Abram Leon Sachar was born in New York City on February 15, 1899, and was educated from 1906 onward in St. Louis, where his grandfather served as Chief Rabbi. After briefly enlisting for service in World War I at age 17, Sachar went on to receive his B.A. and M.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, spending his junior year studying languages at Harvard and graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1920. For the subsequent three years, Sachar continued his studies at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, England, where he was awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy for his thesis on the Victorian House of Lords. He returned to America to take a position with the history faculty of the University of Illinois, teaching Modern European and English History.
It was at the University of Illinois that Sachar first became involved with the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation, which was founded at the university. He became one of the founders and pioneers of the movement, serving as the director of the Illinois sector from 1929 to 1933 and then as National Director of the Hillel Foundation from 1933 to 1947. During Sachar’s tenure, Hillel grew from only nine chapters into an organization of nearly 200 campus chapters in the United States and Canada, becoming a center of Jewish life at universities, serving the religious, cultural, social, and interfaith needs of Jewish students. Upon his retirement as National Director in 1947, Sachar was named the Chairman of the National Hillel Commission and was later made Honorary Chairman.
During World War II, Sachar became a national commentator on contemporary affairs while acting as a radio news analyst in Chicago and New York. He also became involved with several attempts to aid Jewish refugees and displaced persons in Europe, organizing a program to bring refugee students to the United States. Sachar was a prolific writer and speaker who continually produced new work following the publication of his first book in 1927. From the 1920s to the 1990s, Sachar frequently traveled the country as a national lecturer. Following 1927’s Factors in Modern Jewish History, which discussed the development of Jewish life since the French Revolution, Sachar produced in 1929 his well-known one volume A History of the Jews. In 1932 he edited Religion of a Modern Liberal, and in 1939 he published Sufferance is the Badge, a history of contemporary Jewish life.
Sachar’s later works included 1983’s The Redemption of the Unwanted, a study of post-Holocaust Jewish life, and his history of the founding of Brandeis, A Host at Last. Sachar also appeared in the weekly educational television lecture show, "The Course of Our Times," in which he offered weekly analyses of problems in contemporary history; these were later published as a book of the same title. Sachar remained a working educator, historian, lecturer, and author until his death.
In 1948, Abram Sachar was invited to become the first president of the newly created Brandeis University. Sachar envisioned Brandeis as a nonsectarian university that would serve as the American Jewish community's "gift" to American higher education. During the twenty years of Sachar’s presidency, Brandeis quickly rose to high ranking in institutions of higher learning. Sachar was particularly proud of the fact that Brandeis received authorization to form a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1961, only 13 years after its founding. Following his resignation as University President in 1968, Sachar was given the title of Chancellor and later Chancellor Emeritus, both positions created specifically for him to allow his continued fundraising and other work on behalf of the university. In his 45 years of service to Brandeis, he is estimated to have raised nearly $250 million for the university.
Sachar served on several state and national commissions and panels, including the U.S. Advisory Commission on International Education and Cultural Affairs, to which he was appointed by President Johnson, and the United States Holocaust Commission. He was also active in numerous educational and philanthropic boards, and would eventually receive honorary degrees from more than thirty American colleges and universities. Sachar was also committed to supporting the young State of Israel, becoming a close friend of David Ben-Gurion and maintaining ties to many Israeli universities. He remained throughout his life concerned with problems of division, injustice, and inequality, and worked to promote better understanding among ethnic and religious groups both in America and abroad.
Abram Sachar married Thelma Horwitz in 1926, and together they had three sons, Howard, Edward, and David. Thelma, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, served in many social and academic organizations and acted as First Lady and hostess to thousands of students, faculty, and guests who passed through Brandeis during her nearly fifty-year presence at the university. Howard Sachar followed his father into academia, becoming a noted professor and scholar of Jewish history, while Edward and David both became medical doctors.
When Sachar became the founding president of Brandeis in 1948, the university consisted of 107 students and 13 faculty members. Over the next 45 years, it would grow to comprise a campus of 90 buildings on 235 acres, 360 full-time and 114 part-time faculty members, and over 3700 undergraduate and graduate students.
Abram Sachar died at home at the age of 94 on July 24, 1993. Both he and Thelma, following her death in 1997, were interred in a special plot created for them, at their request, near the Sachar International Center at Brandeis University.