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.,
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
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
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
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
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. You can find it at www.koach.org/guide.htm
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.
Access the guide online at:
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
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.