Kemp Mill Synagogue is a spiritual home to lobbyists, policy scholars, and White House staffers. It looks out over the opening of a lushly wooded forest valley in suburban Maryland, just down the street from a horse farm. One of its common nicknames used to be Congregation Bnei Ivy—the people of the Ivy League.
The name alludes to an enduring way of life for an influential segment of American Jews. The eight Ivy League schools are a collective stand-in for the meritocratic system that turned the children and grandchildren of penniless Yiddish-speakers into some of the richest and most important people in America. In Kemp Mill Synagogue’s case, it really did seem as if everyone there had gone to an Ivy League school, or had sent several of their children to one. But that was almost a generation ago. “I’m not sure the nickname fits anymore,” said Tevi Troy, a congregant, historian, Cornell alumnus, and former Bush administration official.
For Jews, an Ivy League degree was both a status symbol and a crucial element in a functioning and merit-based system of social mobility. An Ivy education was proof of a durable theory that Jews—like other immigrant communities—could become normalized in American society through sheer ability, which could be recognized, nurtured, and rewarded through institutions that everyone still trusted and even admired. Like other elite realms, the Ivies became places where Jews were numerous and comfortable. Some 25% of the Harvard student body was Jewish from the 1960s onward. Yale was perhaps as much as one-third Jewish in the ’70s and ’80s. The University of Pennsylvania was always mythologized as being 40% or even a half Jewish, though the best numbers indicate the high-water mark was more in the 35% range. In a 1979 address at the dedication of Harvard’s new Hillel, Henry Rosovsky, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and one of the architects of the college’s core curriculum, noted that “Harvard has made us feel entirely at home,” but also wondered: “Will our community remain strong or will it disappear? This is not a fanciful question.”
Today, it has become a perceivable reality that Jews are no longer being admitted to Ivy League schools in their former numbers. In 2017, Brandeis demographer Leonard Saxe found that Harvard was at most 14% Jewish, determining that the undergraduate student body was 10% “Jewish by religion,” while another 4% were people of Jewish ethnicity who did not identify as belonging to any religion. At Harvard the drop has been noted since at least the late 2000s, when the university’s Jewish studies department began cutting its offerings. Princeton, believed to be 15% Jewish in the ’80s and ’90s, now only infrequently has classes on modern Jewish philosophy and usually has only one class per semester on modern Jewish history. Students interested in Hebrew language instruction must often take more advanced classes at the nearby Princeton Theological Seminary, which runs on a different academic calendar. “I think there are a number of reasons why JDS is not flourishing at Princeton,” emeritus professor Froma Zeitlin wrote by email, referring to the school’s Judaic studies program, “one of which is the lack of a coherent vision as to what JDS ought to be promoting.”
The University of Pennsylvania was believed to be over one-third Jewish for much of the ’80s and ’90s. In 2016, Saxe put the number at closer to 16%. The drop at Penn was “dramatic and rapid” in the 2010s, as one person active in the university’s Jewish life recalled—there was an apparent 40% plunge in the school’s Jewish population between 2010 and the study’s completion in 2016, with a 50% drop from the beginning of the 21st century until now. The Yale Chaplain’s Office surveys incoming freshmen on their religious identity. The office’s methods are notably unsystematic, but it nevertheless recorded a drop in Jewish-identifying respondents, from 19.8% in the 2000s to 16.4% in the 2010s. Yale is now “probably less than 10% Jewish,” one leader of the university’s Jewish community estimated. At Princeton, members of the Orthodox community—the group most responsible for making Jewish practice and communal life both visible and tangible, often to the benefit of less religious Jews—aren’t sure how much longer their daily minyan can hang on. “Jews are being squeezed out of the admission priorities,” Princeton senior Adam Hoffman claimed.
