Value Proposition of Day School Education in the College Campus Setting
In a midrash popular among campus educators, the Talmudic rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is described as a young man in his twenties yearning for the religious education he didn’t receive as a child. Upon discovering a rebbe, Rabbi Yochanan, he pleads to be let into his beit midrash. Through tears he describes his case for joining this seminary, is eventually allowed in, and over time he becomes Rabbi Yochanan’s greatest student, surpassing his knowledge and surprising his unsupportive father with the greatness of his aptitude for learning.
This powerful story describes an archetypal character, perhaps one all educators aspire to create: the student who comes from a family that did not prioritize Jewish education for their child but through a process of guided discovery finds their own path to Jewish education and practice. It’s easy to contrast this image of the “blank slate” student who is opened to a world of inspiring Torah through the right educator with the student who is weaned on a diet of limmudei kodesh, Torah learning, alongside their limmudei chol, secular studies, in the day schools we have today. Yet this student, the day school educated student, also arrives on the college campus on a path of learning, exploration and decision making about who they are and who they will become.
In some way, every Jewish college student, regardless of background, may choose a path to become their own version of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. For both Jewish and secular learning alike, all students need to choose their teachers, establish their learning path, and determine how they want to continue or depart from their familial story and expectations.
Indeed, many parents choosing to give their children a robust Jewish education prior to college do so specifically to encourage their children to make certain Jewish choices as part of their adult lives. What do we know about these recipients of rich Jewish education, specifically day school graduates, when they come to college and effectively play with adulthood for the first time?
In a 2021 survey of college students throughout the United States, Hillel International found that 44% of students involved in Hillels throughout North America reported having some day school education. Clearly, that indicates a high level of continued connectivity from high school to college, given the relatively small number of students with day school education among the college Jewish population. Despite the difference in educational background, this group are far from a homogenous subset of students; they represent a diversity of backgrounds, range of religious and political commitments, and increasingly complex identities that mirror the general population of Jewish students on campus. While robust data collection and understanding of the lives of Jewish day school graduates on campus will require further study, what follows are some high level trends and reflections on the state of this population today.
Our studies indicate that day school educated students are found at a relatively limited number of universities, each of which tend to have larger Jewish populations. Yet simultaneously, Jewish students can be found on an ever-increasing range of campuses. Over the past couple of decades, those colleges with larger day school populations have become increasingly comfortable places for those Jewish students, with a growing set of resources to serve specifically observant students, including robust Hillels, Chabad and a growing number of other organizations that support those students. Those campuses also provide access to options of kosher food, minyanim, rich learning opportunities, accommodations for housing, rabbinic couples and more.
Leadership and Learning
Hillel directors from campuses that serve a higher number of day school educated students anecdotally identify them as having a higher level of commitment to learning and literacy. Many model an ethic of Jewish learning, along with a greater sense of obligation to participate in a range of activities. At these campuses, day school students, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are more likely to feel ready and confident to lead services.
This was more evident than ever last year with the resumption of in-person classes following Covid hiatuses. Hillels were required to limit the size of any gatherings, which required them to create many smaller services. Brandeis and Princeton, two campuses with high concentrations of day school educated students, had ample students able and willing to lead different aspects of High Holiday services.
Indeed, those students help foster an environment of high-quality learning and prayer. The post-high school year or more in Israel also significantly increases the nature of the commitment of those students. These students come to campus more discerning and active in their religious lives, having advanced significantly in their learning, and often more focused on finding a sub-community that mirrors their level of observance.
The effect day school education has on students is certainly a cause for celebration and recognition. It’s also worth recognizing the ways that these students can impact the broader community of Jewish students on the campuses where they are concentrated. From there, we can see some challenges and opportunities emerge.
Several Hillel directors noted that they experienced non-Orthodox day school graduates as particularly committed to community and community-building. While they are not necessarily the most consistent to attend or lead Shabbat or holiday services, they are often the most present in “non-ritual” Hillel programming. They take leadership roles on student boards, develop social and social justice programming, and participate in Jewish learning fellowships. They are most comfortable in Jewish community, as it’s what they most intimately know from their formative years. One director contrasted those students with alumni of teen youth programs, even those who were most involved in those programs. For some of them, the college Jewish communal experience doesn’t compare to the intensity of the youth group experience and may be disappointing in comparison.
