How Jewish Students Choose Their College in America Nowadays


Choosing what university to go to is a hard thing that is made just that touch harder when you’re Jewish. After all, the American landscape is changing, with globalization, international conflicts and a country being torn apart by conflicting beliefs and fears all playing their part. Jewish students Universities have not been exempt.

A report released last year revealed that three quarters of students have received anti-Semitic comments over the period of 2014 to 2015. The report said that though physical harassment was still rare, “Verbal harassment is apparently a fact of life for a substantial portion of young Jewish students.” It doesn’t just end there, with 9 percent of the Jewish student body even reporting hearing hostility from faculty!

And though rare, physical abuse has become more common recently as well. There recently was a case in Brooklyn where a 24-year-old student was assaulted by a black man, who punched the student and said, “I don’t like white and Jewish boys, leave the school, you Jew.”

The worst affected areas, with the most perceived anti-Semitic and anti-Israel atmosphere were Canadian, in the California state systems, as well as large Midwestern state schools, though it has been theorized that this is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy. The theory is that these places have a higher reported incident rate due to greater sensitization on the part of Jewish students and impetus to further attacks by anti-Israel activists as a result of the media coverage that these areas have received.

The effect that has

Obviously, this is going to have an effect on which universities students choose. Perhaps this is why 55 of the 60 most colleges with the most Jewish students are along the American coast. After all, the coast has been firmly liberal for many decades and as this is more closely aligns with the views of the Jewish community, as well as making it less likely that students will be harassed by the fellow student body — though the situation in Brooklyn does not mean that anybody is perfectly safe in such areas.

Perhaps this is also why Jewish students by and large clump into universities with an active Jewish body, as for many Jewish freshmen it is crucial, to save their confidence during studying process, that there is a student body on campus that identifies and shares their beliefs and ideals. And who can blame them? After all, such communities offer a unique support that they cannot find anywhere else, giving them a place to worship, eat kosher meals and take part in extracurricular activities that share their belief system.

They don’t even necessarily need to religiously identify with their fellow Jews. Sometimes just having a culturally shared identity is enough for them to feel more at ease. This is why many students seek out Hillel chapters at the campus where they reside. Doing so has many beneficial long-term consequences; the Avi Chai Foundation has found that a student’s involvement in Hillel is the greatest predictor of future leadership among young Jews.

All these factors have led to an increase in Hillel activity of 38% over the last five years, with more and more people taking an active part.

Jewish students and the Midwest

Perhaps that’s why several colleges in the Midwest are building new Hillel gathering spaces. Recently, the Jewish community of Des Moines bought a 1910 craftman-style house to allow a new Hillel area to form, so that young people might engage more with the community as well as the university.

The problem, the local communities admit, is that millennial Jews are voting with their feet, moving away and not getting involved in the Midwestern life as much as they used to. This is creating an ever-bigger gap. Fuel is added to the fire by a 2013 Pew research center study that found that though 90% of Jewish kids say they are proud to be Jewish,  a third do not identify with the religion.

Still, those people who are most likely to be attracted to places with a Hillel center are going to be the very students that these types of cities and communities are trying to attract. And so, hopefully in the long run there will be a replenishment of young people. What’s more, Des Moines has other things going for it. So at least here not all hope is lost.

But will the rest of the Midwest fair as well? Only time will tell.

Like attracts like

In the meantime, it’s going to be those places that already have a large Jewish community that are going to be doing the best. For example, of the top 10 most-Jewish public colleges, six are part of the Big Ten Conference, which — in case you didn’t know — are the oldest athletic conference in the United States.

Those six colleges are: Rutgers University (6,400), University of Maryland (5,800), University of Michigan (4,500), Indiana University (4,200), University of Wisconsin, Madison (4,200) and Pennsylvania State University (4,000).

If there is something more to these places that attracts Jewish students accept that there already are a lot of Jewish students is not exactly clear.  No doubt, numerous universities are trying to find out in order to attract more Jewish students. If they do fail, then we can only hope they learn from their mistakes and end up making life on American university campuses more appealing.

Yes, that will only make it harder for our students to choose where to attend, but then that’s one of those problems you really want your young people to have, so we’ll probably not see the Jewish community shed any tears if that were to happen.

About the Author
Patrick Cole is a blogger and freelancer, currently living in Boston. He loves writing and self-education.