Beginning about 2013, the employees at the Hillel at the College of Pennsylvania questioned what they have been doing improper. Annually, the variety of college students at their Excessive Vacation providers, Passover seders, and the primary annual Shabbat dinner of the yr appeared to be smaller than in years previous. “We thought we just hit this wall, where 15 years ago the people who didn’t want to go to services did so, even if out of guilt, and today they don’t,” stated Michael Uram, the Hillel government director and campus rabbi. However after operating numbers on the scholar physique, he concluded that wasn’t the entire story. “While that is probably still true, what is also true is that there are just several hundred less Jews on campus.”
In 2010, Penn was slightly below 20 % Jewish, in response to knowledge collected by the Steinhardt Social Analysis Institute. By 2016, solely 13 % of the campus recognized as Jewish by faith, a lower of over 600 Jewish college students. (When together with college students who claimed solely ethnic or cultural affiliation, these numbers bounce three proportion factors.) And Penn is way from the one Ivy League campus to notice a decline. To take one other instance, all through the 2000s, about 20 % of incoming freshmen at Yale College recognized as Jewish, based on knowledge collected by the Yale College Chaplain’s Workplace. Within the 2010s, that quantity was nearer to 16 %. For the previous three years, The Harvard Crimson has reported that about 10 % of incoming first-year college students recognized as Jewish, in line with their very own survey. For the incoming Harvard class of 2020, that quantity has dropped to 6 %.
Consideration to declining Jewish numbers is just not new: In 1999, The New York Occasions famous that the Jewish presence at Princeton College had fallen to 10 % prior to now decade, from a excessive of over 18 % within the early 1980s, and warned that these “figures closely track a nationwide pattern; the percentage of college students who identify themselves as Jews has declined steadily over the last two decades.”
In fact, getting correct numbers for this type of factor is notoriously troublesome, and whether or not a decline ought to encourage concern at all is an open query: By any measure, Jews, who are at most 2 % of all People, stay vastly overrepresented on Ivy campuses. However, for higher or worse, attendance at Ivy League establishments has lengthy been shorthand for proof of educational and social success in American society. Numbers matter. The excessive numbers of Jewish college students at Ivy League faculties particularly has been some extent of satisfaction inside the Jewish group, particularly when targeted on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, symbolizing each Jewish mental prowess and, maybe extra necessary, Jewish acceptance into the higher echelons of American society.
And traditionally, a drop in Jewish attendance at these establishments indicated deliberate motion. In 1925, Jewish college students have been over 25 % of Harvard. Then the fast-growing Jewish inhabitants in America dovetailed with nativist actions, and standards have been launched that lowered Jewish illustration to 15 % for the next three many years—with comparable unstated quotas at Yale, Princeton, and elsewhere. However because the 1960s, when such standards have been dropped alongside different admission reforms, Jews have flourished on Ivy campuses. Kosher eating choices proliferated, Judaic research choices elevated, Jewish analysis was funded, and facilities have been constructed for Jewish scholar life. Schools allowed exemptions from Saturday test-taking and honored spiritual holidays. In the present day, Harvard, Yale, and the College of Pennsylvania all have Jewish presidents. Jews are not simply current, however seen.
As such, the falling numbers have develop into a subject of dialog in some Jewish circles. For these with reminiscence of our current exclusion, declines within the Jewish populations at such faculties really feel like progress undone. “I’ve heard the concern about declining numbers, but more from parents, or alumni, or Slifka staff”—the Slifka Middle for Jewish Life at Yale, stated Maytal Saltiel, an affiliate chaplain at Yale College. “Not so much from the students.” For others, the priority is about claiming Jewish id. As one outstanding New York rabbi, a graduate of Yale, wrote to me in an e mail, “It’s not just that fewer Jews are being accepted to these schools. It is also that they don’t feel and think and identify as Jewish. I find it terribly alarming. And I’m not usually alarmist.” The rabbi was responding notably to the truth that the low numbers recorded by The Harvard Crimson have been attributed to their survey itemizing the choices of “Jewish,” “atheist,” and “agnostic” as mutually unique, which means many Jews may be checking a special field as their main affiliation. (The 2016 research at Penn discovered this development explicitly, noting that whereas 13% of campus recognized as Jewish when requested about faith, the identical standards used for the 2010 numbers, a further three% recognized as having no faith however indicated they have been Jewish “aside from religion,” an amorphous id which may additionally level to the rise in multi-faith identities and rising secularism.) Others fear that smaller numbers are reflective not of self-identification developments however tradition: Jewish college students are dropping their mental starvation, this argument goes, and thus not as worthy candidates as in many years previous.
