Why More Colleges Want Jewish Students

Small institutions that have had low enrollment levels for Jews are pushing to increase them -- and in so doing raise delicate questions.
October 29, 2008

At Chicagoland Jewish High School, “What I’m seeing is, new names are popping up all the time,” says Bruce Scher, the academic dean and director of college counseling.

“Outside of the stereotypical or the standard colleges that already have strong Jewish populations, we’re seeing a lot of other schools recognize the value and recognize the contribution that these students are making to a college campus,” says Scher, who’s also co-chair of the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s special interest group for Jewish students. “Even schools like Knox [College], you know, in central Illinois, they absolutely are connecting to Jewish students.”

College counselors and colleges alike – particularly small liberal arts colleges – are reporting explicit efforts to attract more Jewish applicants or build Jewish student life on campus, or both (since the two goals go hand in hand). For instance, Washington and Lee University, a decidedly Southern-influenced institution in Virginia, has identified “recruiting and supporting Jewish students at W&L” as a fundraising priority, and is constructing a $4 million Hillel House.

“In 2001, we were 1 percent Jewish here at Washington and Lee and now we’re almost 4 percent,” says Joan Robins, who splits her time directing the university's Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life chapter and working in university development. “Washington and Lee doesn’t have the name recognition or the reputation within the Jewish community, so I’m hoping to build the reputation in the Jewish community.

“We’re really hoping that the building of the [Hillel] program, as I hope to do, and the building of the building, will really be transformative.”

Stereotyping or Diversifying?

Talking about increasing the number of Jewish students is to talk of a delicate matter. After all, for much of their history, many elite private colleges didn't particularly welcome Jews, and some imposed quotas. Others didn't go that route but never considered whether the lack of Jewish services of any kind would make their institutions seem unwelcoming. One other reason this move is a bit controversial is that Jewish students as a whole are not outcasts in American higher education. Unlike outreach to minority students who may not feel they have college options, recruiting of Jewish students is almost always of students who will almost certainly go to college -- it's just a matter of where.

Patti Mittleman is familiar with the trend, but questions the motivations behind it. When an article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer last year describing Muhlenberg College, a Lutheran liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania, as “an unlikely magnet for Jewish students” (about a third of the student body is Jewish), Mittleman, Muhlenberg's Jewish chaplain, was “inundated” by calls and e-mails -- including, she says, “from some of the finest universities in this country.”

“I have gotten calls and e-mails from colleges and universities around the country, kind of, 'How did you do this… how did you get all those Jews to come' – again, distasteful question,” says Mittleman, also the Hillel director at Muhlenberg.

Distasteful, she says, because the inquiries seem to be rooted in stereotypes about the wealth and academic prowess of Jews – and are inspired, she believes, by anxiety at private colleges about projected declines in the college-aged population. “Over 90 percent of American Jews send their kids to college,” she says. “So if you’re at a private college or university and you know that the pool that you’re going to market to is going to drop dramatically, and you know that there’s this ethnic group that always sends their kids to colleges – and, perhaps, if we buy into the stereotype, disproportionately might be able to pay your private school tuition – then pieces come together and that’s where I feel like it makes me a little uncomfortable,” says Mittleman.

She points out that while colleges are stressing “religious diversity,” they’re typically not actively recruiting Buddhist or Muslim students. “If there’s anything to emulate at Muhlenberg, it’s saying ‘We value all religious diversity. What is it that you need?' And to well serve the population of students who are there. So if there are 10 Jewish students at a small place and those 10 Jewish students have a powerfully rich experience…those 10 Jewish students are going to be very, very powerful ambassadors, if you will,” says Mittleman.

“There are so many Jews at Muhlenberg because there are so many Jews. It’s word of mouth; word of mouth is everything in the Jewish community.”

This debate has happened before. In 2002, Vanderbilt University garnered a mixed reception for what was perceived as a brazen attempt to attract Jews to enhance the academic profile – the recruiting a component of what a Wall Street Journal article called then-Chancellor Gordon Gee's “‘elite strategy’ to lift Vanderbilt to Ivy League status."

All Ivies save Dartmouth College and Princeton University are among the top 15 private “schools Jews choose,” according to a new listing in Reform Judaism Magazine. Yale University, for instance, is 30 percent Jewish.

Vanderbilt is 26th on that same list, with 14 percent Jewish enrollment. Vanderbilt’s Hillel director was unavailable for interviews over several days, but the chapter's Web site chronicles a significant growth in Jewish student enrollment from a 3 percent base. Clearly, Vanderbilt’s call for Jewish students, while perceived as offensive by some, was likewise welcomed by others -- as a message of promoting and valuing diversity at an institution with a Protestant heritage.

At the time of the Wall Street Journal article, “There was a very negative feeling on the part of kids, of being used,” says Claire Friedlander, a college consultant. “But this goes back so many years. Now that we see so many groups are token groups that are looked at for diversity purposes, it doesn’t sound at all unusual to take a group that has been disproportionately underrepresented on a campus and encourage them to be there.”

