Jewish Education Below the Mason-Dixon Line

Education

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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In the past, many Southern colleges and universities had few, if any, Jewish students roaming their campuses. But recently schools below the Mason-Dixon Line have stepped up their recruitment of Jewish students. They offered scholarships, built centers for Jewish learning and socializing, and engaged the surrounding Jewish communities in their efforts. The Forward interviewed students from four schools across the Southeast to get a read on the changing face of the Southern Jewish college experience in 2010. Here’s what they had to say:

Theodore Samets

Theodore Samets
Theodore Samets

Hometown
Charlotte, Vt.

School
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.

Undergraduate students
6,700

Percent Jewish
15

Percent Jewish a decade ago
3

Year
Junior

Major
History

Other schools considered
Georgetown University, Washington University in St. Louis

Nearest synagogue
Two Reform, one Conservative, one Orthodox synagogue in and around Nashville

Jewish background
I grew up in a Conservative family. My dad was president of the synagogue and I spent a lot of time there. We didn’t keep kosher, but I haven’t eaten meat out since going to college.

On choosing Vanderbilt
Vandy was perfect for me because I wanted a Southern school with great sports and a vibrant Jewish community.

Campus involvement
I’m gearing up to run for vice president of the student body. I’m also the vice president of Hillel, and I am very involved in pro-Israel advocacy on campus.

Would you send your kids to Vanderbilt?
If they can get kosher food on the weekends by then, in an instant.

Have you had a positive Jewish experience so far?
We have such a warm and welcoming community that holiday dinners are some of my favorite Vanderbilt memories. I’ve also gone on two spring break [service] trips with Hillel, one to Uruguay and one to Brazil, that were fantastic!

School’s recruiting effort
In 2002, Vanderbilt erected a Hillel that is home to Nashville’s only kosher restaurant, which is part of the university meal plan, attracting students of all backgrounds.


Laura Langley

Laura Langley
Laura Langley

hometown
Austin, Texas

School
Hendrix College, Conway, Ark.

Undergraduate students
1,500

Percent Jewish
2

Percent Jewish a decade ago
Less than 1

Year
Senior

Major
Film Studies

Other schools considered
Boston University, Vassar College

Nearest synagogue
30 miles away in Little Rock, Ark.

Jewish background
I grew up in a secular house.*

On choosing Hendrix
They give a lot of scholarships. Other campuses didn’t feel like the students were friendly. At Hendrix everyone was smiling and saying hi, and I assume that’s the Southern friendliness, but it definitely worked because I felt very comfortable.

Hesitations
The size of the school and the remote location worried me. The first year these factors led to me considering a transfer, but I’ve grown to really love both.

On Hendrix Jewish life
I joined our six-person Hillel. We have great turnouts for Shabbat dinner. Most people who come are not Jewish. I’ve had friends ask me to take them to temple even though I never go myself.

Have you had a positive Jewish experience so far?
I never celebrate Shabbat at home with my family and never really wanted to, but now it’s such a nice pause at the end of what is always a frantic school and work week…Hendrix has provided a space that’s allowed me to come into the culture on my own.

Would you send your kids to Hendrix?
I definitely would. I have friends at schools all across the board, and I feel like I’ve gotten a better education. I’ve gotten great help along the way that others might not have access to.

School’s recruiting effort
The Crain-Maling Jewish Cultural Center was created at Hendrix to educate Jews and non-Jews alike. The center will be housed in a new, 80,000-square-foot facility expected to be completed in 2010.


Alex Grodner

Alex Grodner
Alex Grodner

hometown
Born in Birmingham, Ala., high school in Basking Ridge, N.J.

School
The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa**

Undergraduate students
23,700

Percent Jewish
2

Percent Jewish a decade ago
Less than 1

Year
Junior

Major
Business

Other schools considered
Virginia Tech, Drexel University

Jewish background
I helped start a BBYO chapter in New Jersey and was extremely active in that in the region and nationally.

Hesitations
I was not happy that there were few Jewish people at the university, but I worked to help recruit more Jewish students.

On Alabama Jewish life
We are a tightly knit group. Even if you’re not in a fraternity or a sorority or involved in Hillel, we all know each other and see each other pretty regularly. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not hard to be a Jew at Alabama. It’s starting to become like other big Jewish schools in the South, like [University of] Georgia and [University of] Florida.

Would you send your kids to Alabama?
Absolutely, I will be taking my kids to games and showing them the ZBT house when I am an alum.

School’s recruiting effort
Land was leased to a local congregation to build its new synagogue on campus. It broke ground early last year.


Jesse Crow

Jesse Crow
Jesse Crow

Hometown
Pensacola, Fla.

School
Millsaps College, Jackson, Miss.

Undergraduate Students
1,000

Percent Jewish
3

Percent Jewish a decade ago
Less than 1

Year
Sophomore

Major
Communications, English minor

Other schools considered
University of Texas, Tulane University

Nearest Synagogue
One Reform, in Jackson

Jewish background
I went to temple with my mom and I had a bat mitzvah. I grew up going to Henry S. Jacobs camp and this summer will be my fourth on staff. I was very involved with NFTY [North American Federation of Temple Youth] and local temple youth group.

On choosing Millsaps
[Jewish Life] wasn’t too big a factor in my decision. I knew people in the Jewish community and that there was a strong one. [I wanted] a fresh start.

Campus involvement
Lacrosse, Delta Delta Delta Sorority, Interfaith Campus Ministry team (“We have forums educating people about different religions”), staff writer for the school paper, the Purple and White.

On Millsaps Jewish Life
You can be as involved as you want. We do have a Jewish Cultural Organization, which is our little Hillel. Every year we build a sukkah and we have a big meal and invite people to come and learn about it.

After graduation
I’d like to go back to Israel and spend some time there. I was in Israel on Birthright in 2009. I eventually want to be a journalist.

Have you had a positive Jewish experience so far?
There’s a lot of opportunity for religious dialogue on campus, and I’ve found that explaining Judaism to people who don’t know much about it has furthered my own understanding and has strengthened my beliefs. It’s not the same experience that someone would have at a school with a larger Jewish population, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as fulfilling.

School’s recruiting effort
Millsaps College offered scholarships. The school’s location in Jackson, Miss., houses the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.


Contact Allison Gaudet Yarrow at yarrow@forward.com.


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