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Choosing College Jewishly

May 25, 2011 By:
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Kohelet counselor Barry Kirzner answers questions about college from 9th graders Celeste Marcus, at left, and Shira Cohen. Photo courtesy of Barry Kirzner

When it comes to weighing Jewish life on campus, local guidance counselors Carol Jacobs and Barry Kirzner have made it their business to know what kinds of activities, kosher food or religious services await students at hundreds of different schools.

While Jacobs and Kohelet Yeshiva High School counselor Kirzner cater to the students at their respective private schools, they've agreed to share a few tips:

Research the Size of the Jewish Student Body

· Examine estimates from university surveys, Hillel.org and Reform Judaism magazine's annual college guide, which ranks schools by total number and percentage of Jewish students.

Note that these figures could be low because some Jewish students opt not to report religion, Jacobs said to a group of parents gathered at Barrack for a presentation on "Choosing a College Jewishly." On the other hand, Jacobs said, the Jewish population might be much larger than the number of students who actually have any interest in participating in Jewish campus life.
Barrack counselor Carol Jacobs with former students Jackie Retig, at right, and Jonathan Foster.
Photo courtesy of Paola Nogueras

· For perspective, compare the numbers to the overall student body. For example, Muhlenberg College has roughly 750 Jewish undergrads compared with 5,000 at Penn State. But Jewish students make up a third of the student body at Muhlenberg, and barely 13 percent at Penn State.

Dig Deep for Information on Jewish Activities

· Search the Hillel.org college guide to find out whether a university has a Hillel building, kosher dining or Israel study opportunities; a list of other Jewish-related groups; the number of Jewish studies courses, Hillel staff and more.

· Go to the schools' Hillel websites, calendars and Facebook pages to see whether the organization is as "active" as the university implies. Look for upcoming events, but also call to ask how many students attended the last Shabbat dinner, bagel brunch or Israel discussion group.

Visit, Visit, Visit

· There's nothing like an in-person visit "to see how you feel and how you fit on campus," Jacobs said. Make a point of stopping by the Hillel. Talk to the students and staff there. Ask about make-up policies for religious holidays. Better yet, Kirzner said, arrange an overnight stay during Shabbat. Some schools even offer Shabbatons for prospective students. Those who observe Shabbat should also look out for dorms that require electronic cards to get in. If kosher food is important, make sure to sample it.

· Consider what kind of Jewish environment feels best. Does a small population seem like a leadership opportunity or a lonely lifestyle? Students should also think about how much time they currently spend doing Jewish activities. Even if a student is sure she's finished with religion classes or Jewish social groups after high school, Jacobs said, it's at least nice to have those options available in case opinions change.

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