By Charles Bernsen
For three days last month, Vanderbilt University and the Nashville Jewish community feted Ben Schulman on the occasion of his 100th birthday.
But the festivities were just as much a celebration of what Vanderbilt Hillel Executive Director Ari Dubin called “the Jewish renaissance” that has occurred on the Vanderbilt campus over the past 15 years – a renaissance that Dubin, Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos and others said was in no small part a result of Schulman’s decision to help underwrite the construction of the university’s Schulman Center for Jewish Life.
“You helped build it, and then they came,” said Bruce Heyman, a Vanderbilt graduate and the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Canada, in a 15-minute tribute video that was played during a Sunday birthday brunch for Schulman in the building that bears his name.
The same video included thank-you messages from current Vanderbilt students describing the impact of Schulman Center and the Hillel chapter it houses on their lives as well happy birthday wishes from a half dozen couples from around the country who met through their involvement in the Hillel activities at the center.
In addition to the brunch, the weekend included a Friday evening Shabbat dinner at the Shulman center attended by 300 people, including 200 students, and a private dinner Saturday evening hosted by Zeppos.
For his part, Schulman seemed to take the praise with humor and humility.
“Who is the Ben Schulman everyone’s talking about; I’d like to meet him.” he said at the brunch. “I’m flattered that so many people would come out to help me celebrate my birthday.”
Schulman, whose family moved to Nashville from Decatur, AL when he was just a child, graduated from Vanderbilt in 1938 with a degree in chemical engineering. After serving as a Naval officer during World War II, he built a successful business career. Though he has lived elsewhere since graduating, he agreed to provide an endowment for the construction of the Shulman Center in 2001 as part of an effort embraced by Chancellor Gordon Gee and Zeppos, then the provost, to boost Jewish enrollment.
In her remarks at the brunch, Barbara Mayden, president of the Hillel board, described the remarkable transformation at Vanderbilt since the Schulman Center opened in 2002.
“You didn’t just help create a community center. You helped create a community,” Mayden said. “Jewish life on campus is active, diverse and – who would have thought – abundant.”
Steve Riven, who became president of the Hillel board shortly after the building opened, noted that Jewish students now account for about 15 percent of the school’s student population, five times what it was before the Schulman Center opened. The Schulman Center played a crucial role in that transformation, he said, and in helping Vanderbilt shed its reputation as a not-so-friendly place for Jewish students.
Riven said the impact of the renaissance that began with the construction of the Schulman Center has reverberated beyond the campus. Citing a recent demographic study showing that one in every three Jewish households in Greater Nashville has a connection to Vanderbilt, he said the local Jewish community is benefitting from the presence of Jewish faculty members drawn to the school as well as Jewish students who decided to remain in Nashville after graduation.
The impact extends to Schulman’s own family. One of the speakers at the brunch was his great niece, Alyssa Jaffe, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2015 with a chemical engineering degree just like her great uncle.
After recounting her involvement in Hillel and Jewish life at Vanderbilt, she said, “Thanks to you, Uncle Ben, we became a community.” •