One of the most important aspects of choosing a college is its campus life and sense of community. In order to do well academically, it is important to have a healthy and wholesome social life as well. There are a number of ways to get a sense of whether or not a college is right for you.
To many Jewish students, a strong Jewish presence on campus is vital to settling in and feeling comfortable. Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (www.hillel.org), is an invaluable resource for Jewish campus programming. It offers a tremendous number of community events, including dinners, lectures, panels, and community service projects. Of course, it also helps to organize the Taglit-birthright Israel trips, which often allow students from the same college to travel to Israel together over their winter or summer vacations.
Colleges in rural areas sometimes do not have strong Hillel programs, but colleges and universities in major metropolitan areas such as New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. generally have thriving Hillel programs. Chabad on Campus (www.chabad.edu) is active on more than 100 campuses and can be an excellent resource as well, organizing Shabbat dinners and serving as a hub for Jewish student activity.
The Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (www.jli.co.il), an initiative of the Orthodox Union, Hillel and Torah MiTzion, aims to serve the needs of Orthodox students attending secular universities and colleges. Although it is currently functioning at only 12 American colleges, it is likely to expand over the next few years. Another great resource is Campus J (www.campusj.com), a student-written blog covering Jewish campus news nationwide.
A visit to the colleges under consideration has become a necessary part of the decision-making process. When trying to decide if a particular college is an appropriate fit, visit its Hillel or Chabad office. Look at the literature it provides, including student newspapers, which can give a more unfiltered view of what student life looks like. Fliers for events can give an inside look at the programming and events that actually take place.
Besides reading student-produced publications, speaking to students on campus is a valuable way to get an uncensored perspective. Universities are always happy to provide tour guides to answer questions, but they will undoubtedly give a sunny picture of student life.
Before arriving on campus, students may want to show interest in a particular school by arranging to meet with a professor in their possible field of study. These professors can offer a perspective that may be different from that of the glossy brochures that colleges like to provide to prospective students. If a meeting with them goes well, they may even be willing to provide the student with a letter of recommendation.
Yeshiva University has an exciting program called The Center for the Jewish Future. One of its divisions is focused on leadership training for Jewish students, providing them with specific programs to educate and mentor them. Brandeis University is also worth mentioning, as it has a large proportion of Jewish students and a very strong campus community and student-led Hillel program.
Touro College also offers many programs that allow students with secular majors to study their topics through the lens of Jewish studies and law. This, along with Touro’s Hillel program, facilitates Jewish life, although it may not be as socially active as the programs at larger universities.
Students do not need to go to a school officially affiliated with Judaism to have a strong Jewish campus life. Many secular institutions such as New York University, Boston University, and American University have strong Hillel programs, so there are ample opportunities for students searching for a Jewish community to get involved. Ivy League schools tend to have strong Jewish campus life and organized activities available.
Rutgers University has one of the biggest and most active Hillel programs in the country. It is known for its vibrant and engaging programming for both observant and nonobservant students. Among other activities, Rutgers Hillel sponsors a Jewish a capella group and has sent students all over the world for “alternative” spring breaks to perform community service.
Amenities such as guaranteed campus housing (and whether or not it is single-sex) and the proximity of the campus to public transportation are also important factors. At some schools, students may be required to find their own housing options after the first year. At some suburban schools, having a car (or a friend who has one) may be necessary.