Thinking about College Through a Jewish Lens
A few years ago, while on a visit to Elon University in North Carolina with other college counselors, I had breakfast with a former student from Gann Academy, the pluralistic Jewish day school where I work. I did not know the student well. I was relatively new to Gann when she was a senior, and she had worked with the other counselor in my office. So I asked the student why she decided to enroll at Elon. “I wanted to get out of my Northeast Jewish bubble,” she said. “I wanted to leave the Boston area and come to a place that was really different—and I love it here!” Later in the conversation, I queried, “So what are some of the activities you have gotten involved in here?” Her answer cracked me up: “Well, I’ve joined a sorority and I do some intramural sports, and I’m on the Board of Hillel and am in charge of Challah for Hunger. We bake and sell challah every Friday to raise money for social justice causes.”
I’ve worked in the college admissions/college counseling profession for over 20 years, and am currently the first counselor from a Jewish day school to serve as president of the New England Association for College Admissions Counseling. As a group, college counselors spend significant time focusing on finding the right “fit” for our students—size, location, setting, academic offerings and competitiveness—and for those of us at Jewish schools, the right Jewish community. For some students, finding the right Jewish “fit” is easy: They know they want to be at a school with kosher food, daily minyanim, and a strong, tight religious community. But more secular students who have attended Jewish schools have some big decisions to make. Some will say to me, “I’ve been in Jewish schools my whole life—I don’t want to go anywhere ‘too Jewish,’” while others can’t imagine what it will be like to be in a diverse campus community, and they can’t wait to find out.
Summer and fall provide time when many high school seniors and their parents travel to visit colleges. Over the years, I’ve learned that students and families don’t always know the questions to ask to get to the most helpful answers around the issue of Jewish life on a given campus. What they don’t always realize is that the number of Jewish students—or even the percentage—isn’t what’s most important (although having some statistical information is a great start). Rather the engagement of the Jewish students and the culture of the school’s Jewish community are what will most likely lead to best “fit.” Knowing the answer to the question “How many Orthodox students attend a school?” is less helpful than knowing “How many days a week can you convene an Orthodox minyan?” or “How hard is it to get a Torah reader for Monday mornings?” The question “How many students go to Shabbat dinners?” may not say as much about Jewish community as “If G-d forbid I need to say Kaddish, how easy would it be for me to find a minyan?”
There’s certainly something to be said for “the numbers”—if there are only 40 Jewish students on campus, it’s unlikely you’ll see too many heads wearing kippot when you take a tour—but the following questions (compiled with input from a number of Jewish day school college counselors across the United States) may help guide family conversations on a more sophisticated level as students assess various campuses’ Jewish offerings. It’s important for each prospective applicant to identify what matters to him or her under the large umbrella of “Jewish life,” and the categories below provide some areas to consider. Would a student like to take Hebrew classes, or will he only consider colleges that offer them? In other words, what are the non-negotiables, what are the preferences, and what are the added bonuses?
Students might ponder questions such as: Who are you as a person? Do you look forward to exploring a new Jewish community on your own, or do you need planned programs to get you out of your dorm? If you are at a Shabbat dinner and don’t know anyone, will you introduce yourself to people, or will you be uncomfortable being there without friends? Do you want to attend a school where you will meet a lot of other students who have similar religious/educational backgrounds to yours, or do you prefer to meet people who are completely different from those you grew up with? If the Jewish community is small, are you prepared to answer questions about Judaism to peers who may not know too many Jews? Are you comfortable wearing your Jewish star or Hebrew name necklace on a campus?
Here are some important questions that can help Jewish parents and students evaluate their compatibility with college campuses as they visit prospective schools and contemplate applying to them.
Who is the Hillel rabbi on campus? Is he or she sensitive to your religious needs?
Is there a daily minyan on campus? Is there a Shabbat evening/morning minyan each week? Are the services Orthodox or pluralistic?
Where do students go for High Holidays? Do local families host students for chaggim? Is there one High Holiday service or several? Will there be a sukkah on campus?
