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What are our (presumably) college-bound Jewish kids going to do?

If you think a university campus is no longer a good place for a nice Jewish young adult, here are some options to think about
A sign on the Brandeis University campus with the school's emblem and motto reads, 'Truth even unto its innermost parts.' Brandeis is one of the few schools that received high marks on the ADL's Campus Antisemitism Report Card. (Wikimedia Commons)
A sign on the Brandeis University campus with the school's emblem and motto reads, 'Truth even unto its innermost parts.' Brandeis is one of the few schools that received high marks on the ADL's Campus Antisemitism Report Card. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the US, college is a cultural rite of passage full of enriching social and educational opportunities, and across all demographics, a college degree represents increased lifetime earnings. Many Jews fought for the right to be included in institutions of higher learning, and, until recently, observant and secular Jewish life had been thriving on many campuses.

With the highly visible protests, which have become increasingly strident, antisemitic — and at times dangerous — parents, funders, citizens, and of course, prospective Jewish college students are viewing what’s happening in higher education with rising levels of concern.

We owe it to ourselves and to our children to address antisemitism soberly and responsibly, as it will directly impact the future of our educational institutions and the well-being of our children.

In this post, I present a spectrum of options, ranging from conservative to radical, along with associated pros and cons. I also discuss the necessary considerations for parents and community leaders/philanthropists to support each option. Clearly there is no one-size fits all, and families will consider a child’s age and desires, as well as his or her unique disposition, resilience, and future goals as they navigate these choices. To have a number of these options bolstered with additional resourcing would be healthy for our communities and our country.

For parents of younger children, time is on your side. You can explore ideas and begin implementing preparation strategies to keep several options open. Parents of older high school students have less time, but from current and unfolding events, the importance of the decision is clear.

A final note: because of the longer-term nature of these issues I am addressing parents and philanthropists, but that is not to the exclusion of thoughtful high school and gap year students: your close reading and understanding of your — and our — options is critical, and I hope this framing proves useful and helps firm your resolve to achieve all of your goals even if that means taking an alternative path.

Preliminary Questions: Effects of the Problem and Response Required

As we begin, consider two preliminary questions to guide your thinking about which option, or options, is most appropriate.

  1. What are the effects of antisemitism on college campuses?
  2. What is the response required?

If you are reading this essay, you likely acknowledge the antisemitism present on college campuses — but how much of a problem is it? Which statement below best approximates your views about the effects of antisemitism on campus today?

  1. Jew-hatred causes occasional and/or mild disruptions and psychological discomfort for students. It may somewhat limit Jewish and Israeli student participation on campus or involvement in groups and activities.
  2. Jew-hatred causes constant and/or extreme psychological discomfort for students that is likely to stymie learning, negatively affect mental health, and/or seriously inhibit integration into key college communities, such as relationships with professors, friendships, research opportunities, etc.
  3. Jew-hatred causes the above, and poses threats to students’ physical safety.

Because individuals can and do experience the same set of events differently, and because this situation may improve or deteriorate over time, it’s important to turn to both nationwide general data and school-specific data and “anecdata” at the schools you or your child may be considering at the time you are considering them.

In the spring of 2024, I recommend the following process:


  • The Jim Joseph-funded study by Dr. Eitan Hersh, which includes attitudes of non-Jewish students toward Jewish students;


At particular schools, I would speak to the JLIC, Hillel, and Chabad leaders, and I would look to the overall school leadership: how have the president and the deans been speaking and acting on the topic of antisemitism? Do they have an antisemitism taskforce, and if so, what are the recommendations, and have most or any been put into effect successfully? Have there been recent incidents of antisemitism on campus? What is the protest culture?

Once you can confidently plot the problem on the continuum, answering, “What response is required?” is easier. The flowchart accompanying this post is helpful for visual learners. The explanations below add nuance to these ideas.

Ivy League/Prestigious Universities

At this point, it is a challenge to justify enrolling a Jewish student for the fall of 2024 at one of the many prestigious universities making the news.

The question is not generally whether Jews should be at these institutions of higher learning. It is also not whether the top universities produce some of the country’s most important thinkers and doers. Emphatically, Jews should be at these schools, and we should be among the many influential people who graduate from them. Top universities are important institutions — beacons of thought leadership and roads to membership in America’s elite — though it is worth making note that for many reasons, even before the great moral confusion we’re witnessing today, in certain sectors, a degree from a top school is worth less than it once was.

