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  • Writer's pictureAlison Merzel

Questions to ask if you are a Jewish student applying to college

My colleagues and I are getting many questions from rightfully concerned Jewish families about how to approach the college admissions process amidst alarming rates of antisemitism around the world and targeted attacks against Jews on college campuses.

This is an extraordinarily challenging time and it is heartbreaking to hear stories of college students being physically and verbally attacked on the basis of being a Jew. What is important to remember is that each Jewish student has a very different relationship with their Jewish identity. Once you have identified a list of schools that meet the student's academic and student-life priorities irrespective of their Jewish beliefs, it is then time to evaluate whether the school continues to make the cut in light of them.

Here are some questions to consider:

1) Are you looking for a large and active Jewish community on campus?

Just by nature of the number of students enrolled, larger universities with a Hillel or Chabad are likely to have greater numbers of Jews than a smaller college. You might find a very active Hillel chapter at a small college, but you won't necessarily be able to find comfort in numbers. Is it important to you to be on a campus with thousands of other Jewish students? Hundreds? Or are you ok with a mini, but mighty Jewish presence?

2) Do you care if there is a Hillel building on campus?

Some universities are affiliated with regional Hillel groups - the Hillels of the Florida Suncoast represent the University of Tampa, Eckerd College, Florida Southern College, and the University of South Florida. Their Hillel is located on USF's campus, so the other campuses do not have a Hillel building. Similarly, the North Carolina Hillel Link supports 8 campuses, but only NC State and UNC Chapel Hill have a physical presence on campus.

If you are a student who would turn to Hillel to attend Shabbat services regularly, a building would be important. If you feel more comfortable having a safe space to turn to where you can find Jewish administrators or clergy, you likely will want easy access to a Hillel or Chabad House. If you are just looking for Jewish programming or social events, those don't necessitate a Hillel building - Jewish community can be found through togetherness in different spaces.

3) Is it important to you to have a Jewish community on campus at all?

Some students are not religiously observant and may not be looking for active Jewish life on campus. These students may be looking for a campus where they can feel safe, but may not need Jewish programming or resources.

I have heard of Jewish families that are considering whether their students may feel safer at a Christian college. Again, this is not going to be the right choice for many Jewish students, but for others it just might be.

4) Do you want to be on a campus that is politically active, one where it is more likely to see protests, demonstrations, propaganda, or strong evidence of discourse?

The composition of the student body and geographic location of the school will play into the campus culture and dynamics. Some students prefer an "apolitical" campus where they are unlikely to see much activity happening around world events in public spaces. Other students feel passionate about advocating publicy for their identity and their beliefs. They may gravitate towards a campus community where spirited debate is the norm and where people are vocal and visible about where they stand.

5) What steps have the campus administration taken to ensure the safety of Jewish students on campus?

Parents of current Jewish students and Jewish alumni are more likely to have been horribly disappointed than pleasantly surprised by the reaction of university administrators in response to the October 7th massacre. Very few institutions immediately came out and condemned the acts of terrorism and called out the antisemitism for what it was. In the past several days, we continue to see announcements about new committees and task forces being formed to address antisemitism on campus. Columbia University and University of Pennsylvania announced task forces and NYU just announced that they will create a new Center for the Study of Antisemitism.

Determine whether you are comfortable with the plans in place to address this issue swiftly and evaluate whether you think the university is taking appropriate steps. Ask administrators how they will ensure that your student is protected on campus. What does security look like around Hillel, Chabad, Jewish fraternities and sororities? What will the response be when a student on campus verbally or physically assaults a fellow Jewish student? What about the response by administration to a faculty member who makes a student feel uncomfortable or who is teaching misinformation in class? What mechanisms are in place to prove to Jewish students that their university hears them, sees them, and supports them?

6) Is there a Jewish Studies program on campus?

The presence of a Jewish Studies department indicates a recognition of the importance of engaging in research and education about the history, culture, religion, and language of the Jewish people and the Jewish experience.

7) Is there evidence of curriculum or faculty that are expressing antisemitic sentiments?

You have access to read course descriptions and faculty biographies. Research whether there are academic departments or programs that communicate ideologies that are antithetical to your own. Academic institutions are meant to be places for students and faculty to engage in respectful dialogue and debate. Unfortunately as of late, many Jewish students have found themselves in classrooms where they have been unable to speak freely for fear of retribution or they have been singled out and been harassed for their beliefs. This is unacceptable. One professor at an institution does not represent the view of all, but it is important to understand the beliefs and values of the faculty members within academic departments to gauge whether you will feel comfortable openly sharing your point of view in the classroom.

8) How is the administration handling student groups that are communicating hateful and dangerous rhetoric?

Unfortunately, the desire to resolve a humanitarian crisis and improve the lives of innocent people living in a seemingly hopeless situation has been conflated with the mission of Hamas, which is to eradicate Israel and eliminate the Jews. Evidence continues to emerge that SJP is aligning itself with Hamas. There is a difference between free speech and hate speech that targets specific students on campuses, threatening their safety and discriminating them on the basis of their religion.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), prohibits race, color, or national origin discrimination, including harassment based on a person’s shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. The U.S. Department of Education is already investigating six institutions of higher education and one K-12 school district for a violation of Title VI.

As you research colleges and universities, evaluate how students in SJP or other student groups are behaving on a given campus and whether the chapters have been suspended, like at George Washington University, for violating university policies.

9) Would you feel safe in the community around the campus?

Take a look at the local news in the city, town, or suburb that surrounds the campus you are considering. While you might feel safe on the campus, will you feel safe if you leave campus to go to Target or Walmart, or to local restaurants, coffee shops or bars? Is there evidence that the local K-12 schools have had increased antisemitic activity within their buildings? Is there a synagogue, temple, or Jewish Community Center nearby that you could go to if you wanted to seek out a Jewish community beyond your college?

Again, each student's needs and comfort level will be different. It is just important to understand what resources are available locally, particularly if you are going to college far from home.

We do not know what campus life will look like six months from now or nine months from now, when current high school seniors show up for fall semester. We do not know what it will look like in the fall of 2025 when the current high school juniors will step foot on campus. We do know that right now, Jewish students need to be vigilant while continuing to remain hopeful. There are many many organizations and people who are fighting to protect you and working to educate the world about contemporary antisemitism so we can begin to eradicate it. Yes, that may be wishful thinking, but I am choosing light over darkness and optimism over despair. I am filled with hope when I see the thousands of Jewish students who showed up in solidarity at the March for Israel in Washington D.C. and who show up every day on their campuses and in their communities to stand up for who they are and what they believe in.

As you engage in this process, talk to current Jewish students on campus, talk to Jewish professors and staff. Don't be afraid to ask tough questions. Keep in mind that the decision about where to apply is not the same as where to enroll. If you are a high school senior, you still have plenty of time to see how things may change in the months to come. You don't have to make a decision yet about where to go - do your research. Wait to see where you have offers of admission and then evaluate your choices once you have the information you need to make a decision that makes you feel as comfortable as possible.

My previous blog post provided additional tips and resources for Jewish students as you are researching college campuses.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving holiday.

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