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Students Get Comfy With Heritage at School

May 6, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Muhlenberg College senior Alix Freireich outside of the school's Hillel, which can draw 300 students for Shabbat dinners. Photos by Tom Amico/Amico Studios

When Jena Verlin started looking at colleges last year, she was looking for a small school not too far from home with an active Jewish community.

As one who regularly attends services at Congregation Adath Israel in Merion Station, the 17-year-old said that when it came to college, she didn't want to be "That Weird Girl Who Goes to Services on Friday Nights."

"I wanted to be in an environment where other people went, and it's a cool thing to do."

The Harriton High School senior applied to eight colleges, including Vanderbilt, Emory, and larger institutions like Penn State and the University of Delaware, but after visiting several schools and their Hillels -- an organization she hopes to one day lead on campus -- the answer was clear to her: Allentown's Muhlenberg College fit the bill to a "T."

"Basically, it came down to community for me," Verlin said, adding that Muhlenberg was the only place she got that warm, welcoming feeling she was looking for.

So, like countless other high school seniors around the country, Verlin recently closed the deal on where she intends to spend her college years. She is one of an increasing number of Jewish students for whom Muhlenberg is becoming their No. 1 choice.

Something of a Draw

Reform Judaism magazine's "Insider's Guide to College" for 2009 ranked the school with the fifth-highest percentage of Jewish students of any school nationwide, up from No. 10 in 2007. The top slot went to Yeshiva University, followed by American Jewish University, Brandeis University and Lesley University.

For Muhlenberg, that translates to nearly 35 percent of their students -- about 750 out of 2,100 -- identifying as members of the tribe.

The school -- established in 1848 and located in Allentown's leafy West End -- occupies an 81-acre campus. Much of the Jewish excitement there these days, which is considerable, is centered around Hillel, which on April 25 broke ground for an expanded facility.

According to Patti Mittleman, the Hillel director and school's Jewish chaplain, the draw has become an organic thing: Jewish students want to come to Muhlenberg because there are already so many Jewish students there.

"As soon as I came on campus and I met the Jewish population, I was hooked," said Susan Medalie, 22, a senior from Bloomsburg, Pa. She said that she was initially unsure about the school because it was historically a Lutheran institution, "but then I found out how many Jewish students are here, and it just grew on me."

That's a familiar story, said Mittleman.

She said that over the course of the last five years, many families -- particularly those that have spent lots of time and money sending their kids to Jewish day schools or private schools -- are looking for a smaller school with low student-teacher ratios.

A place like Muhlenberg, she said, with its sensitivity to Jewish issues, can be an easy transition for students coming out of Jewish day schools. Of this year's freshman crop of Jewish students, 15 percent are day-school graduates, she said.

According to Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for Hillel International, the past decade has seen a rise in the number of Jewish students applying to private schools that weren't historically filled with Jews. He attributed that in part to the increasing selectivity of some major public schools.

"Jewish students have been going to other schools that haven't historically been magnets, and Muhlenberg, I think, was one of the leaders in that regard," he said.

Perhaps the fact that the school lies in an area that boasts a strong Jewish presence is also a factor.

(See next week's companion piece on the Lehigh Valley Jewish community.)

"It's fashionable to be Jewish here," observed Broomall native Ira Blum, a senior whose father is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid.

"And it's cool to go to Hillel," chimed in Jeremy Henowitz, 19, a sophomore from West Hartford, Conn.

Henowitz and Blum were part of a group of about 20 Hillel students eating together in the dining hall of Seegers Union on a recent Saturday night.

At the Hillel house, there's a campus-wide bagel brunch several Sundays a month, drawing Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. Similarly, non-Jews are regulars at Friday-night Shabbat dinners, both tagging along with their Jewish classmates, as well as getting a taste of something different.

Hillel also hosts alternative break trips, including a recent spring break journey to New Orleans, and past visits to Prague, Israel and elsewhere; and the campus chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent 20 students -- one of the largest college contingents -- to this year's AIPAC conference in Washington.

Mittleman came to the college in 1988, when her husband was appointed the first professor in the school's fledgling Jewish studies program. At that time, she said, "there were no Jews -- or very few Jews, I should say."

