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.