October 21, 2011
I have a Jewish daughter in 12th grade, which means one thing: college applications. The fact that she is applying is a given; my husband and I have followed the long-standing Jewish tradition of brainwashing our children into believing that college is nothing more than grades 13 though 16. But what is a little shocking is that hours of searching Web sites like Collegeprowler.com, reading the tome Fiske Guide to Colleges and meeting with college counselors has arrived when it seems like just yesterday I was picking stale Cheerios out of her car seat.
Something else is surprising as well. At no time during our many discussions about many different schools has the question arisen of whether any given college on her wish list is particularly, well, Jewish.
I think this would be strange regardless of where she attended high school, but it is particularly odd because she is happily attending New Community Jewish High School. Her college counselor asked her during her junior year whether attending a college with a large Jewish student body was important to her, and she replied, “Not really.”
Now that the ticking of the biological clock has been replaced by the ticking of the Daughter Leaving for College Clock, the question of whether the college she ultimately chooses has a decent-size Jewish population and/or some center for Jewish involvement on campus has become more significant, at least to me.
I believe, rightly or wrongly, that sending a Jewish kid to a school with a bunch of other Jewish kids will make the awkward new-friend-making process easier. I picture my daughter employing her highly honed Jewdar, approaching another Jewish girl and saying sweetly, “Hi, I’m from Los Angeles, and I don’t know a soul at this school.” To which the other girl (who will ultimately be her backpack-through-Europe companion, her study partner and her maid of honor at her wedding) will respond, “I’m a Jewish girl from Westchester County, N.Y. Let me introduce you to a bunch of other menschie Jewish kids from my dorm and we can hang out, and then we can all call our mothers.”
I’m far from the first parent to think that sending her kid to a college with a decent-size Jewish population might be a good idea. Last week, I received my quarterly Reform Judaism magazine and it had a section called “Insider’s Guide to College Life.” Inside was a carefully tabulated list of 60 private and public universities ranked in order of their overall Jewish student populations in terms of absolute numbers and student body percentages.
In addition to the statistical breakdown of Jewish student bodies, the magazine contained several general articles about choosing a college. An article titled “Getting In: What the Experts Say” had a Q-and-A with admissions experts. One of the questions, which I suspect was “written” by a fictionalized student reader of Reform Judaism magazine, was: What is the secret to finding the right school for me? And how can I determine if the student body and faculty will be welcoming to me as a Jew, in general?
Wendy Kahn, of Wendy Kahn College Consulting, responded: “To find out if a school has a strong Jewish community, visit the Hillel or another Jewish student organization and talk with student leaders and professional staff. Ask about what matters to you. Here are a few suggestions: How many Jewish undergrads are there? Some Jewish community professionals say that a 10 percent Jewish campus population is about the beginning point of viability for a Jewish student to find ‘community.’ How many students are active at Hillel? What programs does Hillel have? Are there Jewish fraternities and/or sororities?”
I decided to discuss my theory that a Jewish kid would have an easier time acclimating to college if there was a significant Jewish presence on campus with someone who has experience in the matter: Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.
Every year, Rabbi Vogel takes a college tour to connect with students whose families are temple members. “Some kids will naturally direct themselves toward Jewish involvement,” he said, “but the ones who won’t are the ones you need to worry about. Jewish organizations become important just in case those kids decide at some point that they want to get involved.” College, he noted, is “a natural time for exploration.”
Rabbi Vogel raised another good point. He explained that many of the kids who grew up in the heavily Jewish West Valley don’t understand the importance yet of their Jewish friendships. Yet, he has observed that once Jewish kids arrive on large college campuses, many of them gravitate toward Jewish fraternities and sororities that have a “Jewish soul” and create a Jewish friendship circle.
This confirms what my friends who have already sent their children off to college have observed. One noted, “My daughter has only been in school (University of Wisconsin, Jewish student population 13 percent) for a month, but she already has been to two Shabbat dinners through Hillel. Ironically, she would never go to a Shabbat service or attend a synagogue Shabbat dinner when she lived at home. I think it has been her way to make connections.”
Another friend noted that her daughter, a Calabasas High alum and now a junior at the University of Michigan (Jewish student population 18 percent) joined a Jewish sorority and now rents a house with a bunch of other Jewish girls.
“Coming out of a predominantly Jewish area, these kids are very at ease with being Jewish,” my friend said, “and being Jewish has been made very easy — public schools are closed on the High Holy Days, and all of their friends went to religious school.
“So when they go to college, one of the hardest things, and the thing that causes the most stress, is wondering, ‘Where am I going to fit in?’ When there is a Jewish community at the college, you know there will be a place that you are going to fit it. It is an immediate niche for you.”
After gathering this much evidence to support my argument that my daughter should take note of whether a particular school has a few other Jewish students before applying, I revisited the issue with her. We were driving home from dinner and I asked her and her Calabasas High friend if they would be interested in going to a college where there were hardly any other Jewish students.
Her friend responded that she would definitely want to go to a college where there were lots of Jewish kids because she thought that would make her feel more comfortable.
“I think that if I had a group of 15 friends and two or three were Jewish, that would be great,” she said.
Hmmm … three out of 15? That’s 20 percent. More than viable.