Jewish Stu­dents Find A Home Down South

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Amy Oringel

Ahhh col­lege. The re­lax­ing cam­pus quad. The funky all-night cof­fee­houses. The mag­no­lia trees fill­ing the hu­mid air with sweet­ness.

Wait a minute. Don’t most Jews equate the col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence with shuf­fling past ivy-cov­ered build­ings in heavy sweaters? No longer. The num­bers of Jewish stu­dents at­tend­ing south­ern col­leges has been sharply on the rise. Pock­ets of the coun­try that just years ago might have seemed off-lim­its to Jewish fam­i­lies are now get­ting a whole lot more pop­u­lar.

The over­all com­pe­ti­tion for col­lege ac­cep­tance is fierce, as the num­bers of ap­pli­ca­tions have in­creased dra­mat­i­cally over the last decade. This past year UCLA re­ported that a record-break­ing 102,000 high school se­niors ap­plied to join their class of 2021. Kids across the coun­try have been forced to reeval­u­ate where they can real­is­ti­cally get in and thrive. The south has been a huge bene­fac­tor of this sit­u­a­tion. But south­ern col­leges as a whole have also worked to meet the needs of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion and make their cam­puses more at­trac­tive to Jewish stu­dents. This at­ten­tion to a strong Ju­daic in­fra­struc­ture is no ac­ci­dent.

Greg Zaiser, vice pres­i­dent for en­roll­ment for Elon Univer­sity in North Carolina, says, “As col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors, we know that Jewish fam­i­lies tra­di­tion­ally value higher ed­u­ca­tion. Un­der­stand­ing that, it only makes sense to us that we would want to be proac­tive to at­tract those fam­i­lies.”

Part­ner­ing with the Of­fice of Ad­mis­sions, He­len Slucki

leads the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Stud­ies Pro­gram in the re­cruit­ment of Jewish stu­dents to the Col­lege of Charleston. “I’ve learned that there are a few key sym­bols: kosher food on cam­pus, a vi­brant Hil­lel, Jewish Greek life and of­ten Jewish stud­ies cour­ses. If you have a quick yes to all of these, you can move on and re­ally talk about what your school has to of­fer a fam­ily.”

Both pub­lic and pri­vate south­ern col­leges have adopted this strat­egy. Ari Gauss, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of North Carolina Hil­lel which over­sees 15 chap­ters state-wide and has been rec­og­nized for ex­cel­lence by Hil­lel In­ter­na­tional, ex­plains, “It’s a very ‘if you build it, they will come’ ap­proach. Many south­ern schools have made a con­certed push to make their cam­puses more at­trac­tive to Jewish fam­i­lies. For decades, Ivy league schools and other prom­i­nent pri­vate schools in the north­east weren’t ex­actly bend­ing over back­wards to at­tract Jews. Most south­ern schools today are and we’ve seen in­cred­i­ble growth.”

Hil­lel has named 20 of its chap­ters “Small & Mighty Hil­lels of Ex­cel­lence,” those rec­og­nized for serv­ing a grow­ing and com­mit­ted Jewish pop­u­la­tion. Along­side more fa­mil­iar names like Welles­ley and Col­gate are Col­lege of Charleston, Elon, Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity and Wash­ing­ton & Lee. And new Hil­lel chap­ters are con­tin­u­ously sprout­ing up all over the south. In 2010, Univer­sity of Texas at Dal­las Hil­lel chap­ter started, in 2011, Vir­ginia’s Ran­dolph Ma­con and, in 2014, the Univer­sity of Alabama at Birm­ing­ham. Elon, Emory, Alabama and oth­ers have all seen huge cap­i­tal im­prove­ments made to their Hil­lel houses as well. Be­yond the phys­i­cal struc­tures, other wel­come ad­just­ments have been made. For decades, Elon’s mas­cot was “The Fighting Chris­tians” in a nod to its founders, the Chris­tian Coali­tion. In 2000, the mas­cot was of­fi­cially re­named the Phoenix.

