This year, the High Holy Days arrived at Stanford University a week before the first day of classes, yet on Rosh Hashanah, Hillel was packed with students — many of whom hadn’t even moved into their dorms yet.
In fact, it was more students than were expected, sending a Hillel staffer scrambling to find some folding tables and chairs. He assured the waiting students that there would be plenty of food and a seat at a table.
Not only that, but Stanford’s New Student Orientation program went out of its way to shuttle Jewish freshmen who were away on a weeklong camping trip back to campus for Erev Rosh Hashanah, accompanied by a Jewish upperclassman whose job it was to make sure the newcomer didn’t lose his or her way to services.
Said Stanford freshman Lilly Phillips of Omaha, Neb.: “When I went to my first dinner at Hillel that night, everyone was so welcoming and kind, and I felt like I was part of a Jewish community.”
However, just a few weeks earlier, the Union of Reform Judaism published its seventh edition of “The Top 60 Schools Jews Choose” and Stanford was not listed. Neither was U.C. Berkeley.
Jews who have children on these campuses, Jewish alumni and hopeful parents of future students had to be wondering: How could this be?
What exactly is this URJ list? And what does it mean for Jewish students sorting through thousands of college choices? Are the rankings a guide for student exploration, or an affirmation of what we already know, or at least think we know?
The URJ list is a “headcount” of the number of Jewish students on private and public college campuses. It includes other data, such as number of Jewish studies courses, and whether or not a school has Jewish fraternities and sororities, a Jewish studies major, Reform worship on campus and other notes.
Aron Hirt-Manheimer, the editor of the URJ magazine Reform Judaism, explained, “We were interested in making Jewish life on campus something to be considered when choosing a university, and our agreement with Hillel [which provides data to the URJ] includes counting all sects of Judaism, not just Reform.”
As such, the latest URJ list (www.reformjudaismmag.org) reveals few surprises.
Topping the list of 30 private schools are New York University, Boston University and Yeshiva University in New York City. University of Southern California ranks No. 11 and is the only West Coast college on the private-school list.
On the list of 30 public schools, the University of Florida ranks No. 1, with Cal State Northridge (No. 18) and U.C. Santa Cruz (No. 29) landing as the only California schools.
On a sidebar list, the U.S. school with the highest percentage of Jewish students is the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Albert A. List College in New York, with 200 students, all of them Jewish. Next comes Yeshiva U. in New York (96 percent) and American Jewish University in Los Angeles (92 percent). JTS and AJU are the Conservative movement’s graduate schools for rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators, and YU is the Modern Orthodox movement’s flagship institution.
Next on the list is Brandeis with 49 percent.
The trouble is, there is no standard system that Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life uses to count Jews. Some data comes from students who self-identify, other comes from admissions offices’ extrapolation or “guesstimate” of those who identify plus those who don’t. Other campuses rely on historical data, and, most importantly, there isn’t a uniform definition of “who is a Jew.” A students’ definition of Jewishness might be different at Yeshiva U. and U.C. Santa Cruz.
And then there’s oversight. Stanford senior Rebecca Sachs, for example, probably was never entered into any “Jewish database.”
“When I entered Stanford,” the Orinda native said, “there was a form to complete in new student packet which asked preferences, and I chose not to check off the box for religion. I thought I could come to Hillel on my own terms. I didn’t know what I was interested in and I didn’t want to be on a Jewish community mailing list.”
Nor did Sachs, confident she could find a Jewish community at any school, turn to any rankings or lists to choose a college.
Now she is immersed in Jewish life. She’s a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi sorority, the Jewish Students Association Board and the Challah for Hunger social justice group. Also, she also spent spring break with other Hillel students in New Orleans, engaged in a Katrina social justice project.
Noah Idowitz, a senior at U.C. Berkeley, said he was surprised when Berkeley didn’t make the URJ list. Many of his Jewish classmates in high school in Sherman Oaks chose Cal, and his sister also went there.
A student senator and writer for the Daily Cal, Idowitz went to Berkeley Hillel’s Rosh Hashanah services two weeks ago and saw many old friends, including “a lot of people who definitely wouldn’t have gone to religious services when they were in high school. I think when you go to a non-religious university you want to find a way to keep that identity a part of you.”
One thing the list fails to consider is how many Jews actually apply to schools such as Stanford and U.C. Berkeley. Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, the executive director at Hillel at Stanford, believes those numbers are high, but because of stringent admission standards and demographics, many of them are not admitted (and some choose to go elsewhere).
“Stanford has less than 10 percent Jewish students,” she said. “However, we believe that Jewish students [do] choose Stanford, and once here, a large percentage become tremendously engaged in the vibrant life on campus.”
Additionally, the URJ list doesn’t take into account emerging Jewish life on many campuses — such as North Carolina’s Elon University, where former Oakland resident Nancy Luberoff, who got her master’s in social work at San Francisco State University, is the Hillel director.
“As more Jewish students come, there is an increased Jewish infrastructure, a Jewish studies minor, breaking ground on a Hillel center, Hebrew courses and study abroad in Israel,” she said. Still, the absence of Elon on the list might steer some Jewish students from ever considering Elon.
Robert Morse, the researcher who created the methodology that the U.S. News and World Report uses for its popular “Best Colleges” rankings, said of the URJ rankings: “To some Jewish students, it’s important to them to go to the ‘best’ school, and the Jewish headcount is not going to be why they choose a school.
“Jewish fraternities and sororities and Hillels are important, and indicate that the school has resources and a Jewish culture,” continued Morse, the magazine’s director of data research and himself Jewish. “But do they have the full A-Z of things going on that would signify something more?”
Meanwhile, Reform Judaism’s list is so popular that even Catholic colleges buy up ad space in the annual college issue to promote Jewish life on their campuses. The URJ’s Hirt-Manheimer said 300,000 copies of the guide were printed, despite it being accessible online.
Hirt-Manheimer and Morse agree that despite the popularity of the two rankings, they are many other resources students should use.
Morse said students shouldn’t just look at the headcount, but at the “fit” — whether they see themselves engaging in Jewish life on campus.
“Rankings should not be used as the sole basis for choosing colleges,” he said.