Confessions of a Jewish Dean at a Jesuit Law School

Written by Jeffrey S. Brand, Dean, University of San Francisco School of Law

Jeff BrandGo figure! This son of Jewish parents, born and bred on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in Jewish Harlem, becoming dean of a great Jesuit law school whose mission is rooted in social Catholic teaching. It’s a journey that has reminded me of the good that lawyers can do in the world, highlighted  the awesome responsibility educators share as we seek to educate the hearts and minds of future generations, and brought me closer to my own Jewish faith.

A note to my mother and father, may they rest in peace (in Hebrew, “Baruch Hashem!”): Mom, Dad, please understand that what follows only reinforces all that you taught me; and, if you can’t quite wrap your mind around it, I suspect that anything I write is but a minor blow compared to the day, 47 years ago, that I called you in Los Angeles from a Berkeley pay phone, telling you that I was quitting medical school.

Three Confessions  

Let me begin, appropriately enough, with some confessions of a Jewish dean at a Jesuit law school.

Confession 1: Until I came to USF, I knew little about Catholicism and nothing about what it means to be a Jesuit. When I was a young boy in Bayside, Queens, I remember a kid named Jimmy who went to Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament. His dad sold vacuum cleaners that he would demonstrate by sucking marbles off the carpet in our apartment on 209th Street. Jimmy and I became good friends, walking to school together—he to Sacred Heart and I to Public School 159. All I knew about Catholicism in those days was what I knew about Jimmy: Catholic kids went to “parochial school,” ate fish on Friday, and wore a uniform to school—corduroy pants that had a speckled pattern and a blue shirt.  

I’m not sure I knew a whole lot more about Judaism at that point either. We belonged to the Bayside Jewish Community Center, a reform temple that later was demolished when the Long Island Expressway tore right through the temple’s Ark where we Jews store our sacred Torah. In those years, I was more interested in playing third base in the Police Athletic League than I was about my grounding in Jewish practice or thought. I learned a lot more about Judaism in the years prior to my arrival at USF. My knowledge of Catholicism, however, changed little except for the fact that right after going to law school in Berkeley I was inspired by Catholics who risked their lives and practiced liberation theology, focusing laser-like on the plight of the poor and oppressed in places like El Salvador. I also knew that you could do a whole lot worse than to live your life like Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day.

Confession 2: I came of age in Berkeley in the 1960s, having been repulsed by McCarthyism, whose namesake, Joe McCarthy, my parents and I watched with dismay in the 1950s from our den in Studio City. Later, I actively participated in Berkeley’s storied political past, picketing, sitting in, and engaging in civil disobedience for any cause that struck me as unjust in those days—and there were plenty of them, restrictions on speech and segregation among them. The Jesuit focus on social justice was a natural extension of all that I believed, and it now strikes me as obvious that I was a perfect candidate to be seduced by the values and ways of Jesuit education. I confess: I’m a true believer.  

Confession 3: I’ve learned a lot since we bought our vacuum cleaner from Jimmy’s dad, but trust me, I’m not ready for the College of Cardinals. I confess, however, that my lack of expertise does not deter me from pontificating about “the mission.” One thing that I have learned is that my Jesuit brothers are struggling with the meaning of education and our responsibilities as educators as much as anyone—maybe more. It turns out that we Jews have met our match in the Jesuits when it comes to questioning. Indeed, the Jesuit community’s openness to dialogue has made it easier and, indeed, more exciting for me to engage in the discussion. 

Jeff Brand Quote

Four Principles 

With these preconceptions, biases, and confessions on the table, here are four principles that I come away with after nearly 14 years of service as dean, during which time I’ve looked out my office window at beautiful St. Ignatius Church with a statue of Jesuit-founder St. Ignatius looking back at me with a quizzical, engaging, compelling, responsibility-laden look.   

Principle 1: Jesuit Values Inspire. In my nearly 40 years of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that good teaching is about inspiring students to learn as much as it is about teaching substantive principles. The Jesuit values of educating the whole person, pursuing a higher standard, and promoting service and social justice inspire student learning. My experience at the law school proves the point. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni respond enthusiastically to a positive statement of the values that underlie the Jesuit mission, including promoting ethics and concern for others, a statement affirmed by the way our students attack their ethics courses with vigor, and in their apparently insatiable appetite to serve local, national, and international communities. Our students want to do the right thing and are seeking a rationale for being in the classroom that nurtures rather than assassinates the spirit.   

Principle 2: Teaching at a Jesuit University is a Privilege and With Privilege Comes Responsibility. I consider being a Jewish dean of a Jesuit law school a gift. How many law deans are lucky enough to awake each morning knowing that the president of the university has told the law faculty that their mission is to “train skilled practitioners who hunger and thirst for justice?” Now that is, as we Jews say, a "mitzvah" (blessing).   

I interpret that admonition by USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J., to mean that legal educators at Jesuit law schools must create an environment in which students gain understanding about the relationship between law and justice and have opportunities to engage in activities that promote justice—opportunities that are easily sown in soil infused with the Jesuit mission.

Principle 3: The Jesuit Mission Can Change the World. By promoting social justice and doing good, the mission holds out the prospect that our inspired students will act in ways that can indeed change the world. I am not suggesting that pursuing the mission will necessarily bring about the structural changes necessary to create a humane and just society. But it might in the long run, and I hope we are not too cynical to see that students serving meals in the Tenderloin, working against the death penalty in Louisiana and Mississippi, working on environmental projects in Indonesia, working with legal educators in Cambodia, and investigating human rights abuses in El Salvador add goodness to the world in which we live.  

Principle 4: Our Inclusive Values Benefit Others and Ourselves. Jesuit values provide a unique opportunity for us to explore our own spirituality, regardless of what it is. Involvement in a Jesuit institution provides points and counterpoints for us to question how we engage the world and provides an opportunity for our own spiritual growth to flourish. It turns out that it is not just about service to others. It is also about ourselves!

Indeed, my time at USF has brought me closer to my own faith. My colleagues in the Jesuit community and I have explored the common roots of our religions and discussed and argued contradictions and disappointments that abound in both traditions. Along the way, I’ve attended Mass, presented multiple times with Jesuit colleagues on Jewish and Catholic practices and beliefs, served on the board of the St. Thomas More Society (the martyred patron saint of lawyers), and had the honor of twice giving homilies at St. Ignatius Church. As I struggle with issues about why and how I do my work at USF, I am more interested than ever in my own religious roots. It is no accident that my participation in my weekly Torah study group coincides with my tenure at USF, along with my thoughts about future religious studies.  

The mission also provides opportunities for the spiritual growth of our law students. There is a movement afoot nationally to “humanize” legal education where students can too easily lose their work/life balance and their self-confidence. I am proud to say that USF's emphasis on educating the whole student has led the law school to become a leader in the field. 


So there you have it: three confessions and four principles from a Jew who improbably migrated from my public school roots to USF. I have no idea where my friend Jimmy ended up. I do know this: I’d love to take that walk with him again from our apartments to school to tell him about the longer journey that I’ve taken in all these years—a journey guided, in part, by an inspiring, inclusive, non-doctrinaire Jesuit mission that demands excellence and rigor, pursues truth and integrity, provides opportunities for engagement in community, and, along the way, brought me closer to my spiritual beliefs and values. Soon I’ll be looking out my window for the last time as dean, staring at the statue of St. Ignatius. I’ll be giving him an appreciative nod for all that I’ve been lucky enough to experience.

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