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Choosing a College from a Jewish Perspective
by Richard S. Moline
A first year college student, worried about where he will go for the high holidays, phones home from his Midwestern university just prior to Rosh Hashanah; the few Jewish students on campus are not particularly organized and he does not know whom to call to see if there is a synagogue nearby. At a small liberal arts college, a student tells her parents that she has a midterm during Pesach and will not be able to go home for the s’darim because her professor will not let her delay the test. Another student at a large state school talks about anti-Semitic speakers who are often paid from the student activities fund (i.e., tuition dollars).
Panicked, concerned parents all too often find out that little, if anything, can be done to help their child. “‘If only we had known,” they proclaim, “we would have pointed them towards a different school.” Frustrated, students may spend a miserable semester or year, or even find themselves transferring to another school where they might feel more comfortable being Jewish.
The college selection process, while opening doors to unparalleled growth and exploration, can also be very stressful and trying. Scores of books are published each year providing students and their parents with information on various schools, their academic requirements, financial aid, and other concerns. Most families explore these areas quite carefully while neglecting to consider the availability of any Jewish programming or community.
Even for the most firmly committed, maintaining a strong Jewish connection on today’s college campus is difficult. The familiarity and comfort of home is replaced with uncertainty. Students suddenly need to make countless decisions resulting from their new-found independence: study habits must be fashioned; courses need to be selected; there are new friends to make; money to be managed; social, academic and extracurricular opportunities to explore; and intellectual challenges to be met.
The strain of anti-Jewish activity on some campuses adds to the ambivalence many students feel about their own Judaism. In addition to anti-Semitic speakers, articles appear in student newspapers questioning the legitimacy of the Holocaust. Israel Independence Day celebrations are disrupted by fellow students questioning Israel’s right to exist. Members of other faiths challenge fundamental Jewish beliefs. With all of these pressures, the Jewish component of student life is often put on hold.
Parents and students should begin talking about college-related issues before the junior year in high school. When looking for a college or university, location, academics, population, size, and finances are naturally considered, knowing that different students have different needs. Family circumstances, academic achievements and college test scores also affect the options. And while everything might look good on paper, both students and their parents must be aware that the reality of university life may be completely different.
There are certain questions each Jewish family must ask when looking at schools. It is important to know in advance the population and percentage of Jewish students on campus. While students should not limit themselves to only Jewish friends and acquaintances, it is comforting to know that there will be others with similar backgrounds who share common experiences. It is just as essential to know which institutions on campus are available to support the Jewish population.
- Is there an active Hillel Foundation (or its equivalent)?
- Who are the professional staff?
- What Shabbat and holiday activities, student groups, kosher meal plans, etc. are offered?
- Is there a KOACH group for Conservative Jewish students? Is there a Jewish community nearby?
- Are there job possibilities in a local synagogue as a religious school teacher or USY adviser?
- Are Jewish studies courses offered?
- Will your student be able to receive credit for a year of study in Israel?
- How does the university respect Jewish observance in relation to the school’s calendar?
Many fraternities and sororities are no longer exclusively Jewish. If this type of living arrangement is best for your student, is it available?
Moreover, parents and children need to discuss Jewish issues prior to attending college (whether living at home or on campus). What are the expectations in terms of inter-dating? Where should a student rum if confronted by a missionary? For which holidays is the student expected to be home?
A careful examination of these issues may help avoid some (but not all) potential problems for Jewish students. And while there are many challenges, there are also numerous colleges and universities which provide a vibrant Jewish life, including an actively involved Jewish faculty.
A family should conduct a proper investigation of any college it is considering on a variety of levels. The admissions office of many colleges and universities will have population statistics. The campus Hillel Foundation or Jewish Student Union is another good source of information. Speak with the director, and obtain the names of actively involved students who are generally happy to talk with potential recruits. Often, a fellow student can answer certain questions far better than an admissions officer or Hillel director.
KOACH’s Guide for the New Jewish College Student, by Rabbi Dave Levy, offers advice to students on how to stay involved and Jewishly committed.
The B’nai Brith Hillel Guide to Jewish Life on Campus, published by the B’nai Brith Hillel Foundation lists Jewish populations, activities, religious opportunities and resources for campuses throughout the world. Both publications can be of great help to families as they begin the college selection and application process.
As a final step in the decision-making process, visit the campus. Arrive towards the end of the week in order to observe classes and ensure appointments with university personnel. Make arrangements to stay on the campus for Shabbat. This often serves as a barometer of Jewish life.
Students should feel secure in knowing that their Judaism need not be compromised at the college of their choice. With prior investigation and dialogue, students should be able to graduate, not only with a diploma, but with their Jewish identity intact.