What is up for discussion today is the reality on the ground. If an environment is toxic, spending time there is likely produce undesirable results. For those who attended elite universities themselves, there is a feeling of loss that our children might not be able to share those experiences. Failing to send our kids carries symbolic weight as well: if our kids leave the Ivies, it is either the an end of, or an interruption in, the trajectory of the Jewish-American story, which had always been one of upward mobility. However, our kids’ realities are more important than an idea, however prosaic. And parents, at least, are pragmatists.

Lori Fein recently published an excellent piece in Issue 43/Spring 2024/5784 of Conversations. Where I am concerned for the mental health and potential for success of Jewish students, Fein points out that we also must consider values transmission. She is rightly apprehensive about Jewish students’ morality. Fein, who serves on the board of the Harvard Hillel and on the executive board of the Harvard Jewish Alumni Association, says, “[i]n determining whether the benefits outweigh the costs, parents should consider the impact on identity, personality, and character spending time in this environment.” She expresses concern that “where Jewish students…repeatedly hear the message that in order to be on the side of good, to support human rights and freedom and minority rights, you must take a side, and that side is anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian.”

Fein cites that Harvard reported a 17 percent drop in early applications this year.

Looking at the other side, parents of bright, high-achieving children want to give them every opportunity, and top universities are part of that vision. For many years preceding 2023/24, parents of high-achieving students sent their kids to feeder high schools and have been making decisions and sacrifices to facilitate their children’s potential attendance at these prestigious schools. It could be difficult and disappointing for a student to change course late in the game. If it is difficult and disappointing for you as a parent, but not for your student, however, I urge you to keep your emotions and expectations in check.

If, with your blessing, your student wants and merits to attend one of these schools, he or she will require a lot of support before and during attendance — more than in past years. Fein suggests that parents remain deeply involved to avoid having “antisemitism shape [students’] character.” I provide recommendations for how to support students attending college later in this guide, under the heading, “Scaffolding before and during College.”

On a communal level, three things need to happen. (1) We must advocate for our Jewish students at elite schools and provide them with support and resources for them to maintain their Jewish identities and practice. (2) We need to push schools to reexamine their policies relating to demands of pro-Hamas protesters — it is deeply disturbing that some schools have capitulated to the demands of students and committed to hiring (more) anti-Israel professors and that they are considering BDS recommendations. (3) We need to help schools examine existing orthodoxies about privilege and oppression. There must be room for many theories in university settings, but we hope the school’s job is to help students learn how to think, not what to think. Even as some funders pull their money — a justifiable decision — and even as fewer Jewish students apply, as will likely be the case, as a community and as concerned citizens, we want these universities, still influential in the US and the world, to move forward on a better road and again become places that are friendlier to Jews and moral intellectual inquiry.

Universities with Better Antisemitism Ratings 

Unfortunately, few colleges received good grades on ADL’s Campus Antisemitism Report Card. And let’s be honest, the environment at A- or B-rated schools can change on a dime: where there wasn’t a major problem, one could quickly develop. The scaffolding for students, which I lay out below, is extremely important.

Brandeis University is the recipient of one of only two As on the list. It has issued strong statements about Israel, disbanded its SJP chapter, and made clear that chants like “from the river to the sea” are contrary to its values. In this way, Brandeis is a model for other private universities. Additionally, Brandeis, with a Jewish student population of 35%, has invited students impacted by the protests to transfer.

I hope that as universities make a concerted effort to welcome Jewish students and clearly promote the classic liberal values upon which university education is premised, they will be rewarded with not only attendance, but with increased funding for programming, research, and professorships.

Staying Local

Commuter colleges offer cost savings and flexibility with convenient scheduling options. If a student lives at home or lives on campus but visits frequently, he or she may benefit from a supportive family and existing community.

Student support should include the ideas discussed later: “Recommendations for Scaffolding before and during College.” If there are no campus resources available, encourage your student to find local Jewish life and get involved on his or her own terms, not only as a member of the family unit.

