The gala “Gathering in Honor of Princeton’s 20th President” on October 7 in New York drew 1,800 alumni to hear President Christopher L. Eisgruber, Class of 1983, in a dialogue with former ABC World News anchor and current University Trustee Charles Gibson, Class of 1965. I attended as a member of the Class of 1980.

At this point you’re thinking, so what? What’s the Times of Israel angle on hordes of orange-and-black clad Ivy Leaguers munching hors d’oeuvres, sipping wine and squinting at name tags? Gibson provided the angle several questions into a brisk, informative and noncontroversial chat.

“Are you a man of faith?” Gibson asked.

The question startled because it sounded so out of place. Here we were, thousands of Princetonians, listening to a college president who, by the nature of his position, must endlessly measure and guard his public comments. I expected and heard his views on diversity, climate programs, online learning, expansion, tuition costs and sports—but faith?

Yes, faith. As a smart reporter (and trustee), Gibson had done his homework and knew Eisgruber’s religious identity has become part of his narrative. The question in this forum might have surprised Eisgruber (unless he expected it), but he’s addressed his evolving religious identity before and he had an answer.

As reported this spring, after the long-time provost was named the president, Eisgruber has a story to tell of the kind that has appeared worldwide in the decades after the Holocaust. Writer Stephen Dubner, in his memoir Choosing My Religion, covered the same ground of what happens when tenacious Jewish roots crack through a deliberately constructed Christian surface identity. As Debra Nussbaum Cohen wrote in Haaretz on the day when Eisgruber formally set up shop in the president’s office in Princeton’s renowned Nassau Hall,

Christopher Eisgruber was working on a school project with his son Danny, then a fourth grader, when he made a stunning discovery. Eisgruber, who on July 1 becomes president of Princeton University, was raised Catholic, though he has identified as a non-theist ‏(he prefers the term over atheist‏) since adolescence, and was married in the Episcopal church. His son’s teacher asked students to look for relatives who came through Ellis Island, so on a March day in 2008 Eisgruber began searching its archives. On a ship’s manifest listing his mother and her parents, he found an unexpected notation: “Hebrew.”

 

After further scouring Ellis Island’s records, Yad Vashem’s database and, with a newfound cousin’s help, archives at the Center for Jewish History, Eisgruber, who is 52 and an expert in constitutional law, identified more relatives than he ever knew he had. He also learned that his Berlin-born mother, who arrived in New York as an 8-year-old refugee, and her parents were indeed Jews.

 

The discovery “was revelatory,” Eisgruber said in an interview with Haaretz. While it has not led to a wholesale embrace of religious identity, Eisgruber said that since then, he has participated in Passover seders, twice visited Israel and become involved with Israeli NGOs including the Peres Center for Peace.

Eisgruber provided more details at the dialogue. His late mother worked hard to prevent her husband and children from learning she was Jewish. As can happen in these cases, lack of knowledge backfires when bright, curious children or grandchildren get a clue about their Jewish heritage. Restless, feeling the ache of family secrets, they start looking around and tapping into the search engines. Secrets have a short shelf life in the digital age. The confusion and uncertainty of discovery can be painful, but, as Dubner and Eisgruber show, they can get sorted out in a positive way.

Indeed, in the context of the flailing, scrambled Jewish identities outlined in the new Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, Eisgruber’s self-awareness and level of Jewish involvement, with trips to Israel and seders, practically makes him a baal teshuva.

In a big-picture way, a Jewish president helps Princeton counteract the lingering impression, untrue for decades, that it’s a place that just doesn’t cotton to Jews (I was an undergrad in the late 1970s and I found a vibrant Jewish community that never lurked in the shadows). An outspoken President Eisgruber should allay any fears of Jewish applicants and their parents (or, more likely, grandparents), along with the kosher dining options and bustling Center for Jewish Life.

The sorting of Jewish identity created a dynamic, humanizing story that made sense in getting to know the president. Along with some mild sports jokes and comments about his physics major at Princeton, Eisgruber deftly used Jewishness to add a compelling angle to his persona.

His comments about faith infused a discussion that had been pleasant but predictable with an element of personal drama—a certain breed of monotheist might even call his story one of an ongoing spiritual revelation that started at Mt. Sinai and continues in the president’s office at Nassau Hall.