Yael Barzideh applied to two colleges last year: University of Pennsylvania because she wanted to go there, and UCLA because that's where her parents wanted her to go.
But when she received an acceptance letter from Penn, she immediately withdrew her
UCLA application, because she really wanted to head East.
"For the sake of a social life, it's very important to go," said Yael Barzideh, who graduated from Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School (YULA) in June.
Like Barzideh, many graduates of Los Angeles' private Jewish schools head to the East Coast for college -- about 50 percent, according to statistics provided by YULA, Shalhevet High School and Milken Community High School. Usually, the more observant they are, the further East they go, with New York, home to Orthodox magnet Yeshiva University, as the most popular destination.
"I know it's very important for many of my students to apply to colleges on the East Coast," says Joan Ferry-Scott, director of college counseling at Shalhevet. "Part of it is that they have been in California in a private, small setting all of their lives, and they want a change of scene while still being in a Jewish, active, very exciting setting."
Ruben "Fudge" Levavi, from Shalhevet, says he chose NYU over UC Berkeley, which "wasn't far enough." He wants to live in New York not necessarily because of the strong Jewish presence, but for the opportunity to break with dull familiarity and start again in a colorful city.
"There's a big Jewish community out there," Levavi says. "If you want to be a part of it, you have no problem whatsoever. If you don't, there are so many other groups you could mingle with."
Leaving home is alluring for students across the religious spectrum, although less observant students are more likely to also consider schools in the Midwest and public schools, such as UC Berkeley or UC Santa Barbara, which are "far enough" for them.
For a large part of the Persian community, for example, family and social dynamics are such that children are either actively discouraged to leave home or they don't because they find their social niche and future spouse within the local community. This past year at YULA, for example, Persian students made-up about 25 percent of those seniors who end up staying in Los Angeles.
The retention rates are not much of a surprise to Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel and Jewish studies lecturer. While there is a critical mass of Jews on a community level, there isn't at the college level.
"Orthodox students in particular are seeking an intense Jewish experience on a campus with a critical mass of Jews so as to facilitate their ability to practice Judaism fully and successfully."
To improve Jewish student life at UCLA across the board, UCLA Hillel is building The Yitzchak Rabin Jewish Student Center. Set for completion in August 2002, the center will include a kosher dining room, café, lounge, beit midrash, classrooms and auditorium. UCLA Hillel recently hired an Orthodox couple to assist with outreach and programming.
"This is for the future of our community," says Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob Congregation, who collaborated with Seidler-Feller to make UCLA more Orthodox-friendly.
Weil hopes the new center will curtail the college migration, which further depletes the post-college young Jewish community, since many who head East never return home. While statistics on those who return to Los Angeles after graduation are not readily available, many students inevitably find a job or spouse where they study. "We're going to make it more viable for them -- not only for our kids to stay but also to attract kids from the East," Weil says.
If recruiters from Los Angeles wanted a selling point, they might want to choose the entertainment industry, which is the biggest draw for out-of-towners.
"I did find that when I was Orthodox during college it was very limiting, and it was also hard to find each other," says Mya Akerling, who graduated YULA in 1994 and UCLA Film School in 1999. She admits that relaxing her Jewish observance and pursuing a career in film have made things easier. "Now that I'm out of college and people have come back, I'm finding that new people are moving from back East who want to be in the entertainment industry. We're having more of a community."