For many college-bound seniors, the prospect of leaving home for the first time is a source of both excitement and unrest. Flying the nest can induce more of the latter emotion for those who’ve grown up enjoying a tight-knit family and community with shared values, culture, and experiences. In an effort to maintain their faith and cultural heritage, many Jewish teens place a high priority on the existence of a strong Jewish community on campus when exploring post-secondary options. As a result, we frequently receive questions from our clients about how one can determine the quality of a college’s Jewish life. To provide assistance, we ask and then answer the five main questions you should consider when assessing the quality of a campus’ Jewish life.

1. How big is the Jewish population?

When sorting potential colleges and universities by the sheer number of Jewish students there are some geographical surprises. For example, Midwestern publics like Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have a larger Jewish population that any schools in the University of California system or east coast publics like Temple University, University of Pittsburgh, or the University of Connecticut. It is worth noting, however, that all of these schools boast Jewish populations in the top 50 nationwide. Other large universities that boast in excess of 6,000 Jewish undergraduates include: Rutgers University, NYU, and the University of Central Florida.

Jewish students are well-represented at all eight Ivy League schools. In fact, by percentage, 28% of the student body at Yale is Jewish, followed by Columbia at 27%, and UPenn at 26%. Turning to highly selective, non-Ivies, other than Yeshiva, which is 100% Jewish, schools with the highest percentage of Jewish students include Brandeis (48%), Barnard (40%), and the University of Hartford (32%).

2. What types of Jewish organizations are on campus?

Students seeking colleges with a strong and vibrant Jewish life, should investigate the number of Jewish clubs and organizations that exist on campus. This should be easy to locate on any school’s website. For instance, according to Stanford University’s website, out of 625 campus organizations, more than a dozen are Jewish groups including: Challah for Hunger which bakes and sells bread to support international relief efforts, TAMID, which connects Stanford undergrads to the Israeli business/investment community, and Jewish Queers, a meet-up for Jewish LGBT students in the Stanford community.

Whether or not your prospective colleges have a Hillel organization at all can be a good early litmus test for evidence of a healthy Jewish presence. Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world and has chapters at more than 500 colleges and universities. UPenn’s Hillel organization has a staggering 2,200 members. At elite liberal art schools such as Colby, Kenyon, or Middlebury, Hillel membership will, of course, be significantly lower due to a significantly smaller student body (despite strong proportional Jewish representation).

3. Do they offer a Jewish Studies major?

For Jewish students seeking to major in Jewish Studies or at least have a wide array of elective courses to choose from in this discipline, two Big Ten schools, the University of Michigan and Ohio State sit atop the list, each offering over 100 courses. At Ohio State, a multitude of courses are offered in Hebrew, Yiddish, Jewish Thought and Practice, Jewish History, and Holocaust Studies. Michigan’s Frankel Center for Jewish Studies offers unique academic pursuits including Jewish photography, Jewish music, and Jewish mysticism.

Many other schools bring their own signature twist to the discipline. Syracuse’s program uniquely focuses on the modern Jewish experience. At Wellesley, an interdisciplinary approach affords students the opportunity to bring together aspects of Jewish history, art, culture, politics, and philosophy. The University of Chicago, Northwestern, Vassar, Emory, Bucknell, Oberlin, and Trinity are among the schools boasting the top overall Jewish Studies programs in the nation.

4. Will I have access to kosher food and a place of worship?

Some institutions with smaller Jewish populations have actually expanded their kosher menus as a recruiting tool. Lehigh University has recently increased their kosher offerings in an effort to attract more Jewish students to campus. On the opposite end, other schools with a sizable Jewish population, the University of Florida, for one, are frequently cited by disappointed students as having only semi-regular kosher meals. Ideally, your prospective college will offer a full kosher meal plan. The University of Maryland, Boston University, and Washington University in St. Louis all provide this service.

This seems obvious enough, but you’ll want to investigate the local synagogues in the area surrounding campus to make sure that they are a) within a reasonable distance of the college and b) have a seat for new members/attendees. An organization called Synagogue Connect helps Jewish students attend one of 600 partnering congregations free of charge on the High Holy Days.

5. Is the campus a tolerant one?

It’s hard to quantify or rank tolerance. It’s also likely unhelpful to interpret one singular instance of anti-Semitism on a campus as anything more than an isolated instance of hate. Yet, it’s important to note that according to a recent survey, 54% of Jewish college students witnessed or experienced an occurrence of anti-Semitism in the past year. If you put “college” and “anti-Semitism” into a Google News search you’ll find no shortage of recent incidents at a terrifying number of schools from coast-to-coast.

We recommend reaching out to any prospective school’s Hillel organization or speaking directly with current Jewish students in order to get an honest assessment of the tolerance level at a given college.

Click here to access College Transitions’ list of Best Colleges for Jewish Life.

Bottom line

  • If maintaining a tight-knit Jewish community is important to you, look at the demographic makeup of your prospective colleges. What is the total number of Jewish students? What is the percentage of Jewish students?
  • Investigate not only the number of Jewish organizations on campus, but the membership and reach of those groups as well.
  • If you are interested in majoring, minoring, or just dabbling in a few Jewish Studies electives, explore a school’s course selection in this discipline.
  • Ensure that you will have access to a local synagogue and kosher food.
  • Investigate the tolerance-level of your prospective schools. Speak with Jewish students on campus and ask them about their experiences.
Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.