In an article in the Reform Judaism college issue, Friedlander writes, “Today, a great number of little-known colleges and universities are interested in increasing the number of Jewish students on campus as part of their commitment to wider diversity. In addition, many of them support their Jewish students in campus programming, providing Jewish Studies courses, offering kosher eating plans, and actively engaging in Jewish student recruitment.

“I’ve noticed that more and more colleges are increasing their awareness of the fact that there are a lot of Jewish kids out there who go to college, they tend to complete and they also tend to pay their bills and they tend to do well. You put these three together and what admissions director wouldn’t be looking to increase their awareness of the population?” says Friedlander.

She adds, of the emphasis on diversity: “You just want your environment to be as cosmopolitan as possible.”

'If You Build It'

At Allegheny College, in Pennsylvania, one of the institutions spotlighted in Friedlander's article, Yana Geyfman is in charge of recruiting Jewish students and advising the Hillel chapter.

“I’m a full-time assistant director of admissions and part of my responsibility on a normal day would be advising Jewish students, helping them create programs on campus," says Geyfman. Now in her fourth admissions cycle, her position was created, she says, when the college identified areas in which diversity was lacking (in addition to attracting more Jewish students, enhancing geographic and racial diversity are also college goals, she says).

Allegheny's is an unusual arrangement, as Geyfman is the point of contact for Jewish students from the admissions process throughout the college years. The number of first-year Jewish students increased from about 15 last year, Geyfman says, to 32 this year. Parents tell her, she says, ”I’m happy you’re here. I’m sending my son or daughter to this school because I know you’re here. I know you will help them get adjusted."

Also in Pennsylvania, Franklin & Marshall College dedicated a new Klehr Center for Jewish Life on Friday. The college introduced a full kosher meal plan last fall.

Ralph Taber, a long-time adviser to the college’s Hillel chapter, stepped out of his position as dean of students this summer to take over a new position as director of the Klehr Center. He’ll also be working with recruiting prospective Jewish students. “The resources have been reallocated in terms of prioritization,” says Taber, explaining that the college wants to better serve students who are already enrolled (about 230 “check the box” indicating they’re Jewish).

At the same time, Taber adds, “Students will look at us who might not have looked at us before. If you had a requirement that you wanted kosher food, you wouldn’t have looked at F&M before.”

“I thought what Franklin & Marshall did was just brilliant because they went on the theory that if you build it they will come,” says Edith Lazaros Honig, a college counselor at Ramaz Upper School, an Orthodox Jewish high school in New York City. Two Ramaz graduates are now at F&M which, Honig says, benefits from being walking distance from an Orthodox synagogue.

More generally speaking, however, she says that while small liberal arts colleges periodically make overtures at Ramaz, they typically lack the infrastructure that Orthodox students, at least, need. “”They don’t really have full kosher meal plans; they don’t really have Orthodox services. On the one hand, someone has to be a pioneer. But on the other, it’s hard to find someone to be a pioneer, and I don’t know if we want to push [students] to be pioneers,” Honig says.

“The vast majority of our students, they’re probably more comfortable with going places with larger, more established Jewish communities on campus. And they tend to be more comfortable in urban areas. They’re from New York City or its immediate environs and they’re used to excitement and the activity, and they’re sometimes very bored on a small campus.”

A Spiritual Fit

Several administrators at small colleges involved in these efforts, including Allegheny College, freely acknowledge that they're probably not the right fit for most Orthodox Jewish students, or Jews who otherwise would characterize themselves as highly observant.

“I suspect that for students for whom Jewish life is their top priority, they would want to go someplace with a Hillel House and services every week and a well-established infrastructure and all those kinds of things," says Nancy Luberoff, the new part-time Hillel director at Elon University, in North Carolina, a United Church of Christ-founded institution that isn't, particularly, known for all those kinds of things. "But for students who want Jewish life as one of many things that they want, I don’t think that they’re deterred. I don’t think Jewish life here deters them.

"The interesting thing about Elon University is that it has been moving from becoming a regional university to becoming a national university. And I think there’s a clear recognition among the Board of Trustees and the leadership that if it’s going to be a national university, it needs to be able to attract and retain Jewish students and faculty.”

Explains Luberoff, who became the first Elon-hired Hillel director in August, “The university doesn’t want to lose students who are appropriate and who would be great additions to the student body here because we can’t support Jewish life on campus.”

Scher, of Chicagoland Jewish High School, says what’s key is for colleges to be honest in communicating what Jewish life is, and isn’t, on their campuses. “There are a lot of schools, you can go to Columbia, you can go to NYU, you can go to Brandeis... you can go to Penn – you can go to a lot of schools that have very strong Jewish populations with a lot of options.”

Other colleges are realistic in their more modest assessments, he says -- about whether they can offer regular rides to the synagogue or connections to a nearby campus' Hillel, for instance. “If colleges really care, they will do two things. Number one, they will be honest in their appraisal of what Jewish life is on campus and number two, they will be committed to meeting their needs” – following through, so to speak. “I am truly convinced that no college is doing themselves a favor by admitting students either academically or spiritually who don’t fit on that campus.”

At the same time, Scher says: “You have to start somewhere.”


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