Jewish Journal

The annual migration of North American Jews to college

by Roger Price

August 15, 2013 | 8:13 am

UCLA-Royce Hall

When they are underway, the annual migrations of various animal species are truly magnificent to behold. By sea, land and sky, they move: the sea turtles and the baleen whales, the caribou and the wildebeests, the green darner dragonflies and the arctic terns and the free-tailed bats, among others. (See http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/11/great-migrations/; http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/photo/.)

These migrations, which can transpire over thousands of miles, exhibit common characteristics. They suggest preparation and persistence, attentiveness, intentionality and unique allocations of energy. The participants will face distractions and temptations, but they will meet these challenges and more with what seems to be a shared sense of purpose. They are marvelous and inspiring adventures.

Perhaps these animals move because of some encoded instinct or perhaps from some form of communication we do not yet understand. Whatever the cause, they are not on an orderly and docile walk, two by two, as in the Noah fable. They are engaged in an existential activity, where travel is grueling and life and death are at issue for each animal individually and for the group as a collective, whether bale or pod or herd or team or swarm, flutter or flock.

Humans participate in seasonal movements, too. They are not as literally colorful or as dramatic in quantity or distance as the storied travels of the red crabs or the monarch butterflies.  No, these migrations are different, seasonal to be sure, but more dispersed and more conscious than those of other species.

Right now, the first of two annual migrations of North American Jews is underway. This first migration occurs over a period of several weeks. The migrating population is young, generally 18 through 21 years of age, though some are a bit younger and certainly some are older. Male and female they go, not to any one locale, but still to special places, where they will, like caterpillars, change and grow. Some will travel long distances and some will commute. Some will go to metropolitan areas and some to more rural settings. Some will go join large populations and some will go to be with small groups.

Not all in this age range will participate, but most will. They will go in droves, if not packs and prides. More than attending High Holy Day services, more than participating in a Passover seder, more than lighting Shabbat candles, young adult Jews go to college. Estimates vary, but perhaps 85-90% or more of young adult Jews go to college. (See, e.g., “Why More Colleges Want Jewish Students,” at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/10/29/jewish; “American Jews,” at http://jbuff.com/c052302.htm.)

Some will go to elite private schools like the University of Chicago and Harvard University. Some will go to elite public schools, such as the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. They will go to college towns like Boulder and Tempe and Lawrence and Raleigh. And they will go to Miami, the one in Florida and the one in Ohio. They will go to major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles and New York, for instance. They will go to many and diverse places, but the key fact is that they will go, tens of thousands of them in any year.

The percentage of students who are Jewish at many schools is astonishing. Consider these figures for some private schools:

·         32% at Tulane University in New Orleans

·         30% at Emory University in Atlanta

·         29% at George Washington University in Washington D.C. and at Oberlin College in Ohio

·         27% at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut

·         25% at Washington University in St. Louis


Even at public schools, the percentages can be high:

·         22% at the University of Maryland in College Park

·         18% at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

·         17% at the University of Florida in Gainesville

·         16% at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey and at U. of California, Santa Cruz. 


Percentages can be deceiving, of course. Only 8% of the undergraduate population at the University of Texas is Jewish, but that 8% totals 4,000 students, more than twice as many as attend Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts which is 50% Jewish. Five thousand (5,000) will go to Penn State, 4,000 more to Wisconsin, 3,000 to Cornell. (For a fuller list of schools and Jewish populations at them, see “Admissions 101 & 102” in Reform Judaism, Fall 2013, at 36-37.) You can almost hear the merchants calling “The Jews are coming! The Jews are coming!”

What will they see and what will they hear? For most, the experience will be mind-expanding, as it should be. They may encounter new subjects, from archeology to zoology. They may drill deeper into formerly familiar concepts. No doubt old ideas will be challenged, old assumptions questioned. Their heads will be stuffed with dates and facts. Their brains will be asked to engage in critical thinking.

In the majority of cases, the young adults will succeed. Not only will they graduate, but many will continue their education.  In the Chicago area, for instance, about forty percent (40%) will earn graduate degrees. (See http://jewishdatabank.org/Reports?Jewish_Populations_in_the_United_States_2011.pdf. (At 24.))

And when they get out, when they emerge from their collegiate chrysalis, what will they know? Many things, of course, but here’s one thought they think is true. According to a relatively recent survey at a Reform congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, a clear majority (51%) of Jews aged twenty-something who responded agreed with the proposition: “Science explains everything, making God an unnecessary hypothesis.” (See “The God Survey” in Reform Judaism (Summer 2012) (http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=3036).)

The Massachusetts survey is flawed, of course. The sample is small and the questions do not allow for subtle responses. Indeed, how many scientists believe that science explains “everything”? We cannot even define “everything.” Nevertheless, we understand the message and the results are not (or should not be) surprising. Whatever they learned in Hebrew School or Sunday school, in whatever congregation they belonged just a few years earlier -- let’s call it pediatric Judaism--they seem to have rejected. What they have replaced it with, if anything, is much, much less clear. What is clear is that the pediatric Judaism that might once have been sufficient to sustain the children of Israel is no longer suitable for many of the adults of Israel.

If Jewish college graduates in North America are the future of the Jewish people in North America (and they are), and if Judaism is the evolving, religious civilization of the Jewish people, as Mordecai Kaplan defined it four score years ago (and it is), then the collective college experience of North American Jews will have a dramatic impact on that civilization as it continues to evolve, including how and to what degree that civilization will be described as “religious.”

Having planned so hopefully, worked so hard, sacrificed so much to make sure that they received a “higher education,” we should not be afraid of the consequences of that education. Rather, we need to listen to what these new BAs and BSs and MBAs and JDs are saying, verbally and physically, about their Jewishness. We won’t need a PhD in sociology or psychology to understand that they have read too much literature to be moved by mere lore, studied too much science to be captivated by fable, learned too many facts to be swayed by fiction, and, not incidentally, met too many different kinds of good and decent people to be committed without question to their tribe. We need to engage with these young Jews on the level they have now reached, help them move beyond pediatric Judaism by showing them that there can indeed be a vibrant Judaism that their minds can affirm, a positive Judaism for the adults of Israel worthy of being chosen by them as educated members of that community.

For those of us who graduated some years ago, this is no small challenge. Many of us are questioning too, asking about what we believe and why we belong, how we can be part of a unique community and still champion universal values. Fortunately, just as it is time for the annual migration of some North American Jews to college, so the time is approaching for other North American Jews to participate in their own migration, not to college, but to shul for a bit of reflection.  That, however, is a discussion for another day.

Another version of this essay was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

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Roger Price was born and raised on the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, long before Barack Obama decided to settle there. Originally schooled in a classic...

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