PROVIDENCE – While many parents of college-bound teens worry about drug and alcohol abuse on campus or skyrocketing tuitions, Jewish parents may also worry about the kind of Jewish life their child may encounter in college, and whether he or she will face anti-Semitism.
As I will be applying to colleges this fall, I wonder about the climate for Jewish students at my future university. How will I replicate my Jewish network, one which I sometimes take for granted?
To find out more, I interviewed Dylan Abrams (the University of Southern California), Abby Kaye-Phillips (the University of Maryland), Dena Kaye-Phillips (Duke University) and Ilan Levine (Union College) via email. All of them were active during high school in their Rhode Island Jewish communities.
Q: How significant a factor was the strength of Jewish life in choosing your university?
Dylan: Choosing a university that not only has a strong Jewish presence on campus, but a vibrant local Jewish community was very important to me. I made sure that my school supported … Hillel, Chabad and other Jewish and pro-Israel groups.
Abby: Jewish life was a huge part of my decision process. It was important to pick a school where the presence of active Jews was high, not just the percentage of total students who were Jewish.
Dena: It was a big factor, but I wasn’t that optimistic about Jewish life at Duke. I was worried it wouldn’t be a strong enough community for me or [offer] the Jewish experience that I wanted, but I loved everything else about it.
Ilan: I decided to enroll at Union before I took my gap year in Israel. When I returned, I was much more enthusiastic about seeking out Jewish life on campus.
Q: What Jewish organizations are you involved with on campus?
Abby: UMD is filled with Jewish organizations, from religious/prayer-centered ones (Koach for Conservatives, Kedma for Orthodox), to purely social clubs (Jewish Student Union) … [and] countless Israel organizations (TerPAC, J-Street, Birthright, etc.
Dena: Duke University has the Jewish Student Union (JSU), Duke Friends of Israel and J-Street U. I’ve been involved with JSU, a Jewish mentor program for freshmen and J-Street U.
I frequently attend Shabbat dinners at Chabad and Hillel. I participated in JAM’s Maimonides program, a weekly Jewish learning seminar [on] Jewish issues in today’s world.
Ilan: Union has Hillel, Chabad and a pro-Israel club. Hillel is mostly student run with one hired chaplain. A rabbi and his wife primarily run Chabad, but student board members help plan events. Our pro-Israel group, U For Israel, is entirely student-run. These groups are open to the entire campus. I was elected Chabad board president. I am a member of Hillel and I helped start U For Israel.
Dylan: Hillel, Chabad, Trojans for Israel (USC’s AIPAC campus representation), SC Students for Israel, Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM), TAMID, USC Jewish World Watch and Jewish Alliance for GLBTs and Straights.
Q: Have Jewish connections eased the transition to college life?
Dena: Absolutely! When you meet [other] Jews, you automatically have something in common; it’s easy to form relationships.
Ilan: The rabbi and his wife have been comforting in the transition from Israel to a secular college. Off-campus, I have had little interaction with the Jewish community in Schenectady.
Dylan: The pre-welcome retreat with USC Hillel was fantastic … it eased my transition socially and academically, preparing me for what I needed to know for my first few weeks as a freshman. I met many of my current best friends there.
Abby: Being Jewish definitely helped. I came to Maryland knowing many people from various Jewish experiences in high school (USY, Camp Ramah, HaZamir); it made a huge difference the first few weeks when I saw familiar faces at Hillel.
Q: Any anti-Semitism or negative experiences on campus? Do you ever feel you need to hide being Jewish?
Ilan: I never felt that I should hide my Jewish identity. That said, there is some anti-Israel activity from a very small minority … a few anti-Israel articles in Union’s political newsletter and biased teaching in some political science classes. Pro-Israel students largely outnumber the anti-Israel group.
Dylan: The only anti-Semitism I have felt has been masked as anti-Israel propaganda. Students for Justice in Palestine protest most pro-Israel events. I have experienced [ambivalence] towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … [and] general ignorance [about] Israel.
Abby: Maryland … is so accepting of our holidays and [honoring Shabbat]. I have never experienced anti-Semitism on campus.
Dena: I am very comfortable and proud to be Jewish on campus. In general, people I meet are supportive and curious to learn about Judaism. Occasionally there have been small
conflicts with some other student groups surrounding the situation in the Middle East, but I’ve never experienced anti-Semitism or fear of identifying as Jewish.
Q: What advice can you offer students attending college soon?
Dylan: Seek out opportunities. Don’t be afraid to join [an unfamiliar] organization. The more opportunities you take advantage of, the more rewarding your college experience.
Ilan: Pick a school [with] options. Even if you have no interest in staying involved in Jewish life during college, [select] a school that has the possibility. You never know when you might yearn for a sit-down Shabbat dinner. To those who know they want to stay in the bubble, it’s important to have some diversity unless [they] plan on moving to a shtetl after graduation. But seriously, if the real world starts after college, let me remind you that America is the great melting pot.
Abby: Know what you are looking for; don’t settle for anything less. If Jewish life is something you are looking for, make sure you find a place that can fill that need. Visit schools before you commit, go to services at Hillel, try to stay with a friend who is involved on campus and make sure you can see yo urself enjoying life at that school.
Dena: Think about the type of Jewish community you want before you get [to college]; don’t be afraid to look into what different institutions have to offer. The biggest Jewish communities aren’t always the best fit; there are multiple ways to get involved. If you end up somewhere where the community doesn’t fit your needs, see what you can do to change it … create the experience you want.
After these interviews, I feel much more confident about my future as a college student.
Esty Bharier, a senior at Providence Country Day School, lives in Providence.