Religion & Jewish Life

U.S. colleges with few Jews building facilities to draw more

Dean Hank Dobin of Washington and Lee University dedicates the school's new Hillel house, a $4 million, 7,000-square-foot facility funded by private gifts, in September 2010. (Kevin Remington/Washington and Lee)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Last year, 19-year-old Max Chapnick ate plenty of vegetables. Chapnick, who comes from a kosher home in White Plains, N.Y., is a sophomore at Washington and Lee University, a small liberal arts school in Lexington, Va. His freshman year he ate in the dining hall by choosing carefully.

“I didn’t mix meat and milk, and I ate a lot of vegetarian meals,” he said.

This fall, Washington and Lee dedicated a new $4 million Hillel house, complete with a kosher cafe.

On a campus with fewer than 100 Jewish students, it represents a remarkable per capita investment. Chapnick says the change makes his life easier — and makes him proud. “It shows that this place is very welcoming,” he said. “Every year there are more and more resources for Jewish students.”

Nationwide, the same scenario is repeating.

Nearly 25 percent of Jewish college students in North America attend schools with small Jewish student bodies and limited Jewish resources, according to Hillel International. And those numbers are growing. On one hand, Jewish high school seniors who tend to prefer large, urban universities are finding it more difficult to gain acceptance into those schools and are turning to smaller, rural schools, or colleges without large Jewish populations. These schools rush to accommodate them.

The reverse is also taking place: Schools large and small with few Jewish students are actively working to recruit more by building Jewish student centers and creating kosher dining options as part of a “build it and they will come” recruitment strategy.

Admissions officers and deans at these schools rarely say they are actively recruiting Jewish students; instead they say they are looking to “increase diversity.” But off the record, many admit that Jewish students bring certain assets, from leadership skills and good academic records, while they are on campus to a propensity for donating to the school once they graduate.

“We’re a private university, and recruiting high quality students is always our goal,” said Jeffrey Huberman, a dean at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., where just 250 of the school’s 5,000 students identify as Jewish. “We’re recruiting more on the East and West coasts, looking for students in private schools, and the Jewish day school students are very compatible with Bradley.

When you go to recruit them, they ask, what is Jewish life like? Can we eat kosher there?” Washington and Lee’s Hillel director, Joan Robins, was recruited in 2001 to encourage Jewish life on the campus, which had just 25 Jewish students at the time.

“Jewish enrollment had declined steadily since the 1970s, and the administration was interested in recapturing that legacy,” she said. Robins sent a letter to Jewish alumni, she said, “and the money started coming in.” The school began recruiting at Jewish high schools and yeshivas, and contacting Jewish community centers and youth groups.

As the Jewish population grew from 1 percent to 4.5 percent of the student body, Hillel began offering more services. Now a part of Hillel International’s Small and Mighty Campuses of Excellence initiative — 12 schools that commit to enhancing Jewish student life in return for special training — Washington and Lee’s Hillel runs regular Shabbat services and a lecture series, takes part in Birthright Israel, and this spring sent 14 students to Uruguay on its first alternative spring break program.

“Now we have what Jewish students and parents look for: a vibrant Jewish life, kosher meal options, a very hip kosher cafe that is on the meal plan, High Holiday services with a student rabbi, plus the beautiful new Hillel house that makes a statement in and of itself,” Robins said. “You can’t have a place like that without a commitment from the administration, and Jewish parents see that when they walk in the door.”

Patti Mittleman, Hillel director at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., where 750 of the school’s 2,200 students are Jewish, said, “There’s nothing like word of mouth in the Jewish community.”

Muhlenberg’s Jewish population has risen steadily since the mid-1990s, she said, making its student body the fifth-most Jewish in the country. In August, the school initiated The Noshery, a new kosher dining hall, and in January a 20,000-square-foot Hillel house is scheduled to open.

“Jewish families are waking up to [small] liberal arts colleges,” Mittleman said. “After you spend a fortune sending your kids to private Jewish school, you understand the appeal of small classes and a more intimate atmosphere.”

Debra Geiger runs Hillel’s Small and Mighty Soref Initiative, which provides resources to 163 campuses with small Jewish populations. Some are large schools and some are quite small, but all have small Jewish student bodies — and want to see that change.

“Jewish students are choosing these campuses because they’re top schools,” Geiger said. “At the same time, the universities realized they weren’t providing the lifestyle these students need, and if they want to attract this caliber of student, they need to provide those services.”

Lehigh University, a school in Hillel’s Small and Mighty program, has seen its freshman class jump from 10-12 percent Jewish to nearly 20 percent this fall. West Virginia University just started offering kosher food this fall, as did Bradley.

“I’m actually shocked they’re doing it,” said Rabbi Eli Langsam, kosher supervisor for Bradley’s new program, which this fall offers sandwiches, salads and frozen foods. In fall 2011, one residence hall will provide full kosher meal service Sunday through Friday.

More than 100,000 Jewish high school graduates enter college every fall, according to Hillel, and they are a prize catch for schools looking to stay afloat in tough economic times.

The University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., has about 200 Jewish students among an undergraduate population of 2,400. Five years ago the school had 95 Jewish students, said David Wright, the university’s chaplain. Wright said the president pulled him aside and asked why there was no Hillel and how difficult would it be to bring in kosher food.

“The school was trying to reach into new geographic regions, and those were the questions the admissions office was getting from [Jewish] parents and prospective students,” Wright said. “And they were hearing ‘No, thank you’ from those people.”

Two years ago Hillel came to campus, and this fall the school instituted a kosher and halal meal option. Fresh deli sandwiches from Nosh-Away Catering are available in the dining hall, and the student center sells frozen kosher meals. “The sandwiches go like hotcakes,” Wright said, even though they cost $2 more than non-kosher sandwiches.

Not only are there more Jewish students on these campuses, more of them are observant.

Natali Naveh, 19, is a sophomore at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., where 350 of the school’s 2,400 students are Jewish. A graduate of the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day school system, she says she would not have gone to a college that did not offer kosher food. Naveh also applied to a large university in the Boston area, but a friend there told her its Hillel wouldn’t meet her religious needs. “That was the main reason I chose Franklin and Marshall,” she said.

The college launched its Kosher International Vegan Organic option in 2007, with separate meat and non-dairy vegetarian lines, and opened the Klehr Center for Jewish Life in 2008.

Ralph Taber, the center’s director, says these were conscious steps taken by the school’s new president to attract Jewish students and future alumni. The college also felt the heat from neighboring schools.

“When one school beefs up its kosher dining plan, others do it,” Taber said. “It’s keeping up with the Joneses.”