Campus safety now a top priority for Jewish students choosing colleges

As early decision applications are due, high school students are factoring in which schools are speaking out against anti-Jewish hate

For ambitious high school seniors, Nov. 1 looms large every year. That’s the day that most early-decision applications are due, and a student can only apply to one university. If they get in, they are bound to attend. It’s one of the most important, and most stressful, decisions they will make.

Rachel Tulman, a senior at Scheck Hillel Community School in Miami, has had Nov. 1 marked on her calendar for months. She worked hard for the last three years so that she could apply early to an Ivy League university. Now, that won’t be happening.

“I was going to ED [early decision] to Cornell or UPenn. But then I went to visit the UPenn campus, and I saw people ripping down the missing hostages posters,” said Tulman. “I just couldn’t bind myself [to the University of Pennsylvania].” It was a difficult and disappointing decision for Tulman.

An unprecedented wave of antisemitism has swelled over the past three weeks, beginning after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel. Campuses have seen professors praising the Hamas attack, physical assaults on Jewish students and equivocation by university administrators. Over the weekend, the kosher dining hall at Cornell was put on lockdown after detailed, murderous threats were made against Cornell Jewish students. 

Tulman is one of many Jewish American high school seniors who are now confronted with a startling rise in antisemitism on college campuses at exactly the time that they must decide which university to attend for the next four years. Jewish parents and their high school-aged children are grappling with a new set of considerations as they make what is already a weighty decision: Will this school be safe for my child? 

“It’s probably one of the biggest things that we’re looking into,” said Heather Zeaman, whose daughter is a high school senior in Chalfont, Pa., a far suburb of Philadelphia. The recent antisemitic incident at Cornell led her daughter to decide not to apply to a program at Ithaca College, which is located in the same city as Cornell, for fear that the threats might spread. 

Posters distributed around the New York University campus of people kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 are vandalized and covered with pro Palestinian graffiti, October 25, 2023 in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Most students applying to colleges do not submit early decision applications, and they won’t have to make their final choice about where they will enroll until the spring. Still, recent events have already had an impact on their decisions about where to apply. Some parents are setting red lines. 

Dan Brosgol has told his son, a high school senior, that he cannot apply to Tulane, in New Orleans, after three Jewish students were attacked last week when they were counter-protesting a pro-Palestine rally. 

“I wouldn’t want to spend my money to pay for my kid to go to school, and make that investment in the place where I feel like he wouldn’t be comfortable being Jewish in a way that I would want him to be, and he probably wants to be also,” said Brosgol, who is the executive director of a synagogue in Wayland, Mass. “Rankings be damned, I want a place where he’s going to be safe.” 

It’s a tricky calculus for parents and students, particularly because Tulane and some of the other recent hotspots of campus antisemitism like Columbia, the University of Michigan and Harvard have sizable Jewish populations. Many of those schools have seen Jewish students come together in recent weeks for pro-Israel vigils and rallies, in addition to large Shabbat dinners and other Jewish programming.

Many Jewish parents are hyper-focused on the issue. A private Facebook group called “Mothers Against College Antisemitism” has more than 38,000 members less than a week after it was created. All day long, parents post news stories and video clips about antisemitic incidents on their children’s campuses. The parents of several high school seniors told Jewish Insider they’ve been scouring the page for news about the schools their kids are considering.

A pro-Palestinian rally on Oct. 26 in New Orleans turned violent against Jewish students at Tulane University

“It seems like every Jewish parent, no matter affiliated, not especially affiliated, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform — they’re all very passionate about how horrible this all is, and how strongly they feel that these campuses are not safe for their kids,” said Shoshanna Shechter, whose daughter is a high school senior at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland. 

Naomi Steinberg, a college counselor in Boca Raton, Fla., who primarily works with Jewish teens, cautioned parents “to be very careful of knee-jerk reactions, like, ‘I’m not going to apply to Cornell.’ I think that that’s not necessarily a deeply thoughtful way to guide your child,” said Steinberg.

“I understand why they’re frightened,” added Steinberg, who instead urged students and parents to take a holistic look at what’s happening at the universities in which they are interested, including what kind of support administrators are providing to Jewish students and how current Jewish students are handling the ongoing events. “Really understanding how universities are responding is going to tell you a much, much more compelling story than reacting the next day after a horrific incident on campus,” she explained.

For Claudia Granville, a Boston-based real estate agent who has twins applying to college, the response from university administrators is the most important consideration for her. 

“We are not looking at the Hillels and the Jewish houses on campus. We’re looking at the administration and the leadership and how they respond,” said Granville. Her son applied early to the University of Miami, which strongly condemned the Hamas attacks. 

A key concern for some Jewish parents and students are the essays that are a required part of most college applications. One popular prompt on the Common Application, which is accepted by more than 1,000 universities, asks applicants to write about a “background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.” Jewish students now wonder whether writing about their connection to Israel or to Judaism will hinder their odds of getting into that school.

“My college counselor told me, If I get an admissions officer that disagrees with what I’m saying, I’m not gonna get in,” said Tulman. “I just told her, If I don’t get accepted because of that, then that’s not somewhere I want to be.” 

One senior recently asked Laura Hosid, a private college counselor in Montgomery County, Md., whether to change an essay where they wrote about a summer internship in Tel Aviv. 

“My answer differs depending on whether it is an essay about Israel or an essay just about being Jewish,” Hosid said. “If you have to hide that you’re Jewish, then that’s probably not the right thing for you. With Israel, I think it is trickier.” 

The University of Miami and the University of Florida were mentioned frequently as good options — strong academics, and strong university responses to the terror attack and to antisemitism. Tulman said those are now her top two choices. 

But others pointed out that antisemitism isn’t the only concern for Jewish students. 

“She just is not very happy with the politics that are going on in Florida, and she can’t see herself being in a Florida school,” Zeaman, the mom in Chalfont, Pa., said of her daughter. Hosid noted that the only other time she had seen current events play such a large role in students’ decisions about where to apply for college was last year, after Roe v. Wade was overturned, when girls considered abortion access.

“[Florida had] the strongest statement that came out early, so everyone’s like, ‘Oh, Florida, Florida,’ except that we don’t want to go Florida for other reasons,” said Hosid. 

Brosgol, the Wayland, Mass., parent, noted that a family friend who goes to Bates College, a liberal arts school in Lewiston, Maine, spent two days locked down in their dorm room last week while the perpetrator of a mass shooting that had killed 18 people remained on the loose. It raises a larger question that all parents — Jewish and otherwise — must grapple with when their children leave home for the first time. Even places that seem safe can have that sense of calm shattered in an instant.

“What’s actually safe, and how do you make the calculation of, like, What are you encouraging your kids to do when you can’t manage them and protect them?” Brosgol asked. “For every parent, it’s a really difficult conversation.”

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