Jewish Institutions of Higher Ed

Attending a Jewish university, such as Yeshiva College or Stern College for Women, significantly insulates against the antisemitism we’re seeing on other campuses. YU/Stern offer rich Jewish life on campus, as well as diverse majors and courses of study. YU has invited students impacted by the protests to transfer. For those interested in pursuing niche studies in Jewish education and text, in addition to YU/Stern, some students might also consider JTS, Beth Rivka, or some other few Jewish institutions.

While some might feel that college should be an opportunity to get out of an all-Jewish bubble, frankly, this just might not be the year. There are other ways to deepen connections outside the Jewish world; consider extracurriculars like volunteering with a nonprofit, interfaith coalitions, local politics, theater, or internships.

I hope philanthropy will strengthen our Jewish institutions of higher learning and perhaps create new ones or expand currently available graduate options, like those at Gratz College.

Christian Universities

Now hear me out. I’m not sure that a Christian college would be the best environment for most undergraduate Jewish students at this point in time. However, partnership is something we should consider in philanthropy. It is expensive and involves a substantial time investment to create an entirely new school. Many, though not all, Christian colleges are more tolerant of opposing viewpoints and respectful of religious tradition than their secular counterparts today. Perhaps there exist opportunities to create joint programs and thoughtfully expand Jewish and Israel Studies departments, which have been suffering in their own way, and plant Jewish life strategically on some of these campuses.

University in Israel

Like attending a Jewish university in the US, universities in Israel provide a hedge against antisemitism, and to boot, many are considerably more diverse and cost-effective. The obvious con is that students would be far away, and I acknowledge the pro/con tension that while physical safety is not guaranteed, the psychological safety of being at “home” with others who understand is invaluable. All things considered, college in Israel may more closely resemble the type of college experience we hope our children might have.

The Technion, one of Israel’s world-class universities that specializes in science and research, recently announced that it would invite North American students, researchers, and professors wrestling with antisemitism to apply. I’ve spoken with officials at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University, and they are also planning to expand their offerings to American students. Bar-Ilan offers help and testing to admit North American students, and the university has a kollel for students who want to couple traditional learning with college coursework.

After a rigorous day school education, and perhaps a year in Israel for yeshiva/seminary or a leadership program, a student’s Hebrew may be up to the task, maybe with a little assistance or an extra Ulpan. Even if not, several Israeli universities offer English-based options, like TAU’s international programs, and Reichman University (formerly IDC), which has full BA and BS programs in English and runs three, instead of four, years.

An additional feature of college in Israel is that there is less general coursework — students work toward a major immediately. For example, whereas a law degree in the US requires an undergraduate degree and three years of law school plus the bar exam, in Israel, it is an undergraduate degree with a yearlong apprenticeship and the bar exam. Israeli lawyers can sit for the bar in the US.

Finally, 529 plans may be applied to most foreign accredited universities. You can learn more here — though of course make sure to confirm with the school of your choice and take advice from your accountant.

Philanthropists, along with everyone else, have been wringing their hands about the growing divides between Israel and Diaspora Jewry for some time. While some American Jews are struggling to find their place, the vast majority support Israel and feel close kinship, particularly now. With creative expansion of university programs for Americans and English speakers as well as innovations in business, cybersecurity, and so many other fields at Israeli universities, donors have the once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen Israel-Diaspora ties in a meaningful way.

Non-College Bootcamps, Apprenticeships, and Alternative Programs

Some students know they will take over a family business, start their own, or have a particular aptitude or interest they want to pursue. If that is the case for your student, perhaps it is wise to let them pursue this path sooner rather than encourage them to wait until after college. Alternatively, a student could attend part-time online classes while following a business-oriented trajectory. For otherwise presumptively college-bound young people, this is an unorthodox idea, but if parents and children plan properly, and supportive parents help their children excel and invest, it may be a path that leads to significant success. What follows are some ideas for these college alternatives.

  • Coding, AI and other tech bootcamps are intensive, short-term training programs designed to teach coding, AI and programming skills in a hands-on, immersive environment. They offer accelerated learning and practical experience, preparing students for careers in the tech industry in a matter of months. Sometimes bootcamps also guarantee job offers upon successful completion.
  • Dropshipping, landscaping, junk hauling, web design, culinary school (or a culinary boot camp) with a plan, or joining parents in their real estate investments may provide options for entrepreneurial-minded young people. This might be the year to encourage your student to learn the business skills necessary to start one of these projects. You could get involved and help them by investing your time, money, or connections as appropriate.