The confidence, commitment, skills and knowledge that many day school graduates possess is, of course, a source of pride and what we would hope to see from those many years of investment. Yet to those students without that experience, their distinctly educated peers often can be a source of intimidation and alienation. The sense of ownership and fluency found by their day school educated peers can be entirely foreign. To give a dvar Torah in a crowd of fellow students who have deep familiarity with a range of texts, historical knowledge and comfort with Hebrew can be exceedingly difficult. To assert a position of Jewish passion and position, even one that doesn’t comport with halakhic or communal norms, is that much harder before peers with seemingly more confidence in their knowledge.
On campuses with large numbers of day school alumni, their perceived insularity can threaten to exclude students who did not receive the same education. Some Hillels on campuses with high populations of Orthodox day school graduates strain to engage non-Orthodox students. Conversely, those Hillels with smaller populations of day school educated students sometimes struggle to meet the different demands of a day school educated student.
This begets a larger challenge around the encounter with a diverse and pluralistic Judaism that is at the core of the DNA of Hillel. Many Hillels serve a broad range of students with different Jewish commitments, lineage, practices and beliefs. These Hillels have to try to be all things to all people, and yet for those students with very specific expectations about what Jewish life looks like or doesn’t, finding one’s place within that Hillel can be particularly challenging. Day school educated students are well served arriving on campus with an open stance and open mind about the diversity they will encounter, even while they are affirmed in their own perspectives and beliefs.
A Few Cautions to Consider
Many day school educated students with relatively little exposure to non-day school educated peers are not prepared for the diverse and open range of Jewish expression to be found in this broader context. In college, many of them will be exposed for the first time to a range of ideas, lifestyles and political opinions that will be new and even shocking. While a few decades ago, there was much hand-wringing over the ways day school graduates would first encounter academic study of Bible, today that fear is much more likely found in relation to Israel on campus.
Of course, these students are not alone in facing anti-Zionism and anti-Israel behaviors for the first time in college. Without a doubt, this is something day schools must prepare their students for so they don’t walk into the “lion’s den” without any awareness of what’s to come. Others have written about the disservice day schools do to their students when they don’t expose them to a range of perspectives to the state of Israel. Finding the balance between inculcating a love for Israel and Zionism with a realistic appraisal of its complicated story would seem to reduce the backlash experienced upon first exposure in a less supportive environment.
One Hillel director at an Ivy League school with an exceptionally vibrant observant population including dozens of day school educated students, described to me their own growing awareness of an increased judgmentalism on the part of some of those students. This director notes that some students seem less aware of the privilege of their Jewish education, akin to the privileges of an elite private school education. When those students arrive on campus, some might act toward their peers with less formal Jewish education as a type of “character flaw” rather than as their own education as an immense privilege. In fact, as day school education becomes more expected, especially among modern Orthodox students, who tend to concentrate in fewer schools, the risk of a widening gap between them and their non-observant, non-day school peers grows.
Another Hillel director has observed a growing phenomenon that tracks with what we know about the growing cost of observant Jewish life. They noted that many Orthodox students are enrolling in academic tracks that would lead to higher-paying jobs rather than pursuing their own academic passions. While a decade ago, more students would have pursued academic careers in history, literature and Judaic studies, today far more are oriented toward business and finance degrees. They are aware of the cost of the lifestyle they have come to know and the education they received and are preparing from the moment they go to college to be able to replicate that in their own lives.
Like Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, today’s day school educated students are also on a path of self-discovery and exploration. They too yearn for a path of meaning, connection and purpose. These students are given the tools as children to discover this path in the context of Jewish life, and for many they will arrive ready to jump into their emerging adult selves, Jewish confidence in hand. On many campuses they will find a supportive community that will foster their continued religious growth.
And it’s important to remember that despite their formative education, there are those who will choose to take a break from organized Jewish life, realizing a need for a hiatus or a reset. Like Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, their choices will be influenced by a myriad of factors, including, significantly, both parents and educators. As the tides of campus life continue to shift amidst an ever-turbulent world, our mandate—as parents, teachers and Hillel professionals alike—is both to provide students with the tools for a richly textured Jewish life and also to support them in experimenting with these tools as part of their journey through emerging adulthood.