Exploring colleges, you can easily check off the items that are important to you on a college campus: close to a major city – check, affordable tuition – check, liberal arts – check, large athletic department – check, Hillel – check.
Let’s take a closer look at that last one. As a Jewish student, ready to embark upon your first major journey of independence, self-growth, and academic and social pressure, you probably want to make sure you’re not the only Jew on campus.
With over 2800 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, Hillel (the largest Jewish student organization in the world) is servicing 550 campuses. Annually, over 200,000 Jewish college students have some level of involvement with Hillel. That’s a pretty impressive reach considering there are approximately 400,000 self-identifying Jewish students attending four-year traditional colleges across the country. It appears as though the Jewish population is pretty well-represented. Once you begin your college search, take a close look at how many students are actively involved in Jewish programs, and which campuses best fit for your desired amount and type of activity.
Based on your level of observance, you will have a list of criteria that factors into your college decision. Every campus is unique and Jewish student organizations offer different activities to meet the needs of their constituency. A cluster of nearby campuses may be serviced once a week or once a month by a single Jewish engagement professional whereas you may by overwhelmed with the amount of programming on any given night.
For many students, regardless of Jewish observance or connection, their first obvious college activity will be walking across campus to the Hillel lawn for the annual Back to School BBQ. Jewish life on campus can include free Shabbat dinners, Thursday night pizza and a movie social, a myriad of social justice activities, Israel programs, Jewish education, and holiday services. Is there a diverse enough pool of Jewish students to date, are there a variety of programs and events that attract enough students? Is there a campus Chabad or a Jewish Student Union – what kinds of programs do they offer students?
How do you feel about a campus’ Jewish fraternities and sororities tailgating to the homecoming game on Yom Kippur? What about the Jewish groups that support Palestinians? What about those that don’t? Do you want to try yoga & mediation services or do you prefer peer led traditional ones? Are you looking for kosher food, students that know about the holidays and value their Jewish identity, or a particular way in which students support the State of Israel?
It is not enough to simply look on a website and check ‘Jewish life’ on your list of college criteria. Students need to understand that they are inherently and inevitably evolving, growing, and maturing socially and intellectually. They need to position themselves on a campus that will give them the best tools to embark upon their journey.
Top Ten Questions to Ask When Choosing a College from the Jewish Perspective
1. What kind of relationship do the Jewish campus organizations have with other cultural and religious campus organizations?
2. How does your campus and the Jewish student body deal with religious tensions?
3. Hillel – is there professional staff on campus?
4. How many Jewish students are on your campus? Is it enough?
5. Is kosher food available – daily, weekly, fresh, packaged, vegetarian only?
6. Are there Shabbat services – what kind and how often – followed by free dinner?
7. Do students value their Jewish identity or tend to disregard it?
8. Is the Jewish student organization(s) strictly social or do they offer a variety of events?
9. Does the faculty and administration work with students who miss class for religious holidays?
10. Can you truly see yourself, as a maturing and spiritually evolving Jew, on a particular campus?
Noa Bejar is a College Guidance Counselor, helping Jewish students in South Florida and Atlanta navigate the college search and application process for over seven years. She can be reached at email@example.com