If you have a younger child, consider cultivating their marketable skills and interests early to help them, should they choose, to begin a career after high school or even sooner. A resource I appreciate which encourages early skills acquisition and strengthening is Parent Their Passion.

Online University 

The benefit of an online university, in addition to being free from protesting peers and professors, lies in its flexibility, allowing students to pursue higher education from anywhere with an internet connection, accommodating various schedules and lifestyles, including entrepreneurship. Additionally, online universities often offer a wide range of programs and resources, providing access to quality education without geographical constraints.

Between degree and certificate programs, which are offered at a number of traditional universities and online-only colleges, a person with sitzfleisch, the ability to sit and concentrate, can get an excellent education and degree completely online or in a hybrid program.

Alternative Universities

Jewish donors have been talking about starting new institutions for several years, and the conversations have been renewed with vigor in the wake of Oct. 7. The University of Austin (not to be confused with the University of Texas at Austin) is one model of an alternative/new university. Recently certified to confer degrees, it embraces a liberal educational model centered on inquiry and free thought, qualities its founders deemed lacking in existing institutions. The University of Austin (UATX), which is technically a private company while its accreditation as a university is pending, was founded and championed by the former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, and many others including Bari Weiss, the former NYTimes journalist who started The Free Press. The balance between promoting unencumbered inquiry and the potential for making the school a lighting rod for the culture wars could pose challenges, but the UATX, and the model, is certainly one to watch.

The first group of degree-pursuing students will begin classes in fall 2024, not a moment too soon. UATX is popular, underscoring the need it has tapped into; it has received over 6,000 faculty inquiries. This is certainly an intriguing development, and while we need to continue advocacy at our existing universities, UATX and others like it could provide students with the intellectual rigor and pleasure of an in-person liberal arts college experience without the baggage and hopefully without the Jew-hatred.

* * *

Recommendations for Scaffolding before and during College

Whether students are attending university in the US or approaching their post high school/gap year time in less conventional ways, it is clear that Jewish students need more support from parents and communities. Young people need training in civil discourse and tools to advocate for themselves and Israel, and they need stronger and more supportive Jewish communities during their college or young adult years. Where these used to be nice additions to college, now they are requirements for our students to succeed physically, mentally, and academically. We cannot be aghast at the antisemitism we see in the news but not change our behavior; we must even change the way we think about college.

  1. Get Clear on the Purpose of College  

In the shadow of antisemitism on college campuses, we should reimagine the way we look at higher education and what it means to attend college on a macro-level. If we decide to send students into a highly charged and potentially dangerous environment, the purpose of college should be clear as day as opposed to being “an experience” or “the thing we do after high school or a gap year.” A simple risk/reward analysis today doesn’t easily pan out if there is not something clear(er than a degree) about what students should gain from their time at university. Data show that college graduates have had a harder time getting desirable entry-level jobs in recent years, so parents and students should be highly specific, mapping the student’s purpose for attending college and strategies to extract its benefits.

  1. Time Spent and CLEP Exams

Because of the increasingly unstable university environment, Jews should consider spending less time in college. There are several ways to do this including AP classes and high school dual attendance programs. A superb option not many are familiar with: CLEP exams, or College-Level Examination Program exams. These are standardized tests administered by the College Board that allow students to earn college credit for knowledge acquired through independent study. These exams cover a wide range of subjects, and passing scores can be used to fulfill prerequisite or general education requirements at participating colleges and universities. CLEP exams cost $93, vastly less than a semester-long course, and are pass/fail. You can see specific university CLEP policies and learn more about testing.

  1. Students Need More Training and Tools to Advocate for Themselves and Israel

Students need strong civil discourse skills and historical knowledge. Organized leadership programs for high schoolers by AJCHartman, and Tikvah provide participants with information, mentorship, peer support, and teach them valuable thinking, speaking, and writing skills before they get to college. Some of these organizations and others also offer support and leadership programs for college students.

