BOSTON (JTA) — When Harvard University’s rabbi decided to relocate the Hillel organization, then located near campus, by placing it in its heart, Henry Rosovsky was initially skeptical.
“He was absolutely right and I was wrong,” Rosovsky said JTA 2017 to mark the 25th anniversary of the inauguration of the Hillel building that bears his name: Rosovsky Hall.
The event was also an opportunity to celebrate the 90th birthday of Rosovsky, an economist who spent most of his career at Harvard – decades influencing the school’s curriculum, leading a commission to improve the situation of African American students at this renowned university and strengthened Jewish life on campus.
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Rosovsky died November 11 in Cambridge, Mass., where he had lived and worked since joining Harvard in 1965. He was 95 years old.
“What he left behind continues to impact campus life for everyone on campus to this day,” said Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, who is Jewish JTA. “With his death, Harvard lost one of its greatest defenders and one of its greatest citizens.”
At his funeral at Temple Israel in Boston, Rosovsky was praised by his family, colleagues and friends for his brilliant mind, for his humor, for his love of tennis and jazz, for his wise advice on his spirit guide.
His daughter, Leah Rosovsky, said her father took great delight in working with others to establish Harvard’s African and African American Studies program and there recruiting the president, longtime historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., to attend the funeral.
Born on September 1, 1927 in what is now Danzig, Poland, to a Jewish family, Rosovsky immigrated to the United States with his parents and brother in 1940 after escaping the Nazis via France, Spain, and Belgium. He volunteered in the US military during World War II and also served in the Korean War, according to a statement from Harvard announcing his death. After graduating from the College of William and Mary, he first came to Harvard in 1949 to do a doctorate in economics.
In 1965 he returned to Harvard to teach economics himself, specializing in Japanese and Asian economic development. He would stay in college for the rest of his career, founding not only the Ivy League College but also the Jewish community of Boston.
As Dean of Harvard College of Arts and Sciences from 1973 to 1991, Rosovsky helped implement the school’s innovative curriculum. He had been President of Harvard for two terms; he had been made a Fellow of the Harvard Corporation – he was the first Jew in the corpse – and he had overseen the establishment of the Harvard Center for Jewish Studies.
In 1969, as the student protest movement was driving change at many universities, Rosovsky headed a commission investigating the lives of African Americans at Harvard. The subsequent “Rosovsky Report” strongly recommended the creation of a separate department for African and African-American Studies, as well as other initiatives to better integrate African-American students. Rosovsky had left the commission when the students were given equal speaking rights with their members – a decision he felt would have required careful consideration. He had returned to the board shortly before retiring in the 1990s – recruiting senior specialists including Gates, who was tasked with turning the department into an academic stronghold.
The book written by Rosovsky in 1990 The University: A User’s Guide introduced the layman to the complex processes of a research university. But the former dean had also been helping Harvard insiders by advising various Harvard presidents. Among them Drew Gilpin Faust, Lawrence H. Summers and Neil Rudenstine, who came to honor him and thank him for his wise advice on his 90th birthday.
But he didn’t stop at Harvard. As chairman of the Boston Jewish Federation’s Strategic Planning Commission in the 1990s, Rosovsky had shared his analytical expertise and ability to bring people together to provide a course for Boston’s Jewish community, according to Barry Shrage, who for decades led Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies headed Greater Boston.
“It was a turning point in terms of adult learning and teaching; a work of building the community at its grass roots by involving the synagogues,” Shrage said JTA in an organized conversation at the funeral. “Everything was created in the strategic plan”.
“He was a secular Jew, but his Jewish identity profoundly influenced his worldview,” he added.
Rosovsky is survived by Mrs. Nitza – he was married to this former curator of the Semitic Museum at Harvard for 66 years – children, Leah, Judy and Michael and their spouses; four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.