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Adam Lehman

Skate to Where the Puck Will Be: Jewish Student Presence in 2023 and Beyond

In a recent opinion piece in Tablet Magazine entitled “The Vanishing: The erasure of Jews from American life”, writer Jacob Savage makes the assertion that Jews are disappearing from American culture, especially from places of power and prominence, including elite colleges and universities. Savage’s conclusions, while provocative, are also completely unsurprising. 

As colleges and universities have pursued concerted efforts to increase their populations of significantly under-represented communities, this has predictably resulted in a relative decrease in the representation of Jewish students at schools where the Jewish student community has equated to 20% or more of the total student population. 

While we can (and I’m sure will) continue to debate the political, ethical, historical, and economic implications of the current efforts to ensure more diversity within high-prestige institutions, I think Savage’s take misses some important trends and angles in higher education, many of which I observe every day through my work at Hillel.

While the percentage of Jewish students at certain colleges and universities has decreased in recent years, Jewish students continue to represent a large and outsized presence within many university communities. As reflected in our Hillel International College Guide, 60 colleges and universities have Jewish student populations equalling more than 12% of their total undergraduate populations, and 25 have in excess of 20% representation. These groups of schools include many of the most highly ranked colleges and universities in the U.S. Savage’s take also obscures the fact that Jewish students don’t exist separate from other forms of diversity, but increasingly reflect that diversity, with more Jewish students than ever identifying as Jews of color or through other combined identities.

Focusing just on where the relative share of Jewish students is decreasing also misses the corresponding substantial growth of Jewish student populations at other schools on the rise. Just as Vanderbilt University worked to grow and strengthen opportunities for Jewish students a few decades ago, many other schools have done the same, either to meaningfully increase or to sustain strong Jewish student communities. Schools like Vanderbilt, WashU, Emory, and Tulane continue to have large and vibrant Jewish student populations and are all thriving in relation to a variety of different institutional benchmarks. 

In addition, many other schools have made concerted efforts to “put themselves on the map” for Jewish students, including Muhlenberg, Elon, and the College of Charleston. In the process, these schools have grown their Jewish student communities and their overall institutional presence and prestige. At Hillel, we are actively partnering with a wide range of colleges and universities that are affirmatively leaning into opportunities to create positive and vibrant Jewish student life on their campuses. As a result of these efforts, Jewish students and families will have a growing number of compelling options to pursue their education at universities that offer both outstanding academic offerings and strong and supportive Jewish life on campus.

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky (not Jewish) was known for his maxim to “skate to where the puck will be” rather than where the puck is now. As we assess prospects and opportunities for Jews in the U.S. and around the world, Gretzky’s philosophy is important to keep in mind. The puck is clearly moving within the higher education landscape, and we have the opportunity to lean into that movement, investing in meaningful Jewish student life at the many institutions where Jewish students are, and will be into the future.

About the Author
Adam Lehman serves as the president and CEO of Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, with a presence on more than 850 college and university campuses in 16 countries.
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