Then there’s plain demography. The applicant pool at elite faculties has broadened and turn into extra numerous, together with not simply extra People however worldwide college students, too. It is probably not that fewer Jews apply to Ivy League faculties, or are much less more likely to determine as Jewish, or are even less-worthy candidates, however merely that, as Penn’s Uram places it, “It’s really hard to get into college today.”
However elevated competitors for spots doesn’t, for a lot of, appear to be the complete story. For many years now, there was a well-liked principle that the newest era or two of Jews, raised with out the immigrant mentality of their mother and father and grandparents, is much less pushed towards conventional educational success. “It is a narrative that is so convenient it almost seems superimposed, but I do think it is true,” stated Andreas Rotenberg, who graduated from Princeton in 2013, including that among the many mother and father of his pals in his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, “there are so many doctors and lawyers and academics, and so many of their kids are filmmakers or comics or writers of some kind. I have maybe one friend in medical school.”
I graduated from Yale in 2014, and I definitely have extra buddies in medical faculty than pursuing filmmaking. However the narrative hits residence. I’m additionally named after a grandfather who moved to Brooklyn from Belarus when he was 16, and regardless of arriving with none information of English, enrolled in Metropolis School 18 months later. My grandmother, born in 1912, remembered starching her shirts as a small youngster to go to the library, as a result of it was a spot worthy of dressing up (and this earlier than she was even 10-years-old). My Jewish associates all have comparable tales of exhausting work and instructional pursuit of their household backgrounds. We grew up with tales of youngsters who taught themselves to learn English, who studied in between shifts at the factories, who valued schooling like a treasure. The narrative of generational decline is tough to flee. In 1996, Nicholas Lemann, writing for Slate, bluntly summed up this level when reflecting on Jewish college students of his day: “Something is gone: That old intense and generalized academic commitment, linked to sociological ambition, is no longer a defining cultural characteristic of the group.” Like others, he used the Ivy League as a proxy to debate benefit and trendy Jewish mediocrity.
However that was in 1996, lengthy earlier than this acquainted concern could possibly be held on declining enrollment numbers of Jews at Ivy League faculties. A lot of this narrative in the present day, in its nostalgic bent, skips a era, heading straight again to tales from the Nice Melancholy. And it’s a story that isn’t uniquely Jewish, however broadly adopted by many immigrant teams in America—because the Irish-Catholic character Jack Donaghy bemoans in an episode of the tv collection 30 Rock, “We are an immigrant nation. The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things. The next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation … snowboards and takes improv classes.” As Jews, the argument that we’ve misplaced our drive has existed for many years, nicely earlier than the current declines in Ivy numbers. The nervousness in our group about declining Jewish numbers at Ivies may be targeted on work ethic, however that additionally isn’t the complete story. The true concern for a lot of Jews, nonetheless unformed and a lot much less more likely to be voiced, is concerning the implications of this development on the way forward for Jewish success and affect in America. Put merely: What does this development in numbers say concerning the caliber of Jews in American society?
Once more, declining Jewish numbers are not nearly Jews, as famous, however about modifications inside the universities themselves. In the identical years that Penn went from being 20 % Jewish to 13 % Jewish, the general inhabitants of white college students—a class that would come with most, although definitely not all, Jews—at Penn declined from 64 % to 44 %. That’s fairly large. And this actuality raises new questions for Jews, who within the span of some many years went from being castigated outsiders to a part of the institution on Ivy League campuses. The velocity of these modifications means we’re nonetheless adapting our sense of self to the truth of our new social place. Is the priority about declining numbers just like white Christian elites who fear about dropping their long-held energy, or to different minority teams frightened concerning the impression of resurging discrimination? Typically, for Jews, it looks like each.
A lot of the rhetoric on this dialog has targeted on Asian-People as “the new Jews,” particularly when contemplating the values of mental success and arduous work. This makes Jews the brand new WASPs—the previous guard, coasting on previous glories. And this alteration in social place is mirrored in altering Jewish attitudes to benefit. As Jacob Scheer just lately wrote in Tablet, whereas Jewish organizations as soon as opposed affirmative motion within the 1960s and ’70s, arguing that it devalued benefit and arduous work, as we speak they have a tendency to help “well-rounded” admission insurance policies, as a result of they worth variety within the classroom, to make certain, but in addition, maybe, as a result of such insurance policies now bolster Jewish numbers relatively than restrict them.
