The Forward recently published their second annual College Guide for Jewish Students. As the outgoing Student Activities Director at Harvard Hillel, I am honored that Harvard was tied for the #1 campus for Jewish life.
I am also uncomfortable with the fact this news brought me joy.
I admire the Forward’s efforts in providing Jewish students with nuanced and varied information that recognizes the numerous ways that students seek to express their Judaism. I also understand that substantial thought went into designing a formula to rank the schools, and I appreciated having the chance to participate in telling the story of my campus.
Yet, if we accept that Judaism and Jewish expression manifests in a multitude of ways, then why are we ranking schools’ Jewish communities at all?
For the second year in a row, the Forward’s top 10 schools are all private. They’re all a long plane flight from the West Coast and short hop from the Eastern seaboard. They all require stellar grades and test scores to get in. Half are Ivy League schools.
Thinking back to who I was at 17, these rankings would have been harmful. As a Jewish day school graduate and lifetime Jewish camp kid, Jewish community was a big factor in my college decision. But, none of the top ten schools on the Forward’s list would have been accessible to me for various reasons.
While visiting UC Berkeley, an obvious choice for a California kid, an older friend from my high school invited me to check out a club meeting with her at Hillel. Sitting in the Hillel chapel with my future classmates made me confident that Berkeley was the right Jewish community for me.
How might it have felt to see that The Forward listed Berkeley as #44 in its first college guide and #15 in its second? Would I have second guessed my decision?
As a Hillel professional, I have had the chance to see different Hillels from a new perspective and I feel sure that UC Berkeley was my best fit Jewish community. It turns out that despite their incredible programs and dedicated staff, I can’t really picture myself as a student in any of the top ten Jewish communities, including the one I have worked in for the past three years.
And that’s okay. The college decision process can’t be one size fits all, and neither can finding campus Jewish community.
Choosing a college is a deeply personal process. For many students, affordability and location are the biggest factors. Other students prioritize their learning styles, academic offerings and campus culture. Some students prefer a small school where they recognize everyone in the freshmen dining hall. Others crave a big school with a strong sports culture. Some students are looking for top science programs while others focus on the quality of the arts departments.
Similarly, some Jewish students are looking for robust prayer communities while others are more excited by a quality Jewish a cappella group. Some students prefer a small Jewish population where they know everyone at Shabbat dinner while others are excited to meet someone new every time they attend Hillel or Chabad. Some students are excited to participate in political discussions on Israel; others hope to spend four years without finding themselves in the midst of an Israel/Palestine debate. The Forward College Guide rightfully recognizes this diversity and declares that it is designed for “every type of Jewish student.”
Given these differences among student populations and campus culture, it is fundamentally misguided to declare that Jewish life on one campus is superior to another.
I am proud of the work my colleagues and I do at Harvard Hillel. We work tirelessly to provide quality programs with wide campus appeal while simultaneously engaging students as individuals. At the same time, I recognize the privilege that working on a campus like Harvard brings: an engaged donor base, name recognition that allures top speakers to our campus, and the rich Jewish resources of Cambridge and Boston. We utilize those resources to build an excellent Jewish community for the 800 Jewish students on our campus; but this does not mean that we have created a “better” Jewish experience for prospective students reading this article whose needs we know nothing about.
I am confident that Jewish professionals on all campuses — whether public or private, commuter or residential, East Coast or West Coast or in between — are working hard to partner with students to build the Jewish community that makes sense for their campus.
At a time when the world of college admissions is becoming more competitive and students feel increasing pressure to attend elite schools, ranking Jewish life will add to the distorted belief that only certain college experiences are truly worthwhile. I hope that instead, the Forward and the Jewish community at large will encourage students to focus on the best fit, not the “best school” chosen by an arbitrary metric.
What if instead of telling high school seniors where their future campus falls in an ordered list of “good,” “better,” and “best,” we told them this: We encourage you to include Jewish life in your decision. Do research using the information in the Forward’s guide and others like Hillel International’s College Guide, and include Hillel and other Jewish organizations in your campus visits. Just as you wonder if you could see yourself living in the dorms with the students you meet on your tour, imagine if you can see yourself enjoying Shabbat dinner with the Jewish students on campus.
And to all of my fellow Jewish campus professionals, let’s never give in to the feeling that we need to prove our superiority over one another. Instead, let’s continue to focus on our students and partner with them to build flourishing Jewish communities on campuses across North America.