Seeds of Jewish Revival Sprout on City College Campus

By Daniel Treiman

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.

City College of New York, the near-mythic temple of working-class Jewish advancement, is on the rebound.

Known to generations as a bridge between a working-class, immigrant past and a middle-class, professional future, the college has been for the most part forsaken in recent years by the children and grandchildren of its upwardly mobile Jewish alumni. The student body — largely Jewish as recently as the 1960s — is now mostly black and Hispanic, as many younger Jews have opted for Ivy League campuses once effectively closed to their elders.

During the last several years, with City College’s battered academic reputation on the rebound, faculty members and students say they have noticed a jump in the numbers of Jews enrolling. And last spring, students revived City College’s Hillel, a Jewish student club that had been defunct for several years.

“It used to be unusual to see someone with a kippah on campus, and now it’s not unusual anymore,” said David Rumschitzki, an engineering professor and the faculty Hillel adviser who has taught at City College for 12 years.

There are no statistics on how many Jewish students are enrolled at City College, but the numbers are clearly still quite small. Of the school’s 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students, roughly one-third are Hispanic, one-third black, one-fifth Asian and 15% white, according to college statistics. Jewish students and faculty suggest that Jewish enrollment is probably approaching 200, including sizable contingents of Russians and Israelis. The number of Orthodox Jewish students in particular, observers agree, has grown quite perceptibly during the last couple of years.

Jewish enrollment at City College had plumm- eted after the implementation of so-called “open admissions” policies in 1970 throughout the City University of New York system, a response to sometimes violent protests by black and Puerto Rican activists who said the university was inaccessible to minority students. Critics said that the more lax admisions policies eroded academic standards at CUNY and its flagship City College campus, transforming what had been an elite public college — a place nicknamed the “Harvard of the poor,” where eight future Nobel laureates were educated — into a bastion of poorly prepared students. While several other CUNY campuses maintained substantial Jewish student populations, City College suffered as a result of its location in Harlem, an area commonly seen as unsafe.

In the past couple of years, however, City College and the other senior colleges in the CUNY system have tightened admissions standards and ceased offering remedial coursework. Seven of CUNY’s senior colleges, including City College, now host highly selective “honors colleges,” launched in 2001 to lure top students with full scholarships and free computers.

City College’s reputation, in particular, has benefited. Fall 2002 enrollment at City College jumped 14.2% over the previous year. The New York Times reported that in the fall of 2001, the average SAT scores for the top quarter of freshmen admitted to City College jumped to 1200, tied with Queens College for the highest of any CUNY senior college. The Times article’s headline proclaimed: “City College, the Faded Jewel of CUNY, Is Recovering Its Luster and Its Achievers.”

Ilan Glazer transferred to City College two years ago from Columbia University, which he said was “a little too cold” and impersonal for his taste. Glazer, who graduated last week from City College with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature, said that the move — 20 blocks uptown in Manhattan — was the right decision. Citing City College’s diverse student body, its affordability and the accessibility of its professors, he says he has no regrets about giving up his shot at a prestigious Ivy League diploma.

“I think the education is just as good, if not better, at City College,” said Glazer, who is also a student at the Conservative movement’s nearby Jewish Theological Seminary.

Many Jewish students at City College are drawn to the school’s specialized programs such as engineering and architecture — as well as the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, which offers a unique seven-year joint bachelor’s and medical degree program in conjunction with New York-area medical schools. Israeli students in particular are concentrated in the school’s architecture and music programs, said Meital Ben-Shimon, a senior architecture major who transferred to City College from Tel Aviv University. The numbers of Israeli-born students at City College grew throughout the 1990s, to 37 last fall from just four in 1992, according to college statistics.

While many of the specialized programs have always been strong, Jewish students and faculty members say that they believe that the school’s improved reputation has played an important role in attracting Jewish students. Elan Rieser, an Orthodox first-year graduate student in chemistry from nearby Washington Heights, said that “there’s definitely a change in the perception of the academics.”

“There are actually two or three other people in my neighborhood who have taken courses or are going full time to City, and when I first graduated high school I don’t remember anybody seriously considering City College as an option,” he said.

Rieser, whose mother attended City College, said that the availability of night classes and the low tuition — $3,200 a year for in-state undergraduates and $4,350 a year for master’s students — was a major draw for him.

Jewish faculty members say that the neighborhood surrounding City College has improved of late. The campus itself, they add, is also less tense than it had been in the 1990s, when City College often found itself in the national media spotlight because of the antics of its black studies department chairman, Leonard Jeffries, a polarizing figure on campus known for his rants about Jewish cabals and his bizarre theories about white “ice people” and black “sun people.” Jeffries no longer heads the black studies program and has a much lower profile now; many of today’s Jewish students say they have never even heard of him.

“The tensions on the campus that were very powerful 10 or 15 years ago don’t exist now,” said Mark Mirsky, an English professor and former head of the Jewish studies program. “So I think that everybody feels more comfortable.”

Roy Mittelman, who served as the campus’s last Hillel director from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s and now heads the college’s Jewish studies program, concurred. He noted that five of the school’s six Jewish studies majors and 69 of the 76 minors are non-Jews. “They are mostly students of color, black and Hispanic,” he said, adding, “I don’t know whether this would have happened 10, 12 years ago, but that’s the reality on the ground here now.”

The future is not entirely bright. Many at City College are nervous about the impact of state and city budget cuts. The CUNY system has already implemented a hiring freeze for nonfaculty positions, and on Monday a committee of CUNY’s board of trustees recommended a set of tuition hikes — a proposal now awaiting approval by the full board.

Despite the budget issues, many Jewish faculty members and students express optimism about the future of City College and say they believe the small campus Jewish community will continue to grow. Nevertheless, few harbor illusions of a return to City College’s Jewish heyday.

Instead, they note, City College — which years ago served Jewish immigrants in large numbers — now serves new groups of immigrant and working-class students. Half of City College freshmen are born outside the country, and another third have at least one foreign-born parent. The valedictory address at the college’s 157th commencement last Friday was delivered by a Guatemalan immigrant, who supported herself when she came to the United States by working as a housekeeper and received a scholarship to study engineering at City College.

“As the ethnicity changes, the fact that the students are new immigrant and working-class students is absolutely the same,” said Mary Lou Edmondson, City College’s assistant vice president for communications. “They are hard-working. They are ambitious. They don’t have much means. Half of them come from families [earning] $25,000 or less. Many of them work part and full time as they go to school. Many of them have families. And as we speak to alumni, they remember and connect with these guys.”



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