On the storied ivy-laden, well-manicured grounds of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., something secretive is going on. Granted, this cradle of American intellectualism has long been the keeper of secrets. Since 1832, when the now infamous Skull and Bones society was formed, the best and brightest students of one of the best and brightest institutions in the world have shown that, if nothing else, they know how to keep mum.
In the shadows of Skull and Bones an organization that boasts Presidents William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and FedEx founder Frederick Smith as members a secret society of a different stripe is flourishing as the modish club du jour. And this one was started by four men who 60 years ago would have been shunned by Bones.
Meet Eliezer, the secret Yale society that's hiding in plain sight. The "secret" lies in the private networking and intimate bonding among a cohesive, self-selecting, truly diverse membership. A list of who belongs to Eliezer exists, but the contents are strictly off the record. Everything is word of mouth and by invitation only, not to exclude but to include the most interesting Yalies from over the walls of Yale's various courtyards: college, graduate schools and faculty.
Founded in the fall of 1996 by Rabbi Shmully Hecht, Ben Karp, Cory Booker and Michael Alexander as an intellectual salon and Jewish leadership society, the group that started out as a social club for would-be and current leaders of the Yale community has blossomed into an organization recognized the world over, yet with a decidedly secular twist. "There was no question that Eliezer was a Jewish association," says New York Times critic at large Edward Rothstein, a member of the society, "but also no question that along with its elements of religious observance and allusion, the aura was nonsectarian intellectual."
As time passed, the club that was founded by three Jews (one of whom is half African American) and an African-American Baptist (Booker, who was a Yale law student then and is now the mayor of Newark, N.J.) to be a place that would serve as a traditional Shabbat table for the most interesting Jews on campus has morphed into shevet achim gam yachad, a place for brothers to dwell peacefully together. Brothers and sisters, that is. Bones may have become more inclusive over the centuries, but Eliezer began as such, and for good reason.
The society was originally founded as a thumb in the eye to Yale history: Jews, blacks, Muslims, women and gays had been prohibited from joining the traditional secret societies. This secret society, however, would include everyone, so long as you were a promising Yale-affiliated leader of tomorrow.
The meetings, which occur on Friday nights and have about 20 to 60 people in attendance, have attracted some of the most influential speakers in the world. The speakers aren't paid to appear, nor are they recorded, and no media are present. It's a truly free-flowing environment, and world leaders clear their schedules to attend Shabbat dinner. Past speakers have included former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Senator Joe Lieberman, comedian Charles Grodin, actor Elliott Gould, Muslim activists Tarek Fatah and Mona Eltahawy, Chief Justice of Israel Aharon Barak, Nation columnist Eric Alterman and talk-show host Jerry Springer.
"One of the things that ought to happen at a university is that kids who come from a religious background can make that background grow when they are here," says Yale law professor and judge of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Guido Calabresi, a Catholic descended from one of the oldest Jewish families of Italy, who spoke to Eliezer recently. "They bring with them a knowledge and an attitude to their religious background that is high school. When they come to college, in their fields physics, history, mathematics they expand enormously to another level. It is equally important that their spiritual backgrounds expand as well. And that only happens if there are spiritual organizations on campus. Eliezer fills that role in a way that is truly remarkable."
The order began in the Taft Apartments, directly across from "Old Campus," and in 1997 moved to its own brownstone on Crown Street (now in the center of the ever expanding footprint of Yale's campus); it subsequently acquired three adjacent properties. But there are no addresses on the buildings. About 10 students are nominated and tapped annually by the members and founders Hecht, who owns one of the largest real estate groups in Connecticut, and Karp, who is now teaching African-American history and writing a book on W.E.B. Du Bois. The conversation to expand Eliezer to Harvard, Columbia and Princeton has begun then onward to the rest of the country.
"Eliezer is much more than a club at Yale," says Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who is writing the foreword to a book about the society. "It is a global network of activists who care deeply about the Jewish people and about the world."