How easy will it be to be shomer Shabbat? If the university features high-rise residence halls, can you request a lower floor so as not to have to walk up 14 flights? If the keys are electronic, is there a system that will allow you access on Shabbat?
Is there an eruv?
What’s the ratio of undergraduates to graduates and other community members involved in Shabbat services?
Are the residence hall floors co-ed, and does that matter to you religiously?
How many Jewish students are regularly involved in religious activities? Social programs?
Does the college have a JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative) couple on campus to help support religious students? (See oujlic.org for more information about these educators and Torah role models.)
Is kosher food offered seven days a week for (at least) two meals a day?
Is it prepared fresh on campus, or is it brought in/packaged from a kosher caterer or restaurant?
Do students who keep kosher eat in a dining hall or at Hillel?
Are there kosher restaurants nearby if you’d like to eat out, or places to buy kosher food if you’d like to cook a meal?
Can you observe Pesach on campus?
Does the kosher cafeteria have both dairy and meat options?
If you would eat vegetarian food that’s not certified kosher, are there robust offerings?
What seems to be the campus climate concerning Israel?
How many students enroll after a gap year in Israel? Can you get permission to do a gap year easily?
Does the college offer study abroad programs in Israel?
If there have been any controversial speakers on campus concerning Israel, how has the community reacted?
How prominent are the BDS organizations, and how supportive is the faculty of them? Are there active pro-Israel organizations to join? How safe are students who choose to respond to anti-Israel activists on campus?
Does the school regularly send students on Birthright? If so, how many typically go?
Does the college offer courses on Judaism? On Israel? Is there a Judaic Studies department?
Can students take Hebrew classes?
Are there Judaic/religious learning opportunities beyond academics? What are they, and how often do they meet?
What is the policy for students who won’t write/test/attend classes on religious holidays?
Is there an active Hillel? An engaging Chabad? What types of activities do they offer? How often do they offer programs? How many staff members work for Hillel? If there are both Hillel and Chabad, what is the relationship between the two? Do they work together, or do they compete with each other?
Is it possible for an observant student to request an observant roommate freshman year?
Are there enough Jewish students to ensure many opportunities for friendships and choices of friendship groups?
Off campus: Is there a JCC nearby? Are there other Jewish events in town? Are there synagogues within an accessible radius, and are they welcoming to college students?
How often—and how well attended—are communal Shabbat dinners?
Are any Jewish fraternities or sororities affiliated with the school?
Are there non-religious opportunities to be involved in the Jewish community, through social activities and/or community service? Or through Israeli dance or Jewish a cappella groups?
In searching for colleges, websites such as Hillel.org, theheart2heartproject.org (a grassroots movement of Jewish college students sharing information with their peers), and chabad.edu all have helpful search engines, and quick Internet searches for “Colleges with Jewish Communities” will yield a number of helpful results. In addition, many Jewish day school college counselors are members of CAJUE: Counselors Advocating for a Jewish University Experience, an organization dedicated to helping Jewish students find the best environments. Chances are, your college counselor has visited several of the schools his or her students will be considering, and has worked with other students who have wanted to be active in Jewish life in college.
As students visit colleges, in addition to taking a regular tour it’s a great idea to visit Hillel, where students and staff will help families figure out the answers to questions they didn’t even know they had. Students might consider spending a Shabbat on campus, eating lunch in the kosher dining hall, or attending a performance by a Hillel theatre group. It’s also helpful to visit the websites or social media pages of the Hillels or Jewish student organizations to see the most recent news and programming opportunities, as well as to learn something about the students comprising the Hillel board or serving in other positions. At Hillel, might you meet someone who was the only Jewish student in her high school in Iowa, or mostly students who attended Jewish day schools in New York?
Graduates of Jewish day schools usually go off to college feeling ready to integrate their Jewish identities with their more secular campus lives. Some will choose to be part of a vibrant Jewish community, others will make a difference in a “small and mighty” Jewish organization, and some will be content to have a small group of Jewish friends. Whereas one student may choose a school based on religious opportunities, another may not look as closely at Jewish life but could find herself baking challah every Friday on a campus in a small town in North Carolina, and know that she’s found her place.