Choosing the Right Campus Jewish Community For You
A Four-Step Process by Rabbi Ilan Haber
1. Know yourself
While growing up in a supportive religious environment and day school setting, it is often very hard to separate which religious convictions, values, and activities are coming from peers, school, community or family as opposed to what one truly feels internally.
College is the first time in the development of a young Orthodox person’s identity in which most of his or her Jewish expression and living will come from internal considerations, not external pressures.
For many, this is an excellent opportunity to develop a personal sense of Jewishness and conviction. However, without a strong sense of self, it is easy enough to make wrong choices that have lasting consequences. This process of self-exploration is best begun before the transition to campus, whether in high school or in a gap-year setting. It not only enables a student to enter university focused on short- and long-term goals and values, but also will help in the decision to go to a campus that creates the best environment for nurturing those goals and values.
For example, some students may find that the intensive learning opportunities and cohesive Jewish environment offered by Yeshiva University or Touro are more in line with their spiritual or professional goals. Others may feel that they are best served on campuses in which the excitement and opportunities of a large, active secular-campus Orthodox community such as those at Penn, Maryland, Queens, or NYU best meet their needs. Still others may find that they would best thrive in a close-knit smaller community in which they would not get “lost,” where they can be a part of a community that needs every student to participate, such as Johns Hopkins. However none of these considerations are really possible before the student knows his or her personality, inclinations and goals.
2. Become Familiar with Campuses and Their Resources
Use this guide as a first step in becoming familiar with campuses and the resources they offer. It can help identify which campuses offer the most robust resources and opportunities for Orthodox students such as the presence of an OU-JLIC couple, an active Chabad or Hillel, regular Orthodox minyanim, a cohesive Orthodox student leadership group and programming andthe availability of kosher food.
In addition, the Orthodox Union has developed a Jewish Resource app to help students identify what resources or personalities exist on each campus and where to find them. Access the app at ncsyalumni.org/map. You can also find additional information about any particular campus on the Hillel or Chabad website, or through OU-JLIC at jliconline.org. The Heart2Heart project, also supported by the Orthodox Union, has developed incredibly useful resources for Orthodox students at: kahal.theheart2heartproject.org/prospective-students, including a map of kosher food offerings on campuses and overview of campus resources. Also, take advantage of theheart2heartproject.org/map, courtesy of Heart to Heart.
3. Dig Deep
And then dig deeper. While all of the resources mentioned above may provide a good start in helping to start focusing on the best potential matches, you should absolutely NOT stop there. Please do not make your campus decisions solely through consulting with this guide or other print or online resources. It is important to reach out and talk to current or former students, as well as campus professionals, such as the local OU-JLIC educator, Chabad rabbi, Meor or other kiruv professional, or Hillel staff member. Each may provide a specific, though important perspective on the college experience at any particular university. Prepare a list of general questions, such as “how does one succeed at this campus religiously?” or questions that hone in on specific issues such as: “How does an Orthodox student on this campus handle the challenges of coed residence halls?” “Can I choose my own roommate?” “Why does it seem to be only freshmen and sophomores, as opposed to upper-class students who are involved in religious leadership and community at this university?”
4. Spend A Shabbat on Campus
Or at the very least make a campus visit. Once you have limited your college considerations to a few options, the best way to get a real feel for a campus and its community and resources, as well as to speak to stakeholders in-the-know, is to spend time on campus. Any perspective you may gain through speaking to people, as opposed to seeing it firsthand, is likely to be highly subjective and limited, and potentially deceptive. Just as you wouldn’t normally buy a car, or a house, or relocate to a new community without checking it out in person, you should not make a campus decision without seeing it firsthand.
The best time to get a full sense of a Jewish community on campus is to visit on Shabbat, where you can meet the campus Jewish professionals and see if they are a good match for your needs and personality. Shabbat is when you are most likely to find students willing to spend time with you, answer your questions, and introduce you to what the community has to offer. You can get a feel for the intangibles such as the characteristics of the students, whether the community is as warm and welcoming as you would like, as well as a feel for the overall chemistry. In addition, the Shabbat atmosphere on a campus will quickly indicate whether or not the community is vibrant, positive and active. Of course, contrasting this with time spent during the week is also helpful, but given a choice between the two, visit for Shabbat. In addition, if you are considering commuter campuses, don’t rule out participation in the campus community.
Brooklyn College or Queens College in New York are both primarily commuter campuses, yet boast vibrant campus communities and robust OU-JLIC programs. While a Shabbat visit may not be as relevant at a commuter campus (though Queens College does have an increasingly vibrant Shabbat atmosphere and community for resident students), visit when it is relevant, such as during club hours, or check out the campus Mincha and stick around to speak with students and staff. You won’t regret any time spent on considering your potential “home” for the next four years.