Against this, Asian-People, the brand new topics of admission controversies, have sued Harvard, explicitly preventing what they see as unofficial quotas that artificially restrict their numbers. In the event that they win their present courtroom case, the variety of Jewish college students might lower additional. For Jews frightened concerning the decline of Jewish prowess, this looks like simply deserts for a group that misplaced its drive for excellence. For Jews involved concerning the upkeep of Jewish affect, the priority extra intently resembles that of the previous elite.
So whereas the Jewish work ethic may need modified because the early 20th century, that’s in all probability not the rationale behind these very present new modifications in Jewish scholar populations at Ivy League faculties. As an alternative, the Jewish place in a altering American society has advanced, shortly and drastically. We are not outsiders wanting in—although we’d not retain our insider standing for lengthy. Which raises one other query: Should we care?
Most college students I spoke with at this time stated no. Elena Hoffenberg, who graduated from Harvard in 2016, stated that whereas she heard concern about falling numbers at Harvard, it wasn’t the scholars themselves who cared. “As a student, I definitely heard the anxiety about fewer Jewish students at the university, but mostly from [older] Harvard Hillel board members and sometimes staff,” she wrote in an e mail, including that a few of the nervousness additionally centered on considerations about Jewish college students being much less concerned in Jewish life. Some college students felt just like the inhabitants of Orthodox Jewish college students had stayed fairly secure, and others felt the entire state of affairs was extra about luck than anything. This fall, the incoming freshman class at Yale accepted about 15 college students from Orthodox Jewish houses (a few of these planning to return have deferred to go to Israel). College students I spoke to there felt the priority was a generational gasp from a special time.
That college students might be so nonchalant concerning the state of affairs of Jews at Harvard and comparable faculties exhibits how a lot has modified prior to now 50 years of American Jewish, and Ivy, historical past. As we speak, in fact, most everybody works exhausting at elite faculties, which testifies to the meritocratic impulse that allowed Jews to crash the gates. However accepting college students based mostly on particular person benefit alone isn’t what the Ivies have been historically about; they have been coaching grounds for the elite. When Charles Eliot took over as president of Harvard in 1869, he was recognized for his emphasis on educational requirements, however in his inaugural handle, he reassured the wealthy that they might all the time have a spot, remarking how “the country suffers when the rich are ignorant and unrefined. Inherited wealth is an unmitigated curse when divorced from culture.” Subsequently, “to lose altogether the presence of those who in early life have enjoyed the domestic and social advantages of wealth would be as great a blow to the College as to lose the sons of the poor.” This logic held agency for almost a century. Affirmative motion for preppies maintained this aim: In 1909, over half of the incoming freshman class at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had failed the doorway exams of the faculties. The sons of excessive society, they have been seen to nonetheless positively affect campus tradition, and this coverage lasted properly into the 20th century.
When, within the 1920s, the rising concentrate on educational benefit started to threaten the WASP elite, admissions turned extra contingent on “character” and different traits Jews have been thought to not possess. As Jerome Karabel deftly exhibits in The Chosen: The Hidden Historical past of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the introduction of alumni interviews, school essays, and letters of advice was formulated to determine and management the variety of Jewish college students admitted. When Stephen Greenblatt, the celebrated Harvard English professor, who graduated from Yale in 1964, went to his Harvard admissions interview as a highschool senior in 1960, his father didn’t coach him on learn how to brag about his check scores or spotlight his obscure mental achievements. “He was mostly concerned I not appear as too much of an intellectual,” Greenblatt recalled. “He told me, ‘They are interested in sports and you being a regular fellow.’ That was his way of talking about not seeming too Jewish.”
‘The Jewish focus on the Ivies was the product of a historical experience that has now passed.’
