Kosher Campus Corps

Jewish collegiate life

Washington Jewish Week
February 14, 2008

By Richard Greenberg, Associate Editor

Growing up in a heavily non-Jewish community outside Boston, Becky Sanfield felt like a gefilte fish out of water.

Few of her high school classmates appreciated her Jewish-inflected sense of humor, which reflected the sardonic worldview of comedian Larry David.

That feeling of alienation soon dissipated, however, when Sanfield enrolled at George Washington University in the District, where she fell in with a crowd of like-minded students she had met during freshman orientation through the school’s Hillel chapter. Communal viewing of David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm became a regular ritual for the group.

“I hope it doesn’t sound too cheesy, but I suddenly felt like I had this group of brothers and sisters,” said Sanfield, a junior at GWU.

Sanfield’s experience illustrates an important scholastic fact of life – for some Jewish students, a fulfilling college experience is far more than the sum of its academic parts. A vibrant on-campus Jewish scene – whether cultural, social or religious – is also a critical component. In fact, it can be a key selling point for prospective enrollees, some of whom are mulling acceptance letters from local colleges and universities.

Many of those institutions have far more to offer Jewishly than they once did, and some of them aren’t bashful about promoting that fact, according to several observers. “Jewish collegiate life in 2008 is far more vibrant than it was, say, 10 years ago, and the situation in the Washington area certainly reflects that,” said Steven Roy Goodman, founder of Top Colleges, a District-based educational consulting firm. Goodman is also vice president of the Washington chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

When Denver-area native Shauna Ruda was evaluating colleges, she was looking for a place with a thriving Jewish environment. She found that at American University in the District, where she is now a sophomore. “I love Jewish life at A.U.,” said Ruda, who is president of American University Students for Israel. “The school is small enough for students to make an impact and large enough for them to feel comfortable being Jewish.”

A.U. students can now earn a Jewish studies major or minor. Meanwhile, the school’s Hillel offers a wide array of activities and services, including speakers, concerts, kosher Friday night communal meals, Jewish text study, holiday-related programs, trips to Israel via the Taglit-Birthright Israel program (about 50 students participate each year) and assistance for students seeking internships and jobs.

“The best way for us to market ourselves is by providing students with a good Jewish experience and then to the let the word get out,” said A.U. Hillel director Rabbi Ken Cohen. The organization facilitates outreach with the help of the social networking Web site Facebook, a mainstay throughout the collegiate world. The A.U. Hillel has about 300 periodic participants, and its core of student leaders numbers about 50.

Some Jewish campus organizations begin trolling for would-be freshmen long before they have expressed a college preference. One venue for initiating contact is Jewish college fairs, where Jewish collegiate representatives and others showcase their schools, collect names of interested attendees, and sometimes invite them to spend an evening or a weekend on campus.

The largest such fair in this area is held each year at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, and is attended by several hundred teens and their parents for a fee of $15 per family. Some 70 campuses from throughout the United States are represented. This year’s fair is scheduled for April 6.

In addition, the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia Jewish is contemplating organizing a college fair this fall for teens who are interested primarily in Virginia schools.

The Hillel at George Mason University in Fairfax, which has a core group of about 30 students, is routinely represented at the JCCGW fair. But it also seeks would-be participants by scanning Northern Virginia synagogue bulletins that proudly announce which colleges their congregants have chosen. Those who have picked GMU are later contacted via e-mail or through Facebook or during face-to-face encounters at freshman orientation, a key point of contact at all schools.

GMU offers a Jewish studies minor, and the menu of selections presented by the GMU Hillel includes bagel brunches, Saturday night Havdalah services, speakers, discussion groups, Israel-advocacy events, Birthright trips to Israel, women’s programming and twice-monthly Friday night dinners, “which bring everyone together,” according to sophomore Sarah Fort, vice president of the Hillel chapter. Her involvement with Hillel, said the Fairfax native (who nonetheless lives in a campus dorm), “has been extremely gratifying. I’ve learned so much about myself by reaching out and helping other Jewish kids. I really found my niche.”

In some cases, prospective Jewish enrollees are actively recruited by college admissions officers, including those at the University of Maryland at College Park, which already has one of the nation’s largest contingents of Jewish undergraduates. In fact, with an estimated 5,400 Jewish undergrads (21 percent of the student population), the College Park campus is America’s second most popular public university among Jewish students, according to a survey of the “top 60 schools Jews choose” that appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Reform Judaism magazine.

The administration at College Park has gone to great lengths to accommodate Jewish students, particularly religious ones, according to Danny Weiss, assistant director of Hillel at Maryland. The school, he explained, has an extensive kosher dining program, provides special keys for Shabbat-observant students, enables them to attend football games without violating Shabbat (by wearing a bracelet instead of completing an electronic transaction) and readily grants excused absences for Jewish holidays (as well as for holiday-related makeup exams). A Jewish studies minor or major are also options.

Jews are one of several student groups that are sought after in an effort to maintain diversity and academic excellence at the College Park campus, according to Shannon Gundy, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at the school. In fact, she said her office has a liaison to the campus Hillel and other Jewish organizations.

(A 2002 JTA article quoted an unnamed academic source as saying that one reason Jews are recruited by universities is that they are less likely than other students to need financial aid, and they are more likely to contribute money to the school after they have graduated. Gundy said the College Park campus does not recruit Jewish students for either of those reasons.)

Two other area schools were also included on the Reform Judaism top-60 list. They are GWU, where Jews comprise 32 percent of undergraduate enrollment (sixth highest in the national among private schools), and A.U., where Jews make up 17 percent of the undergraduate population.

Some colleges well outside Greater Washington have begun recruiting Jewish students, some of them hailing from this area. That group of suitors includes Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., (commonly known as Virginia Tech), according to Sue Kurtz, the school’s first full-time Hillel director.

Virginia Tech traditionally has attracted few Jewish students, but thanks in part to expanded Hillel programming during the past few years, the number has grown significantly, she said. Five years ago, fewer than 100 students had even minimal contact with the school’s Hillel. Today, the number is around 600, and last year’s on-campus massacre has done nothing to dampen interest in the school, Kurtz said.

Roughly one-third of Jewish students at Virginia Tech are from the Washington metropolitan area, which is about four hours from Blacksburg, added Kurtz, who noted that the school now offers a Judaic studies minor. “We’re seeing an incredibly vibrant Jewish life developing here and students are telling their friends about it,” she added.

Greg Roberts, a 22-year-old native of Manassas, graduated from Virginia Tech in May. He was drawn to the school primarily by its exemplary engineering program – rather than its Jewish environment – but once he enrolled, he became active in Hillel, joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and generally flourished Jewishly. “It definitely got me more involved with my Jewishness,” said Roberts, who now lives in Fairfax.

In the meantime, Jewish life campus-wide grew markedly, he said, noting that the demand for Hillel-sponsored Birthright trips to Israel mushroomed during his years at Virginia Tech. Roberts went on one of those trips, a January 2006 excursion; it was the first time he had been to Israel. Leah Yetsin, 22, a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish sorority at Virginia Tech, also went. She and Roberts had met while they were applying for the trip.

They are scheduled to be married in August.

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