Ellen Freeman Roth                      

April 10, 2003

At Home With Jehuda and Shulamit Reinharz

The Dalai Lama was a dinner guest here. So were former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and former US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. This early-1900s Arts & Crafts house in suburban Newton may not immediately reveal to passers-by its architectural significance or its heritage as host to an array of statesmen, artists, and scholars, but the front entrance, at the end of a graciously curved granite and brick walkway, hints of the worldly legacy inside. A plaque lists it on the National Register of Historic Places, and a ceramic tile bears the name, in both English and Hebrew, of Reinharz.

This is the home of the president of Brandeis University, Jehuda Reinharz, a scholar of modern European Jewry, and his wife, Shulamit Reinharz, director of the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis and a professor of sociology. The Reinharzes discovered - or rediscovered - this house at the intersection of history and serendipity. In 1948, Brandeis University bought the house for its founding president, Abram Sachar, and his wife, Thelma. When Sachar stepped down as president and became chancellor, the trustees let the Sachars stay in the house and bought another home for the incoming president. When the Sachars moved in 1990, the university sold the house.

"When I became president," says Reinharz, "what was at that time the president's house wasn't appropriate for us. For instance, we didn't have adequate seating in the dining room. A friend in real estate suggested that we locate another house by walking neighborhoods, something Shulamit and I often do at the end of our workday. One day, we walked past this house and Shula pointed: `What about that one? That looks like a nice house.' "

It was, coincidentally, the original Brandeis University president's house. It wasn't, however, for sale.

"The owner, Roger Berkowitz, owner of the restaurant chain Legal Seafoods, was surprised to receive our call," recalls Reinharz. "He hadn't planned to sell, but shortly thereafter agreed, in deference to the house's heritage. We brought Brandeis back to its roots, which made the trustees very happy."

Before moving in, the Reinharzes renovated "economically, and with a commitment to keeping as much of the original house as possible," Shula says. They also uncovered several significant items hidden away at Brandeis and put them on display.

Old photographs, for example, now hang in the foyer. One captures Sachar sitting with students in front of the fireplace. Another of Albert Einstein flanked by 10 other men recalls the days after World War II when a group of Jewish men from New York and Boston set out to create a university as a gift to America. Unfamiliar with how a university operated, the group met at Princeton University with Einstein, who gave them the information and confidence they needed to conceive a world-class institution.

Over the years, some visitors have considered the house their home. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt lived here for periods during the 12 years she was on the faculty at Brandeis. Artist Marc Chagall lived here for three weeks.

Original details from the Arts and Crafts era include the balustrade on the main staircase, with its punched fleur-de-lis design. Poplar wainscoting enriches the central space downstairs.

Shula, a board member of the Boston Society of Architects, worked to enhance such details during the renovation.

Throughout the house, an eclectic mix of art and artifacts reflects the couple's personal aesthetics and their role as hosts for a major university. Their interest in Eastern European folk art and Israeli art flavors the home. Their extensive collection of glass objects adorns several rooms, especially where natural light brings the glass to life.

On the patio, a large sculpture by Joseph Pollet "reminds us to relax when we come out here," says Shula. "We even had an outdoor phone installed because Jehuda was born in Israel and loves being out in the sun."

Inside the breakfast room, Jehuda grins as he points to a watercolor.

"This is one of our favorite works," he says. "Our daughter Naomi painted it when she was 5 years old." (Naomi is now a student at Brown University; another daughter, Yael, works for a nonprofit arts organization in New York.)

At the top of the stairs, a library includes three shelves of books that either Shula or Jehuda has authored, modestly filed amid other tomes. Both Reinharzes have studies.

The house was built in 1914 for Leland Powers, a young lawyer and state legislator. After Powers proposed anti-anarchy legislation, anarchists slipped dynamite into the cellar window wells, causing an explosion that knocked out all the windows.

It was an ironic start for what would be the home of the president of Brandeis, a school named for the Supreme Court justice who supported individual rights and social justice.

"This home is part of the nation's history and Brandeis history," Jehuda declares. The Reinharzes savour their roles as guardians of that history, and Shula adds without a pause, "The next president can do the same when she lives here."