Mittleman said that she worked to create an environment where students wanted to be involved in Jewish life, and over time, word of mouth about the school spread.

The college is projecting about 210 Jewish students for the incoming freshman class. Mittleman said that it's been a steady uptick each year since the mid-'90s, when incoming classes contained about 100 Jewish students.

The school's Jewish population has grown to the point that Hillel recently broke ground on an expansion of its current Hillel house, which will grow from 7,000 to 20,000 square feet. The target date for opening the new building is January 2011.

The April 25 groundbreaking ceremony -- and the bagel brunch afterward -- attracted more than 400 students and community members.

The current state of Shabbat at the school is a testament to the need for more space. Friday-night dinners regularly draw as many as 300 people, with students eating on the stairs or in the attic, climbing over couches and radiators to move around, said Mittleman. Before the meal, she added, about 50 students usually cram into an auxiliary building for liberal and traditional services.

Kosher Eats on Campus

The solid ties between Jewish students and the school extend beyond Hillel's front door. In addition to a Jewish-studies major and minor, the institution hosts an Institute of Jewish-Christian Understanding. Jews occupy many of the top student leadership positions on campus. Hillel members were also consulted on the proposed renovations to Seegers Union, the combined student union and campus dining facility.

When the refurbished building opens in the fall, one of the most significant changes will be the introduction of glatt-kosher dining in the student cafeteria. Mittleman estimated that about one-third of the Jewish students keep kosher.

Seegers Union director Glenn Gerchman explained that the dining hall will feature both a meat and dairy kitchen, functioning simultaneously, under the Orthodox supervision of the Maryland-based Star K. Kosher and nonkosher students will be able to dine together, and those eating kosher will likely dine on disposable upscale plasticware, so as not to create confusion with multiple sets of dishes. Pre-packaged "grab and go" kosher options will also be available at the student union.

The new kosher eats can also be purchased by the school's surrounding community.

Noting that no glatt-kosher restaurant exists in the area, Gerchman said that by allowing community members to utilize the kosher dining opportunities -- as well as providing catering services -- they hope to fill a niche, enabling families across the Lehigh Valley "to go out and have a kosher meal."

A Student-Run Operation

If there's a force behind the success of Jewish life at Muhlenberg, many students and college officials give that credit to Mittleman.

At the Hillel groundbreaking, college president Peyton "Randy" Helm said that "one of the reasons Hillel is bursting at the seams is because our Jewish community is so welcoming, so friendly -- so Muhlenberg -- in so many ways," and a number of students credited that atmosphere in Jewish life on campus to Mittleman.

She said that part of her strategy in growing Jewish life at the school has been to make it a student-run operation as much as possible. The bulk of Hillel's marketing goes out on Facebook -- Mittleman said that it's pretty much impossible to communicate with college kids these day if you don't have a presence there. She confessed that because she lets students use her account to publicize events, she doesn't even know her own password.

Additionally, Mittleman and her students use the social-networking site to reach out to alumni, current students not yet involved with Hillel and even students considering attending Muhlenberg.

Such was the case with Elli Cohn, a freshman from outside Chicago, who recalled getting a Facebook message from Mittleman shortly after her first visit to campus.

Mittleman's focus on remembering names, faces and more has helped create a Jewish environment that students actively want to become a part of, said Shira Kleinman, a 20-year-old sophomore from Livingston, N.J.

"Every person that comes here is a guest, but not for long; they become a part of Muhlenberg Hillel," she said.

Sitting around a long table in the Seegers Union dining hall with a group of students, Mittleman casually revealed her ulterior motive.

"It's a battlefield, absolutely," she acknowledged. "No generation of young Jews has ever had the opportunity to completely assimilate the way you guys do. There's no barrier whatsoever."

So her job, as she sees it, is "every day convincing you to make a commitment to your Jewish identity, and doing it in a way that doesn't scare you."

The current Hillel opened in 2001, and Mittleman recalled thinking at the time: "What will we ever do with all this space?" But by 2005, she and her colleagues started talking about the need for more room.

That kind of growth potential isn't lost on senior Ira Blum. "In 20 years," he joked, "there will be a Hillel skyscraper in the works."

This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and Federation.

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