Steven Frank

College in Israel – – An Overlooked Alternative

Sign displayed at pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University on April 22, 2024 (Stefan Jeremiah/AP photo)

CEO Eric Cohen of Tikvah (a distinguished non-profit fund dedicated to promoting Jewish identity) recently delivered an address regarding the current crisis on American college campuses and how the Jewish community ought to respond. The address was published as a special feature in the May issue of Mosaic, Tikvah’s esteemed magazine, under the title of “The Exodus Project.”

Mosaic accurately describes the current situation where Jewish parents “watched Jewish kids hiding from riotous protestors calling for blood, kids barricaded in libraries * * * kids taking classes in undisclosed locations because campus security could not ensure their safety.” The essay correctly concludes: “as Jews and as Americans, we can no longer avert our eyes. We need a new strategy.”

Mr. Cohen and Mosaic raise four possible responses to the current crisis: “(i) living in opposition (‘the dissident’), (ii) living in isolation (‘the separatist’), (iii) moving to Israel (‘the Zionist’), or (iv) using Jewish energy to help renew the American project (‘the Americanist’).” Mr. Cohen and Mosaic favor option four.

Option one urges students “to live as Jewish dissidents; to stay and fight at places like Columbia and Penn; to live in opposition at places like UCLA and Harvard.” But the essay downplays this option since “no sane parent would actively choose to send his son into the underground or entrust his daughter’s education to madmen and frauds—all for the perverse tuition price of $90,000 per year.”

Option two highlights “separatists” who build academic citadels of their own—like Ner Israel in Baltimore and Beth Medrash Gohova in Lakewood. But the essay ultimately concludes that “if America succumbs to the rising culture of Jew-hatred, the yeshiva Jew will either erect higher walls or leave America entirely for the last and only refuge for God’s chosen people: Israel.”

Option three urges Zionists to make permanent Aliyah and cast their lot with Israel. But the essay discounts that option arguing that “America needs the Jews” now more than ever to help redeem America’s highest values.

Thus, the essay prefers option four, what it calls “the Exodus Project.” Mosaic correctly states that “American Jews feel betrayed by the very institutions they helped build. It’s time for young Jews to go to colleges and universities that welcome and embrace them.” Mosaic urges that American students make exodus from the elite Ivy League schools to the promised land of colleges in the South and Southwest, such as my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin,  Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and other “welcoming” sites such as Alabama and “rural Michigan.”

However, Mosaic’s favored option is but another path along the now well-traveled road of assimilation in America. If you can make it at Southern Methodist University, you can make it anywhere.

Mosaic is correct that American Jews need to “go to colleges and universities that welcome and embrace them.” It just focuses on the wrong colleges. A better option is mostly overlooked: college in Israel. [College in Israel is mentioned in passing in the Mosaic essay as part of a permanent Aliyah to Israel. As described here, it is meant as a temporary college sojourn which could or could not lead to Aliyah].

Aside from avoiding the gauntlet of anti-semites shouting “go back to Poland” on hostile American campuses, there are priceless collateral advantages for American students attending college in Israel. First, and foremost, is the opportunity to lead a full Jewish life in the Jewish homeland. Whether this means learning Hebrew, celebrating holidays along with an entire nation, or enhancing one’s own Jewish identity beyond Bar Mitzvah level, it is all dayenu (“that would have been enough”). And if it does not lead to Aliyah, students would return to the states more enlightened Jews better able to assume leadership roles in their communities.

Second, while most mouth the virtues of diversity and inclusion, Israel is the real deal. Over 100 countries are represented in Israel’s population, from places like Iraq, India, Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bulgaria, Germany, France and Argentina. More than fifty percent of Israelis are “people of color” (of Mizrahi descent from North Africa). Twenty percent of Israeli citizens (over two million people) are Arabs. There are an abundance of Palestinians, Druze, Christians, Armenians, Bedouins, and, of course, Jews. Attending college in Israel exposes students to an incredibly diverse array of people, certainly more than in most American universities.

Third, many American Jews put some value on their children socializing with and even marrying other Jews to continue ancient Jewish traditions. Such unions often take place at college and where better to increase the chances of such coupling? Israel or rural Michigan?

With the growing demand from American students, Israeli colleges are increasingly offering undergraduate degree programs in English in distinguished places like Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the Technion and other locales. Not to be overlooked is the fact that, relatively speaking, Israeli universities are seriously affordable. Most have three year programs where tuition, room and board run between $8,000 to $15,000/year. Compare that to the $50,000 to $90,000 at a private American university where our Jewish children have to hide their kippahs and stars of David and are saddled with a lifetime of student loans.

This option is but a continuation of Jewish education from a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in Israel, Alexander Muss High School in Israel, and Birthright Israel. It is less daunting and permanent than the dramatic decision to make Aliyah to Israel. It is part of a gradual evolution to see if our children or grandchildren should plant the family flag in Israel (we can always follow as many grandparents are doing today).

The choice is ours and our children’s. Do we “choose life” in Israel or hiding out in the more “welcoming” parts of the country such as Texas, Florida, and Alabama (as Mosaic suggests)? And, if not now, when?

About the Author
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish News Syndicate and Moment magazine.