When an admissions officer from Vanderbilt University visited Andy Stone’s high school in Albany, N.Y., last year, Stone said he didn’t know if he wanted to attend a college with such a small Jewish population.
The recruiter quickly told him about Vanderbilt’s Hillel — which next week will open its own building, replete with a kosher cafe — and told him that the Nashville, Tenn., university was “looking for more Jewish students.”
Stone is now a freshman engineering student active in the campus Hillel. The Jewish community, which makes up less than 3 percent of Vanderbilt’s student body, is so small and tight-knit that Jewish students joke, “You get three Jews here, you have a convention,” he says.
But Vanderbilt is energetically trying to increase its Jewish population. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, it’s one of many U.S. universities trying to boost Jewish enrollment by encouraging the growth of Hillels and Jewish studies programs.
Once locked out of top universities by quotas, Jews now are being courted by some upwardly mobile institutions, both for their high SAT averages — second only to Unitarians — and for their reputations as academic stars.
Noting that most top-ranking American universities also have large numbers of Jewish students, Vanderbilt’s chancellor, Gordon Gee, who is Mormon, told the Wall Street Journal that marketing to Jewish students is part of an “elite strategy” to boost Vanderbilt’s status and academic rankings.
“Jewish students, by culture and by ability and by the very nature of their liveliness, make a university a much more habitable place in terms of intellectual life,” Gee told the Journal.
The article pointed to several other colleges, particularly ones in remote locations, that have stepped up recruitment of Jews.
Richard Joel, president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in Washington, said university administrations are increasingly “culturally friendly” to Jews.
That friendliness stems from several factors. More Jews are making campus Jewish life a factor in their decisionmaking process, Joel said, and Hillel has in recent years gained a reputation for fostering vibrant campus Jewish life.
Small colleges, as well as those like Vanderbilt with small Jewish populations, have been particularly eager to work with Hillel, Joel said.
“A lot of smaller schools ask what they can do to assist us,” he said. “Muhlenberg College now has a strong Jewish association with the active support of the college. Williams College is trying to do more, and I think it’s healthy.”
Most campus Hillels and their staffs are funded almost entirely by Jewish federations and individual Jewish philanthropists, though some receive free space or other support from the universities.
“Aside from bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars of free student services to universities,” campus Hillels “also provide opportunities to Jewish and non- Jewish students,” Joel said, pointing to community-wide programs and community service programs that Hillels offer.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said the current trend toward colleges seeking Jews reflects the changes in Jews’ position in American culture.
“When we were outsiders and were smart, we had to be kept out because we were a threat,” he said. “Now that we’re insiders in America, the very same recognition of our abilities causes people to recruit us.
“Rather than being Jews whose rise in America will threaten the national structure, we’re so integrated in that structure that our rise is good for us and America,” Hirschfield said.
However, some view the stepped-up recruitment of Jews with suspicion.
Riv-Ellen Prell, an American studies professor at the University of Minnesota and author of “Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation,” said she is “extremely uncomfortable” with Vanderbilt’s strategy.
Arguing that SAT performance — on which Jews rank so highly– is more an indicator of affluence than intelligence, Prell said she is concerned that Vanderbilt is recruiting Jews primarily because of their affluence.
She also questioned whether the school, once known for being unfriendly to Jews and blacks, should bolster its diversity by singling out Jews, rather than striving to recruit a full range of minorities.
One Jewish academic who did not want to be identified recalled a recent discussion at another Southern university that was considering expanding its Judaic studies program.
According to the academic, several administrators explicitly stated that they wanted more Jewish students because Jews are less likely to need financial aid and are more likely to make financial contributions to the school after they graduate.
“The people at the development office made it clear that their joy in recruiting Jewish students had everything to do with fund raising,” the academic said.
If Jews are being targeted, however, the effect is not being felt at all high schools with large Jewish populations.
Rabbi Philip Field, head of Akiba Hebrew Academy, a community Jewish day high school in suburban Philadelphia, said college admissions have become even more challenging for his students in recent years.
Akiba regularly sends large numbers of graduates to Ivy League and other elite schools, but the admissions process has become more competitive and selective.
Some campus Hillels at universities with small Jewish populations have promoted their schools to Akiba, but the university admissions offices have not made any special push.
“We have not found that doors have opened for students” with weaker academic records, Field said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.