradition of Methodism-—but it no longer adequately encapsulates Duke. I do not mind at all that the Chapel is the most obvious and recognizable symbol of Duke; indeed, I have a stylized rendition of the Chapel on my own business card. I don’t believe that we will ever see another religious edifice that is as center stage as the Chapel. But the mere fact that we are going to see a Center for Jewish Life in so lovely a building on such a prominent and visible site on this campus is testimony to the distance we have come in a few short years- yes, short, when measured against the larger backdrop of Duke’s local history, not to mention the four thousand years of Jewish existence!

The Chapel architecture itself can be seen as symbolic of the larger Duke experience and even the Jewish experience at Duke (English teachers like to find symbols, after all). As I sat in the Chapel at the Sanford funeral I thought of the soaring spire, that vaulting tower leaping toward the sky as if to touch it: Sanford himself spoke of the “outrageous ambitions” of Duke, and that tower symbolizes for me his own outrageous ambitions to lift Duke from its mere regional matrix and to make it a university of nation- indeed, international- prominence. To do that, he needed us- and others “like” us, other kinds of people—to raise Duke out of insularity. One result of his “outrageous ambitions” is your presence here, as I’ve said, and as a result of your presence here we’re about to have a Center for Jewish Life.

As I sat in the Chapel, I admired the magnificent arches that visually connect one side of the Chapel to the other. The eye flows over those arches from one side to the other: those arches seem to hold the building together, figuratively if not literally. To me, they represent the connections that we seek to build between people here, including connections between Jews and non-Jews and also connections between Jews of every stripe. And then there are those beautiful stained-glass windows: mosaics of brightly colored glass. Separately the pieces don’t mean anything. Together they form a vibrant picture. To me, these stained-glass windows reflect the rich diversity of student life here, a diversity in which Jews play a vital part, in all their diversity. These are the thoughts that such a centrally Christian place as the Chapel stimulate in my mind, and that I have chosen to convey today to such a centrally Jewish audience in my effort to link the Jewish undergraduate experience with the history and evolution of the institution. In the words of the cigarette ad, we’ve come a long way, baby!

Duke is a fairly young institution (created as a university only in 1924), and as one Duke trustee said on Friday, apropos of something else entirely, the benefit of being a young institution is that we don’t have “hardening of the categories.” Hardening of the categories leads to a certain kind of death, we all know that. My greatest hope for the Center for Jewish Life is that it will not become a home for only one sort of Jew or, God forbid, an empty symbol of Jewish presence here- but rather that it will help to loosen the boundaries between categories, including boundaries between Jews all along the spectrum of observance. I also hope that Duke as a whole will continue to work toward becoming a place where all students can flower intellectually, socially, emotionally, spiritually. As you prepare to leave this place that you have called home for the past four years, I hope you do so with your own feeling of bitter sweetness. I hope you were happy enough here to regret going- indeed, that you already feel somewhat nostalgic toward it. Yet I also hope these four years have been a maturing enough experience that you are ready to go. And of course, I hope that Duke has been in some ways a furtherance and realization of your own “outrageous ambitions,” and that you will set forth on the continuance of your journey armed with useful, admirable habits of thought and character that you have acquired or honed at this institution. God speed! We’ll miss you!