Harvard emeritus scholar and public intellectual Ruth Wisse makes the suggestion to have college students serve “two or three years in the army of words, in the political battle” for Israel. While we all should do this, realistically some students are better suited for such a leadership task. Along with pre-college preparation, this space is an opportunity for philanthropists to explore more formally.

  1. Students Need Strong Jewish Community and Spaces to Be Themselves 

In addition to family support and communication, students need a strong campus home-base where they feel comfortable and can recharge with like-minded peers. Vibrant Jewish community can be a meaningful part of a college experience in great times, but it’s essential for students to feel connected and supported in these uncertain and hostile ones. Parents should help and encourage students to establish relationships with leadership at Hillels, Chabads and JLICs. More is more in this case, so hopefully students will connect with peers and role models, attend orientation meetings, take advantage of learning, Shabbat activities, speakers and more.

More funding for staff, staff training, and staff support is key to bolstering Chabad, Hillel, and JLIC communities. None of these organizations were designed to deal with antisemitism at our current levels, but since their task is supporting Jewish students, they are working tirelessly to adapt.

  1.  Cross-Group Ties and Advocacy

Though it can seem bleak, as a Jewish community we must continue to build and strengthen inter-group ties and partnerships. We need allies, and we need to build networks and allyship among young people and professors/administrators for future generations of college students.

Though some of our relationships have proven fickle since October 7th, others have been strengthened. We have to remain optimistic and reach out – both to help elevate other communities and ask for their help in order to elevate ours – when we can.

The Naomi Foundation, with our funding partners and The George Washington University, started a highly regarded fellowship program for education faculty, campus administrators, and DEI officers at college-based schools of education. The fellowship focuses on how to recognize, study, and teach antisemitism and how to foster Jewish inclusion within departments of education and in K-12 school settings. Eager for skills and knowledge to help them do their jobs better, participants make connections between racism, history, and contemporary antisemitism. As part of the program, fellows make meaningful changes in their universities, and many have become true allies and spokespeople. This year we have many more applications than we can accommodate; it is heartening that so many are interested in being allies to stop antisemitism. Education-based programs like this one take time, but research indicates they can have profound impact.

While it may be tempting to retreat to our own communities — and indeed that may be the necessary choice for presumptively college-bound students — we must continue to educate and make friends and allies across difference.

* * *

I hope this framework is helpful in opening the conversation about the future of our Jewish students in higher education. We have to believe the situation will improve in Israel/Gaza and on our campuses, but I think Jews will and should remember these protests with well-placed anxiety long after the protesters are carefree and onto the next phase of their lives.

Of course, the protests didn’t materialize out of nowhere. Even before October 7, some universities had become fertile ground for anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist activist “scholarship” and for years, illiberal ideologies and the misapplication of anti-bias programs have had Jews feeling increasingly uncomfortable being open about their Jewishness. But where we Jews were once concerned about theories and erasure, now Jewish leaders on campus are rationally debating whether Jewish students should remain in person or continue the semester virtually from home because threats of violence have made keeping them physically safe, let alone learning, challenging in the extreme.

For a young person to be thrust into a situation where they experience prolonged psychological distress — let alone physical threats — based on who they are is likely to be extremely detrimental to their development and/or to their ability to extract the benefits from a college education. While it is possible that the student may come out stronger, more resourceful, and more resilient on the other side, it is equally possible that he or she may instead whither emotionally, falter morally, struggle socially and academically, and/or, G-d forbid, be the target of hate or violence. If we believe the effects of antisemitism to be deleterious, we should be ready to pursue options that can replicate some or all of the benefits of a college education and provide safer and exciting alternatives to the well-worn path.

A version of this piece and the accompanying flowchart, “What Are We Going to Do with Our Presumptively College-Bound Jewish Kids?: An Annotated Guide for Parents, Philanthropists, and Students” first appeared in the newsletter of The Intentional Jewish Family.

About the Author
Lindsey has more than 15 years experience in education philanthropy and nonprofit leadership. She is the Executive Director of The Naomi Foundation, which supports innovation in education. Lindsey is a rebbetzin, a mom, an attorney, and the creator of The Intentional Jewish Family, a conversation about making meaningful educational, financial, and lifestyle choices for Jewish families.
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