A Jewish Golden Age On Campus
Tue, 01/10/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller

Popular opinion in the Jewish community has it that the campus is a hotbed of anti-Semitism and widespread anti-Zionist activities.  Many believe that the wellbeing of Jewish students is threatened and that, confronted with an orgy of hate, Jews have felt a compulsion to hide their Jewishness and cover up any outer symbols of identification.

This could not be further from the truth. It is true that there have been some notorious, well-publicized incidents on select campuses and, admittedly, there is a steady stream of anti-Israel political rhetoric at many universities. But the latter has been constant over almost 30 years.

What receives scant notice and is ultimately of major significance is that we are in the midst of a genuine Jewish golden age on the American college campus. Rather than being overwhelmed by darkness, we are actually basking in the light, and haven’t even paused to take notice.

Here are some leading indicators of this campus Jewish renaissance:

n There are more Jewish students attending Ivy League universities than at any other period, including schools that formerly employed admissions quotas severely limiting limited Jewish enrollment. In fact, schools such as Stanford, Vanderbilt and USC, not known historically as friendly to Jews, actively recruit Jewish students.

n There is a preponderance of Jewish academics — approximately 20 percent of the faculty — at the most prestigious universities, with an even larger representation on the best faculties of law, medicine, computer science and theoretical physics.

n Kosher food programs have been implemented by campuses as diverse as Stanford, Oberlin and the University of Vermont. Yale provides only its Orthodox students with manual dorm keys so as to facilitate entry on Shabbat through doors that otherwise require a magnetized card key.

n Well-endowed Jewish studies centers abound at Washington, Michigan, Penn, Maryland, USC, Harvard, Yale, UCLA — and at many other universities — along with academic programs that offer hundreds of courses ranging from Hebrew language, to Jewish philosophy, to Holocaust history, to ethnic Jewish music, to American Jewish literature to Kabbalah. There are even a few universities where one can pursue a doctorate in Talmud. At UCLA, faculty colleagues and I have co-taught seminars on Pirke Avot (the Ethics of the Sages) and on the philosophic thought of Maimonides. 

A recent survey by the Cohen Center at Brandeis claimed that during their years at university, 40 percent of Jewish students take one or more courses in Jewish studies.

n Israel studies programs have been established at 10 universities, including UCLA. The program, which is most often housed at a university International Institute, offers courses on the history and politics of Israel, Zionism, Israeli culture, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  It is the single most effective way to firmly and vigorously sustain Israel’s legitimacy in the academic world.

n Every major university press publishes a line of Judaica, including those of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of California, and even the University of Alabama. In 2004, Stanford University Press embarked on a landmark project: the publication of the proposed 12-volume Pritzker translation of the Zohar by Professor Daniel Matt.

n Jewish administrators are ubiquitous, serving as deans, departmental chairs and provosts in unprecedented numbers. And over the past 25 years, Jewish chancellors and presidents have become so common that almost every leading school has had at least one. The current president of the University of California is not only a legal scholar but also a student of Maimonides who has led two groups of presidential colleagues on organized trips to Israel. One of his first acts as president of UC was to reinstate the University’s EAP (Education Abroad Program) at Hebrew University after years of suspension. 

n Increasingly, Jewish student leaders (many from Hillel) are becoming involved in campus politics and are being elected to student government. They are building alliances with representatives of other communities, are protecting Jewish interests on campus, and are generally mastering the political process. Clearly, Jewish student activists all over the country have had a moderating influence on the campus climate. They are also helping to define the university service-learning agenda most especially with regard to Alternative Spring Break programs and Challah for Hunger — two signature Hillel programs that have been broadly embraced by the larger campus community.

n Orthodox students have become a presence on many campuses around the country as members the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, co-sponsored by Hillel and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. Daily minyanim, chevruta learning, and regular shiurim proliferate. There was a time when traditional students hesitated to wear their kippot to class. Now they are fully integrated and comfortable at universities that accommodate the Jewish calendar and offer deferrals to those who choose to spend a year or two studying at an Israeli yeshiva. 

n Since 1994, more than 50 new Hillel facilities have been built at Columbia, Brown, Stanford, Emory, NYU, Tulane, University of Washington, University of Maryland, Harvard, Yale and UCLA, among others. This is an expression of the amazing story of Jewish achievement in America and our rootedness in and commitment to the American university. 

Moreover, this building phenomenon points merely to Hillel’s physical renewal but doesn’t touch on the remarkable creativity, growth and impact realized by Hillel during the last decade.

The best Hillels can now boast that they have doubled the number of Jewish students involved in meaningful Jewish experiences, that the novel methodology they have implemented — relationship-based engagement — has transformed their programs, and that Hillel involvement is the greatest predictor of future leadership in the Jewish community — more predictive than other shared Jewish experiences.

Rather than considering the campus as a disaster area, we should note the overwhelmingly good news and view the university as an area of renaissance and opportunity where the Jewish future is being forged.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller has been executive director of the Hillel at UCLA for more than 36 years.