The College Tour: Finding the Right Jewish Mix

Choosing a college is also about choosing a community for the next four years.

by Beth Kissileff

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“Don’t look at the container, but rather what is in it.” This wisdom from the Ethics of the Fathers (4:27) usually applies to people, but it’s just as appropriate for today’s college campuses. There are many wonderful schools across the country with all kinds of amenities, but that doesn’t mean all are equal when it comes to Jewish life.

Being away at college means that a student will be in the process of forming a new community for the next four years. Hopefully, that community will include academic stimulation and interests, preparation for the working world, and Jewish connections on some level. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that kids change over the course of four years. They should choose institutions that will accommodate a range of Jewish possibilities and experiences. “Fit” is one of the most overused words when it comes to kids and college, but it is crucial. Be sure that as you go about selecting a college, you look at how your son or daughter will fit in at a school Jewishly, as well as academically and extracurricularly.

After a year of college searching with my oldest daughter, here is our advice to prospective students and their parents.

Visit and spend a Shabbat. Most schools have programs for prospective students to stay overnight with a host student. If you are serious about a school, it’s the best way to gauge what Jewish life is like. Don’t assume that because a school is 20 or 30 percent Jewish there will be big lively Friday night dinners. If that’s something you want, even if sporadically and not every week, go and see for yourself what Shabbat is like on that campus.

Talk to students. Ask them questions about how they spend their leisure time and what activities are popular. If you are sports-obsessed and the school does not have teams, you won’t want to consider it, and if you love Israeli dancing and won’t be able to do it, you likewise might want to keep looking for another campus.

What kinds of programs and activities are there? Think about what kinds of new interests and religious needs you might have or want to develop in college and be sure the campus can accommodate them.

How many students actually attend programs on a regular basis? Just because a brochure lists 50 different clubs at the Hillel doesn’t mean that they all are active. The students involved change from year to year. If you want to be in a Jewish a capella group, find out if the members are all seniors who are about to graduate without making plans for its continuing.

Make sure all the things you liked in the brochure are available. For instance, at one small college, we were told that Hebrew and more advanced Jewish studies were available at a large university a few miles away and that the college would even pay for transportation to the larger school. But once we asked about taking the courses at the larger university, we found that you needed to take two trains to get there and the class times were radically different than the class times at the smaller school, making them unlikely options. Though the small college would have been a wonderful place to spend four years, my daughter did not apply there.

Another stop on our tour was a large university with a beautiful new Hillel building. We were there for the once a month community lunch. About 60 students, faculty members and guests like ourselves attended; my daughter was smitten with the school and its open curriculum. When we spoke with the students, however, my Shabbat observant daughter discovered that there were few undergraduates who shared her level of observance. One young man told us that he is “on the derech and off the derech”(on and off the path) in his observance. Though that is his prerogative, my daughter realized that his choice to be less careful in his Sabbath behaviors was also a matter of community. One can observe the Sabbath on a campus where there are not many other observers, but it is much more pleasant to have a community of fellow students to share the day with. Though she did apply to that school, she did not consider it seriously.

Every college has its own culture. While each student’s experience is unique and everyone is free to do as he or she chooses, the culture of a place has an influence, for positive or negative, encouraging some things, rewarding others. If you are interested in going on Birthright, check that the college’s Hillel has a large and active Birthright and post-Birthright program. If you regularly attend Shabbat morning services and there is no place to do so, that campus might not be the right place for you.

In the end, choosing a college is about finding a community. We had the best experiences at the colleges where we ate lunch at the Hillel and sat and talked with the students, and got a sense of what they like about their schools and why they chose them. My advice is to think about what you are looking for in your community and whether that exists or could be created in your time on campus.

For me, as a parent, the college tour is really about how I can help my child decide what comes next. I hope my daughter will continue to deepen all the aspects of her Jewish identity while becoming a young adult. Just as Judaism has helped us along at other life stages, it was comforting to know that though I will be far, my daughter’s Jewish interests and commitments will help her connect with others in her new community.

Beth Kissileff is a freelance writer and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2015). She lives in Pittsburgh.