Jewish Student Life at UVa

Jefferson had wished a clear separation between education and the practice of religion at the University. He had to compromise from the beginning, and after his death there were few voices to argue the case for non-sectarianism.

As early as 1826 Proctor Arthur Brockenbrough requested the use of Pavilion I for Sunday religious services. Jefferson responded in a strongly worded letter that this would go against the very tenets of the University. But Jefferson's views did not prevail. Each Sunday, a Chaplain, appointed from the "four principal religious denominations of the state" (Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist) would lead these services.

The Y.M.C.A. (established in 1858, the first at a university) played an increasingly prominent role in acclimating students to the University. Each year, the University catalog drew attention to the role of the Y, as a society which sought " guard new students from evil influences."24 The University provided space both in the Rotunda and at No. 13 West Lawn. It was the official clearing house for information on housing, work, and student life, serving as a de facto Student Union. Through the YMCA, the University could claim to be true to Jeffersonian principles of not promoting one religion above another, while quite obviously creating a strongly "Christian" environment which was on the face of it not welcoming to Jews.

Jewish Fraternities. Zeta Beta Tau

Zeta Beta Tau

Jewish Students

The earliest known Jewish student at UVa, Gratz Cohen of Savannah, attended the University from 1862 to 1864, after a stint in the Confederate army. He was elected president of the Jefferson Society, perhaps accepted because of his proven Southern patriotism. Seeing antisemitism around him, he wrote to his father:

"It is a mournful fact that in these troubled times when intolerance and prejudice cast their baneful seed throughout the land, which from one quarter of it to another ring with abuse of God's people, that we have done nothing for our religion and are blind to our own interest. Jewish wealth ... has been scattered in all directions and for everybody's benefit, but their own ... yet the newspapers of the country lift up their lying tongues against them and no defending voice has been heard."25
Jewish Fraternities. Phi Epsilon Pi, 1

Phi Epsilon Pi

Jewish students attended the University of Virginia in small numbers during the nineteenth century. A few notable alumni of this era include Leo Levi, who received his law degree at UVa, and won the Jefferson Society medal for debate in 1876. In 1899, A. Leo Oberdorfer, son of B. Oberdorfer, the Charlottesville merchant, was awarded the Orators Award from the Washington Society, and went on to receive a law degree from the University; while his twin Archie received his degree in medicine.

Jewish Fraternities. Phi Epsilon Pi, 2

Phi Epsilon Pi

Jewish Fraternities

The early twentieth century saw a relative increase in the number of Jewish students at the University of Virginia. Formally or informally excluded from joining the existing fraternities, in 1915 students organized their own chapters of two Jewish fraternities, Zeta Beta Tau and Phi Epsilon Pi. In 1922, Phi Alpha was established, and others, including Alpha Epsilon Pi, followed.

Members of ZBT

Members of ZBT, the first Jewish fraternity at UVa
(Courtesy Holsinger Studio Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library)

Fraternity men socialized with young Jewish women from Charlottesville at dances held at the fraternities and in private homes, and were sometimes recruited by the community to participate in services downtown.

Among the other resources available to Jewish students was Yuter's Restaurant. A long-time resident recalled:

"There was one other Jewish family at the University who ran a restaurant, called Yuter....They catered to the few Jewish students that were there. They had no cafeteria at the University in those years and they served real Jewish meals. We used to go up there on Saturdays...Mrs. Yuter would save us what she had for lunch...because she liked us, she'd give us dinner. We had brisket, Jewish style. We had potato pancakes, we had homemade vegetable soup."26
Hillel Jewish Center

Hillel Jewish Center


The Hillel Jewish Center building is an architectural landmark built between 1913 and 1916. A massive Spanish-style house with fine neoclassical details, it is set in a wide lawn. It has residence space on the second floor, and a chapel, dining room, offices, and a kosher kitchen on the ground floor.


Wedding of Joshua Robinson and Estelle Good at Hillel House, Dec. 22, 1946

Wedding of Joshua Robinson and Estelle Good at Hillel House, Dec. 22, 1946. Rabbi Leo Lichtenberg officiated, and is seated at the table on the far right.

In 1939 a "Jewish Student Union" was established at UVa, and hired as director Rabbi Albert M. Lewis, sharing his services with Charlottesville's Congregation Beth Israel. By 1941 the fledgling group had joined with the Hillel Foundation, a program of B'nai B'rith, a national Jewish fraternal organization. UVa's Hillel was among the first to be established nationwide. Founded to provide a place for social, cultural, and pluralistic religious expression, it was foremost a place for Jews to build community. Hillel offered religious services with Beth Israel, lectures and discussion groups, interfaith dialogue groups, classes, and vocational guidance. But Rabbi Lewis, who had arrived in Charlottesville on the very day that Germany invaded Poland and England declared war on Germany, soon left for military service.

In 1949 B'nai B'rith purchased the house it had previously been renting for Hillel on University Circle in an area of large homes and fraternities. It became a second center for Jewish life in Charlottesville, working sometimes in tandem with Beth Israel congregation, and sometimes providing a more traditional alternative to the Reform-minded congregation.

Quotas and Restrictions

The growing Jewish student enrollment at the University in the early twentieth century was an issue of concern to some administrators. One survey of the nation's colleges and universities identified Virginia, along with Columbia, Cornell, Yale, and Johns Hopkins, as a school which accepted Jews, but with restrictions as to numbers. At this time many American universities, swamped with applications from the well-educated children of Jewish immigrants, set religious or regional quotas in an attempt to limit numbers. With its Jeffersonian legacy, one might expect UVa to have been a shining exception. But a 1927 Report of the Dean of the College expressed concern over the growing number of Jewish students:

"In my opinion, the University will have to set some limit to the number of Jews to be admitted, giving preference of course to those who are citizens of Virginia."27

New York Jews, in particular, were to be discouraged.

Jewish Faculty

Eighty years after J.J. Sylvester left UVa, the first Jewish faculty were hired in the 1920s. Throughout most of the first half of the twentieth century, it appears that only two members of the faculty were Jewish. They were Linwood Lehman, Professor of Latin from 1920 to 1953, and Ben-Zion Linfield, who was appointed Professor of Mathematics in 1927. Linfield was a member of the synagogue and sent his children to school there. They remained on the faculty through the 1950s, when several more Jewish faculty joined them.