A new report is offering some unexpected insights into the changing patterns of Jewish life on campus.
The findings, released in recent weeks by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, give a bird’s eye view of the 60 schools with the largest estimated undergraduate Jewish populations.
The state of Florida tops the list, with two of its public universities ranking first and second in terms of sheer numbers of Jewish students. The University of Florida, located in Gainesville, comes in as the most Jewish school in North America, with 5,500 Jewish undergraduates. It is followed closely by Orlando’s University of Central Florida, which boasts 5,000 Jewish undergraduates.
The Hillel report, which was undertaken in cooperation with the Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, and published in the fall issue of Reform Judaism magazine, also ranks the top 20 schools with the highest percentages of Jews. Topping that list, predictably, is Yeshiva University with 93.5%, followed by Brandeis University with 61.7% and Barnard College with 43.5%.
As has long been the case, Jews make up substantial percentages at many of the leading schools in North America, including Brown University (22%), Harvard University (26%) and the University of Pennsylvania (30%). More surprising is the significant presence of Jews at Florida schools, where academic standards may be less stringent.
Larry Sternberg, Hillel executive director at Brandeis University and a professor of inter-group relations and advocacy there, said that the Florida phenomenon — including Florida International University, which ranked number 10 on the guide’s list of the top 30 public colleges — can be attributed to geography. “One of the safe assumptions is that Jewish students will look to their own state institutions,” Sternberg said. “The three largest population centers for Jews in this country are New York, Los Angeles and southern Florida.”
The Guide to Jewish Life on Campus has been published since Hillel’s founding in 1924. In earlier decades, when universities still commonly maintained quotas on the number of Jews admitted, the guide offered direction to Jews seeking environments in which they could feel at ease. More recently, however, with the near-universal acceptance of Jews that began in the 1960s, the report provides a glimpse into the sometimes surprising educational choices now being made by young Jews.
“In those early years, it was really a signal as to where Jews were fully accepted into universities,” said Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s associate vice president of communications. “Today, what we’re seeing is Jewish kids going to universities that perhaps they haven’t gone to before.”
Rubin explained that the increasing prevalence of Jews at schools that have not traditionally attracted them is in part due to large state schools becoming more selective about enrollment, pushing students to find alternatives. He cited the example presented by the University of Maryland, which, by becoming more competitive in recent years, has spurred the growth of Jewish populations at Towson University, located outside Baltimore, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
It is only in the past two years that Hillel has ranked its data. The findings, which are culled from Hillel directors across North America, are published on Hillel’s Web site as a database for prospective college students. The ranking system began when the URJ approached Hillel in 2005. At that time, the movement wanted to start publishing a supplement, known as the “RJ Insider’s Guide to College,” in Reform Judaism magazine to help its membership make informed choices about schools.
“Knowing what schools Jews choose makes a huge difference,” said Donald Cohen-Cutler, a spokesman for the URJ. “Especially as it’s becoming more prevalent that people are making college choices not only on grades and programs, but on what is culturally and religiously available to them.”