She managed a university Holocaust center. Now she says incivility on Israel drove her to a Catholic school.


((JEWISH REVIEW)) — As Mary Jane Rein prepared to publicly exit her role as executive director of Clark University’s Holocaust center, she attended a local fundraiser for Catholic schools.

After 20 years, she was leaving her job at Clark on bad terms. A member of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Ph.D. program had heckled her at a public event while she prepared to introduce an Israeli military reservist. The university, in her view, had failed to support her, she wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay recounting the episode.

Now, Rein was about to assume a new role overseeing a center for “civic dialogue” at Assumption University. The Catholic gala was her first public outing in that job.

Clark is a private nonsectarian school with a reputation for producing Holocaust scholarship; Assumption, where Rein had previously directed the fundraising program, is Roman Catholic. But though Rein is very involved in her Worcester, Massachusetts Jewish community, she felt a sense of belonging at the Catholic gala event. The gala that night honored a Jewish person, and a cardinal joined via video chat to discuss tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world.

“I felt, this is just a message from God telling me I’ve made the right decision,” Rein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week.

Rein’s career change reflects two trends: the inhospitality some Jewish employees, students and faculty feel on secular campuses around Israel, and the efforts Christian colleges are putting in to woo Jews looking for a safe space from rising campus antisemitism — something that began prior to Oct. 7 but has taken on new energy. Christian schools made up the lions’ share of a coalition last year that signed an open letter declaring “We stand with Israel against Hamas” and “the fight against Hamas is a fight against evil.” Some have also offered expedited transfers for Jewish students, even at schools like Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, which has almost no Jewish life to speak of.

Assumption is a particularly distinctive case. Greg Weiner, the school’s president since 2022, is Jewish and believes he is the first-ever Jewish head of a Catholic college in the United States. Weiner has also used the Wall Street Journal to promote Assumption — and Catholic institutions more broadly — as a “haven” for Jews since Oct. 7. He claims that Christian schools, despite a history of largely inhospitable or proselytizing attitudes toward Jews, today give all students a better foundation for understanding how to civilly disagree than the Ivy League does. 

“I find that the intellectual traditions of Judaism and Catholicism, and I would say some of the ritual traditions as well, have a great deal in common,” Weiner told (JEWISH REVIEW). The two faiths, he said, both engage in “the pursuit of truth,” and Weiner says that Assumption takes “the intellectual tradition of Judaism seriously.”

Rein, whose role at Clark focused on fundraising and was not a faculty position, characterized the experience that drove her to resign primarily as a case of incivility, saying she would leave it to others to determine whether it was also antisemitic. As she was looking for her next professional home, Weiner was searching for ways to encourage students to adopt more civil means of communication and disagreement. He and Rein know each other socially, and Weiner brought Rein back to Assumption. 

“I can’t invest my time and efforts to advance an institution that lacks the strength of character to protect diverse points of view,” Rein wrote in her Journal essay, which was titled, “Why I’m Leaving Clark University.” She added, “I am ready to sign on to a different cause, one rooted in respect, honest inquiry and the free exchange of ideas in the context of civic friendship.”

Attendees at an Israel Defense Force reservist’s talk at Worcester State University stand outside after pro-Palestinian protesters pulled the fire alarm, Worcester, Massachusetts, March 13, 2024. Mary Jane Rein, who introduced the speaker, said the event’s incivility prompted her to leave her job at Clark University’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies center. (This Week in Worcester via YouTube)

The event that drove her away from Clark last month didn’t take place at the school, but at nearby Worcester State University, where Rein was preparing to introduce the IDF reservist as part of her work with the local Jewish federation. Unprompted by her, she said, the federation’s director identified Rein by her title at Clark when bringing her onstage. This prompted pro-Palestinian protesters in the audience, one of whom was a Ph.D. student in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark, to loudly denounce Rein and yell that she doesn’t represent the university. During the talk there were more disruptions, including the pulling of a fire alarm; Rein says some students confronted her afterwards and pressured her to resign.

When she brought up the incident to someone she called “a senior administrator” at Clark, she wrote, the response was that she should refrain from using her university title at events not sponsored by the university. Rein was insulted.

“I suspected I was being asked to censor myself on the basis of my Jewish identity and support for Israel, as I inferred there would be professional consequences if I presented that disfavored view,” she wrote in the essay. She continued, “I can no longer function effectively at an academic institution that thinks shouting a speaker down is tolerable but introducing a speaker with whose views people disagree isn’t.”

