Have Quotas For Jews At Ivy League Schools Returned?

While the state of education in male charedi schools has been a topic of public discourse over the last several years (due to some schools underperforming in terms of secular education), there’s a whole category of Orthodox Jewish schools rarely discussed in traditional media – the high performing ones. In modern and centrist Orthodox and some charedi circles, there are many schools that provide exemplary education in both secular and Jewish subjects. And for years, many members of these communities have gotten alumni into Ivy League schools.

As an undergrad at Columbia University in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s (my husband and I met there the first day of our freshman year and he went on to get graduate degrees at two more Ivy League schools), we had a large Orthodox Jewish community on campus. Our presence was strong, energetic and proud. But as my children are now in this process of applying to college, and after seeing a recent report of where high school graduates in our area going to college, the number of Orthodox Jewish students at Ivy League schools, as well as the number of Jews in general at Ivy League schools, seems to have swiftly and significantly dropped over the last number of years. The question is why.

The quotas on limiting Jews at schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, in the 1930’s-1950’s are well-known. (Apparently, Yale’s quotas lasted until the early 1960’s.) According to Tablet, in only a few years (between 1925-1930’s) Harvard’s quotas reduce its Jewish population by almost half. At that point, Jews were considered too ethnic. We were not white enough for such prestigious schools. According to historian David Oshinsky, Harvard Dean Milton Winternitz’s instructions were incredibly precise on the matter: “Never admit more than five Jews, and take no blacks at all.” By the 1960’s, the quotas were dropped and for several decades Jews, including observant ones, had large presences at these schools.

But the pendulum may have swung again. Although Jews still compromise a higher percentage at Ivy League campuses than our 2% US population size, as schools work to increase diversity, it seems that Jews now are not ethnic enough to be considered diverse. According to a study by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, in just 6 years, between 2010 and 2016, University of Pennsylvania’s Jewish population shrunk by almost half. From what we heard from guidance counselors, Columbia University seems to have a far smaller Orthodox Jewish population from when my husband and I were there twenty years ago. There could be a multitude of reasons for a population to drop, but Tablet writer Shira Telushkin notes that, “historically, a drop in Jewish attendance at these institutions indicated deliberate action.”

As a person who works to understand opinions from different perspectives, I can see the value in creating diverse spaces and helping those who have come from less fortunate situations get ahead. I can also see the value in an admission’s process that rewards applicants based on academic merit. (I have a much harder time understanding why these schools value legacy.) But what interests me most about this topic is how Jews, once again, can be classified as opposite things in ways to not be included.

Throughout history, Jews have been accused of being too separatist and too assimilated, too depraved and too traditional, too Communist and too Capitalist, too wealthy and too destitute, too powerful and too needy. And in the case of Ivy League universities, in a matter of decades, too ethnic and then perhaps not ethnic enough.

From a spiritual perspective, the reason the Jew becomes whatever he is needed to be in order to be on the outs is because Jewish tradition believes that hatred of the Jew will be the way of the world while we are in exile. The Talmud teaches:

“What is [the reason for the name] Har Sinai (Mt Sinai)? That hatred descended to the idolaters on it.” (Shabbat 89a) Our sages noticed that “Sinai” sounds like “sinah” (hatred) and understood that in accepting the Torah, we would become hated (without reason) in the world throughout time.

While the zeitgeist changes in every era, the Jew as the eternal “other” seems to stick. At least in times of exile. But as my family looks eastward and more members of it make plans to call Israel home, the US campus dynamic is becoming less personal to us. In our small way, we will contribute to the ingathering of exiles, and hopefully help bring our world to a place where the Jew no longer is destined to be eternally hated.

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  • Avatar photo Aaron says on June 28, 2022

    In other words, the Jewish tradition (or, should I say, the widespread interpretation of the Jewish tradition) effectively legitimizes antisemitism. Is there any surprise that the “world” feels free to discriminate against us if our own religious beliefs give them a free pass to do so. And is there any surprise that so many of us are unwilling to have anything to with such a self-defeating religion and choose to assimilate instead? Something is missing in this equation. And I strongly suspect that the blame is on those whose duty is to interpret our traditions.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on June 28, 2022

      Thanks for your question. There are certainly people in our community who throw in the towel. I don’t believe we should. Our organization exists to advocate for Jews. We are now doing this in Hollywood for the entire Jewish community. I see the interpretation of the Talmudic text as a way to explain the hard to understand ways that Jews morph to meet the antisemites definition of hating us, not to excuse it or live with it.

  • Avatar photo Aaron says on June 28, 2022

    Also, by looking “eastwards” and making the US campus dynamics “less personal” to you, you’re doing disservice to millions on American Jews who can’t afford, or are, for some personal reasons, unwilling, to look eastwards until Mashiach comes. Turning the “Jew in the City” into the “Jew in the Holy City Only” would only undermine the role of Judaism as a global religion. Disbanding the diaspora at the time when other minorities are fighting for their rights globally would grant a big fat victory to those who hate us and want to render America judenfrei. We can’t afford that. I would respect your looking eastwards for yourself and your family personally out of love for the Land of Israel itself, but can’t respect your doing so in response to discrimination, especially if it’s on behalf of an organization that you yourself have created for the exact opposite purpose – to fight the discrimination rather than running away from it.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on June 28, 2022

      It’s so funny you say to not turn Jew in the City into Jew in the Holy City because just this morning, a reader wrote in to express his disgust that the city of JITC is NOT the holy city. We are not looking eastward to run from bad campus dynamics or antisemitism. My eldest made Aliyah recently due to a love of her homeland and different members of our family plan to follow for the same reason. I understand that it’s important for there to be a strong Jewish presence to advocate for our community in the US but I also believe that Israel is our eternal homeland and the destiny of the Jews. The truth is that every home we’ve ever known has eventually kicked us out. We should make sure to continue making our case for fair treatment in the world. But I’d rather go to Israel as an oleh and not a refugee.

      • Avatar photo Jason says on June 28, 2022


        Jews should be running to Israel, with or without Moshiach, with or without a penny to their name either. For my family, 22 days en counting and we’ll be in Haifa!! B”H

  • Avatar photo Gary Branfman says on July 1, 2022

    Great article!
    Over the past decade or two, my three three daughters attended ( respectively) NYU, The University of Iowa, and The University of Texas.
    Sadly, the flagrant obvious unopposed explosion of Antisemitism ( disguised as AntiZionism) and BDS was at NYU.
    The University of Iowa has an amazing Hillel Organization and no evidence of Antisemitism.
    And Judaism at the University of Texas is a way of life. Not only with an active Hillel, but also The Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center!
    And incidentally, Hillel at Texas A&M university has been active since 1916!
    Us Texans refer to Texas and Israel as the
    Two Lone-star States!


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