South­ern Jewish Greek life seems to be thriv­ing as well. The USC (Univer­sity of South Carolina) chap­ter of the na­tional Jewish fra­ter­nity AEPi was started in 2007 and re­ports that it is the fastest grow­ing chap­ter in the coun­try. The one at Auburn was founded in 1921, but had been in­ac­tive for decades. In 2015, it re­turned to cam­pus.

While check­ing these boxes makes a huge dif­fer­ence to par­ents, the sell still isn’t al­ways easy. Pre­con­ceived no­tions about south­ern cul­ture en­dure. But Gauss in­sists that times have changed.

“I get dozens and dozens of calls from anx­ious par­ents in the north­east who are wor­ried about send­ing their chil­dren,” Gauss said. “While an­tiSemitism has cer­tainly flared up a bit over the last year, it’s noth­ing like it was just 20-30 years ago. It’s a dif­fer­ent south.”

Al­yse Levine, col­lege coun­sel­ing ex­pert and pres­i­dent of Pre­mium Prep Col­lege Coun­sel­ing in­sists it’s all about per­cep­tion. “A huge part of what I do is help fam­i­lies form up­dated opin­ions about these schools. It’s so hard to move past what we thought a cou­ple of decades ago,” she said. “Many par­ents have cre­ated their busi­ness and so­cial net­works through their col­lege con­tacts and worry if their child goes to a school in the south, they won’t have the same ex­pe­ri­ence. But what we are find­ing is that many kids are ripe to branch out.”

For many stu­dents, at­tend­ing col­lege in the south is more than a chance to wear a “Shalom Y’all” t-shirt. It’s a wel­come respite from what they know. The teenage years are the sweet spot in terms of per­sonal devel­op­ment and the con­cept of go­ing to col­lege in a place so cul­tur­ally dif­fer­ent is ap­peal­ing. It also po­ten­tially has the re­verse ef­fect than a com­mon parental worry that they will aban­don of their roots. Many stu­dents re­port that their Jewish prac­tice and val­ues have been strength­ened by virtue of be­ing a true mi­nor­ity on cam­pus.

Madeleine Boireau, a re­cent grad­u­ate of Wash­ing­ton & Lee in Vir­ginia where she served as pres­i­dent of Hil­lel, says, “I grew up in a part of Los An­ge­les where it was weird if you weren’t Jewish, but in terms of re­li­gion, I didn’t have a bat mitz­vah and was more of a high hol­i­day Jew. Go­ing to W&L helped me come into my iden­tity. That wouldn’t have been the case had I gone to a more Jewish school. I got a work/study po­si­tion at Hil­lel and went to AIPAC as a fresh­man. I worked with the din­ing halls to des­ig­nate proper Kosher and Kosher for Passover meals. It was such an op­por­tu­nity for per­sonal growth and added an­other el­e­ment of ed­u­ca­tion not found in the class­room. It gave me con­fi­dence that I could live any­where.”

Peg Sack­ler of Chap­paqua, New York, has two chil­dren cur­rently at­tend­ing the Col­lege of Charleston. “My son Benj started play­ing club soc­cer at Col­lege of Charleston and be­came friendly with a kid there,” she said. “One day Bree New­some, the wo­man who climbed the pole on the South Carolina State­house to take down the con­fed­er­ate flag and started that over­all move­ment, was speak­ing at the Col­lege. Pro­test­ers on one side of the street, like Benj, were sup­port­ers of her po­si­tion. Across the street were a hand­ful of oth­ers hold­ing up the con­fed­er­ate flag. One of them was the young man with whom Benj had be­come friendly. They saw each other and, af­ter the ini­tial shock, ended up hav­ing sev­eral dis­cus­sions. Both men learned a lot from each other and have be­come close. Peo­ple ev­ery­where have such false bi­ases, and those can be bro­ken down by de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ships with those very peo­ple that think you are so dif­fer­ent.”

COUR­TESY COL­LEGE OF CHARLESTON

PRETTY IN PINK:

The Col­lege of Charleston and its sig­na­ture hue.

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