Rein’s view that Clark fosters an uncivil environment was not shared by the school’s president, nor by the faculty at its Holocaust and Genocide Studies center, known as the Strassler Center (its namesake, David Strassler, is a former national chair of the Anti-Defamation League and sits on the university’s board of trustees). 

They didn’t dispute that Rein’s Worcester State event was disrupted by some of the Strassler Center’s Ph.D. students. But, they told (JEWISH REVIEW), they still believed Clark was fostering an appropriate civil and respectful dialogue around Israel.

“Dr. Rein is entitled to her view of decisively endorsing Israeli politics in Gaza or elsewhere, but in the same way students of genocide and the Holocaust are entitled to reject it equally radically,” Thomas Kuehne, director of the center and an endowed chair in Holocaust studies, wrote in an email. 

Kuehne continued, “Both views are widespread among Holocaust and genocide scholars these days. That the exchange of arguments on highly sensitive issues sometimes gets overheated or even results in personal invectives is unfortunate but not the end of a debate, or it should not be. Scholars are used to it and know how to handle it.” 

Like Rein, Kuehne has been at Clark for 20 years; he claimed he has “never experienced any clash of the type as it happened at Worcester State.” He added that Rein’s departure “fills me with utmost sadness” and that she “has been a wonderful colleague.” 

Frances Tanzer, another professor at the center, said that the Clark community was already engaged in “a dialogue” around Oct. 7 and antisemitism. She further characterized Rein’s event as “a political event — rather than a scholarly event — at a neighboring university,” where “some students used their growing body of knowledge about violence and discrimination to intervene.” She added, “The bottom line is that scholars in training should not be disparaged in a national forum,” referring to the Journal article.

In a campus-wide email Tuesday, the school’s president, David Fithian, also disputed some of Rein’s claims while condemning any disruption of the event by Clark students.

“Ms. Rein was not discouraged from engaging in issues or expressing her views freely,” Fithian wrote in the email, which the school shared with (JEWISH REVIEW). “The guidance she received was meant not to limit speech, but to clarify, going forward, if she was speaking in her capacity as executive director of the Strassler Center. This is important because it helps to avoid confusion over whether an administrator is representing the University in their official role.” 

He added that “any administrator” would have received similar guidance — responding to a question Rein raised in her essay. 

A spokesperson for the university further disputed Rein’s characterization of the campus environment, telling (JEWISH REVIEW) that all campus events related to the Middle East have been conducted civilly.

“The interactions at these events have been respectful and without the rancor Ms. Rein experienced elsewhere,” the school noted in a statement. “No speaker at Clark University has been shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking. We have every reason to expect this will continue.”

Mary Jane Rein’s view that Clark University fosters an uncivil environment was not shared by the school’s president, nor by the faculty at its Holocaust and Genocide Studies center, above. (Courtesy Clark University)

Both Rein and Weiner said Assumption’s new initiative would try to provide a model for countering disruptive behavior, including but not limited to Israel. The Center for Civic Dialogue, the new project Rein is heading, “is about the concept of civic friendship itself,” Weiner said. 

While the school is light on details of what this will look like, Rein said it could involve her working directly with students to encourage and foster conversations about tough subjects. She pointed out that, at Clark, she and other campus Jews — including the Hillel director and a Jewish studies professor — recently sat “politely” to hear a talk from a university alum who was a TikTok content creator in Gaza, even though Rein said the speaker “said some things I disagreed with vehemently.” 

She and Weiner hope to encourage a similar level of politesse among Assumption students, rather than what they now describe as the norm on college campuses: people shouting down those with whom they disagree, like the students did at her event.

“All of our students take two classes in philosophy, and Socrates famously says he’s the wisest man in Athens and the only reason is that he knows what he doesn’t know,” Weiner said.

Both of them believe a Christian university is an ideal place for dialogue like this. Rein spoke admiringly of attending an Assumption student government meeting — a venue that, at other schools, has become central to Israel-related protests — and being “impressed by their openness, by their expressions of genuine welcome.”

“I almost felt like I went back in a time machine,” she said. “They didn’t have their cell phones in their hands. They were looking at us directly, with smiles on their faces.”

This new model could mean that Rein, whose new Assumption staff biography touts her work with Israel Bonds, may have to hold dialogue with students who strongly disagree with her, or with Israel more generally. “I’m prepared for that,” she said.