Is College Good For The Jews?


Does exposure to secular philosophies and religious cynicism on campus take a toll on a young Jew’s connection to Judaism? How does “higher education” change Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox? Orthodox Jews, particularly the charedim, have long been hesitant to send their children to college, while other Jews are more confident that their Judaism could withstand the challenge. A new analysis by the Pew Research Center, however, suggests that “the relationship between religion and education in the United States is not so simple.”

Across all religions, college takes a toll: Pew found that high school graduates (58 percent) are more likely to say that religion is “very important” in their lives than would college graduates (46 percent). The most educated Americans are more likely to be atheist or agnostic (11 percent) than are high school graduates (4 percent).

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi, wrote in the Religion News Service after the Pew study was released, “I was a college freshman, and I was in a psychology class. The subject of religion came up, and I publicly admitted that I believed in God and was a committed Jew. The professor grew pale. I will never forget what he said to me. ‘This makes me very sad. I am hoping that as you become more educated, you will, at the very least, question your faith.’”

That professor and others like him are thought, by many conservatives, anyway, to be more the rule than the exception in college across America, but one can only hope that their teaching skills exceed their religious understanding, or they are all likely to be “very sad” indeed. Religious Jews are emerging from universities as when they entered.

Pew, a non-partisan “fact tank” that does not take policy positions, found that higher education does not diminish the likelihood of a Christian (52 percent) going to church after graduation, or an Orthodox graduate (70 percent) going to shul. By contrast, among those without degrees or exposure to such professors, 46 percent of Christians attend church weekly, and 56 percent of Jews without degrees go to shul weekly.

Among the non-Orthodox, 7 percent of college grads go to synagogue weekly, essentially no different than the 8 percent of non-graduates who go weekly.

Pew found that “when the analysis is restricted to the non-Orthodox,” patterns begin to match the results among the general public: “Jews with college degrees are less likely to say religion is very important to them … compared with Jews with lower levels of educational attainment.”

Fifty-four percent of all Jews who only have a high school degree believe in God with “absolute certainty,” compared to 28 percent of all Jewish college graduates. Four in 10 Jews (39 percent) who did not complete college say that religion is very important in their lives, compared to 25 percent of Jewish college graduates who would agree.

Belief in God, however, is one category where the lack of a college degree aligns with greater commitment: 93 percent of Orthodox Jews who did not finish college believe in God with “absolute certainty,” compared to 82 percent of Orthodox grads. Among non-Orthodox Jews, 45 percent of those without a degree believe in God with absolute certainty, compared to 23 of non-Orthodox college grads.

Just as weekly church or synagogue attendance among Christians and Jews seemed to be defiant of campus pressures, weekly church or shul goers were equally defiant of trends and pressures in the recent presidential election.

In November’s presidential election, voters (of all religions) who attended religious services at least once a week, overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump (56 percent) over Hillary Clinton (40 percent), reported NBC News. At the same time, those who “never” went to church, mosque or shul, supported Clinton overwhelmingly (62 percent) over Trump (31 percent).

Trump won 24 percent of the Jewish vote, but a poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee during the campaign found 50 percent of Orthodox voters — the most likely to attend services weekly — favored for Trump, a number in line with the 56 percent of similarly frequent worshipers nationally.

A number of pundits had questioned whether the thrice-married Trump would be supported by religious voters, but Trump’s 65-percentage-point margin of victory among religious voters across the board, Pew found, matched or exceeded the victory margins of Bush in 2004, McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, told The Jewish Week that the Orthodox vote is often “transactional,” rewarding politicians who deliver on legislation and policy. In this regard, the conservative religious voter was not much different than the ethical and moral secular voter who considered a faithful marriage to be a virtue but could vote with enthusiasm for Edward Kennedy after Chappaquiddick and President Clinton after he was accused of rape. As Gloria Steinem once said of her liberal voting, “I’m voting for a president, not a husband.”

If higher education were incidental to a student’s religious life, was higher education much of a factor in voting? Nate Silver, of, reported, “Clinton improved on President Obama’s 2012 performance in 48 of the country’s 50 most-well-educated counties.” Silver suggested that “education levels have strong relationships with media-consumption habits, which may have been instrumental in deciding people’s votes, especially given the overall decline in trust in the news media.”

But Silver also warns about what is known in the polling business as the “ecological fallacy.” For example, in a given precinct, the shift in votes may be arising from a cause entirely separate than what the pollster presumes.

Based on the findings of both Pew and NBC News, religious commitment may be a stronger determinant than higher education when it comes to the choices of a student, or the choices of a voter.