For Jewish college students as we speak, the world of casual quotas can really feel like historic historical past. In the present day, acceptance at a prime faculty is, for a intelligent boy or woman at many elite Jewish day faculties, fascinating however, within the attainment, not groundbreaking. “Getting accepted to an Ivy League school was incredibly exciting, of course, but also just a relief,” stated one Harvard School graduate, who attended a Jewish day faculty in New York and kept away from sharing his identify for worry of sounding like an elitist. “It seemed like everyone in my life had been accepted to one of the Ivies, and it was presented as the accepted next step for smart kids.” When requested, a number of different college students who had attended Jewish day faculties and have been accepted to high schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and the College of Pennsylvania, all agreed: Getting accepted was thrilling, however it hardly had the frisson of breaking limitations for the Jewish group. Principally, they fearful concerning the intense strain in Jewish circles round school acceptance.
“It’s a new world, and the Jews have a different place in it than they used to have,” says Paula Fass, a historian at the College of California, Berkeley, and writer of The Finish of American Childhood: A Historical past of Parenting From Life on the Frontier to the Managed Baby. “The Jewish focus on the Ivies was the product of a historical experience that has now passed.”
Because the Jewish group has established itself in America as a rich, profitable, extremely educated bunch, the Ivy League has develop into much less the unique standing image of American acceptance that it may need been for first- and second-generation People, and extra a contested website for id politics. In different phrases, the elevated competitors for spots at Ivies has resulted in fewer Jewish college students, however has additionally opened these establishments up for different teams. There isn’t any purpose to assume that Jewish college students really feel any much less strain to get accepted to prime faculties than their mother and father—however these faculties are more durable to get into than they have been for his or her mother and father.
Whereas some Jews, notably the alumni of elite faculties, fear that declining numbers of Jewish college students at these faculties will spell doom for the way forward for American Jewry, others, like Fass, consider such concern is misplaced. “The truth is that Jewish kids in the 20th century succeeded for generations without going to the Ivies,” she says. “We don’t need to be so worried.” In reality, to be so nervous can really feel ridiculous. “If 15 percent of Yale College was Jewish, and we make up 2 percent of the population … then I’m not troubled by those kinds of numbers,” says Dan Oren, writer of Becoming a member of the Membership: A Historical past of Jews and Yale. “There are some people who could see that 15 percent number and think Jews are vastly overrepresented at Yale.”
However after working from the surface to construct up affect and energy, being informed that they haven’t solely succeeded, however actually turn into a part of the previous elite, can rankle. Particularly at a time once we really feel newly weak in American society, this is usually a troublesome shift in self-perception. In any case, we knew we have been forcing our approach into such establishments, not being welcomed, and, particularly given the present nativism and anti-Semitism in American discourse, a number of many years appears skinny proof to verify our new standing as snug insiders. Throughout conversations about id, Jews are struggling to reconcile our self-protective mistrust of energy with the truth of our personal energy, and with the best way to really feel safe in a world the place, traditionally, not having clout and affect has been disastrous for us. To acknowledge that our presence at establishments just like the Ivies, a presence that has helped to shore up Jewish success, is perhaps declining feels scary to some, as a result of it is just lately that to be Jewish in America has ceased to really feel scary.
Like Fass and others, I agree that such considerations are misplaced. The American-Jewish group shall be advantageous, and as everyone knows, there are many nice faculties in the USA. No purpose to fetishize the Ivy League. However as an observant Jewish scholar at Yale, I beloved the strong Jewish group, and if the Jewish inhabitants was decreased to some extent the place we didn’t have a great Shabbat group, or sustaining a kosher kitchen not made sense, that might really feel like a loss. There have been definitely a number of hundred lively Jewish college students among the many undergraduates once I was there, and that meant a number of prayer choices, numerous social and political teams, and a tangible affect on campus life. Scores of non-Jews got here to Friday night time dinners, for instance, in addition to to Yale Hillel events. As Jews on campus, we felt each absolutely Jewish and absolutely a part of the varsity.
And as Orthodox college students know, if the group falls under a sure threshold, it may be arduous to construct up once more. If it’s inconceivable to get a prayer quorum of 10, then these in search of such a prayer quorum will, fairly quickly, look elsewhere. Each few years, probably the most thrilling Ivy League faculty for Jewish undergraduates appears to shift campus, and faculties compete for the restricted variety of Jewish college students accepted; many present college students voiced concern that an article like this one, emphasizing smaller Jewish numbers on a specific campus, may divert observant college students to different choices. Numbers do matter. How massive these numbers should be, or what these numbers say about American Jewry in the present day—these are the questions.
Learn extra from Campus Week, when Tablet journal takes inventory of the state of American academia and college life.
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