Of course, there is little about American Jewish life that depends on there being high percentages of Jews at the eight Ivy League schools. Jews being rejected from Penn and Yale are now flocking to Washington University in St Louis or Tulane instead. Perhaps steering clear of the establishment conformity factories that most Ivy League universities seem bent on becoming might actually turn into an advantage for American Jews within a burnt-over educational landscape where “excellence” is thought of as a retrograde or even racist concept. The faster Jews can run away from the declining strongholds of rigidly enforced right-think, one might argue, the better off they and their children will be.
Whether or not it’s ultimately positive for the community, the drop in Jewish Ivy League enrollment reflects consequential shifts within institutions that continue to sit atop American society, retaining the privileges and broader infrastructure of the prior meritocracy. These universities, which continue to subsist on large contributions from mainly Jewish donors, still behave as if they control a narrow pathway into the upper rungs of American life.
At every point in their history the Ivies have revealed what the existing elite values and whom it is willing to welcome into its ranks. Jews benefited from the meritocratic system of elite production that the Ivies administered in the postwar years and are at an apparent disadvantage now that the old system is considered exclusionary, unrepresentative, and otherwise ill-suited to the current needs and values of the people oveerseeing it. The Ivy League now presents conflicting answers as to whether Jews have a place within whatever post-meritocratic national elite the schools understand themselves to be building.
American Jews—at least the wealthy and relatively liberal ones who cluster in the Northeast—achieved their present status through a mid-to-late-20th-century credentialing system that tried and failed to exclude them. From the 1920s until the early 1960s, Yale’s administration implemented a series of secret admissions rules that had the effect of keeping the Jewish percentage of the student body at a consistent 10%. “They publicly said, and said it to themselves: We are not discriminating against Jews per se. We’re just trying to set up criteria so that the Jews we bring in will be the right kind of Jews,” said Daniel Oren, a psychologist and author of a book about the history of Jews at Yale. Harvard officially admitted to having a quota system in the early 1920s. In research for a 2017 senior thesis on the history of Jews at Dartmouth, Sandor Farkas found evidence that the school’s quotas on Jewish admissions lasted through the 1960s.
Aspects of the quotas have lingered on—it is harder for just about any student from the Northeast not classified as a racial minority, including Jews, to get into Harvard than it is for one applying from Iowa or Nebraska. But beginning in the mid ’60s, Jews were the primary beneficiaries of a half-century window in which the path to the Ivy League became reasonably straightforward: Excellent grades and a high SAT score could get you into a place like Penn, which had a 41% acceptance rate in 1990. That window is now just about closed. Unlike in the ’90s, the Ivies now solicit a high volume of applicants, and it has become harder to establish variance across the applicant pool than it was in past decades. Deliberate, systematic grade and SAT-score inflation have obliterated any obvious quantitative differences between students who are truly great and those who are merely very good. Earlier this year, Columbia became the first Ivy League school to drop its SAT requirement entirely. With the end of the last comparatively objective means of evaluating applicants, admissions criteria have become “holistic” and hard to even identify.
There is compelling though occasional anecdotal proof that top students are clustering in those schools that do continue to select on merit: 21 of the 25 top finishers in last year’s William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition were MIT students. Such proof isn’t needed though, because the Ivies openly and proudly admit that they are no longer taking the top applicants: “If we wanted to, we could take students who had only perfect GPAs and only perfect board scores and fill a class with them,” Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber told CBS in 2017, before confirming that “we do take race and ethnicity into account in building a diverse campus.” Harvard is currently the defendant in a Supreme Court case in which the university is arguing for its right to continue assessing applicants based on their ethnic background, anticipated personality traits, and other factors that have little to with the usual notions of academic merit. “Yale will not waver in its commitment to educating a student body whose diversity is a mark of its excellence,” Yale President Peter Solovay wrote in 2020, arguing that Yale retains its status as a top school as a result of its admissions office’s skill at demographic engineering.
In practice, the commitment to diversity, which the Ivies view as part of their larger mission to improve society, is reflected in drop-offs in the white percentage of student bodies. “Jews are de facto discriminated against, even if it’s not based on animus” a nationally renowned mathematician employed at an Ivy League school said of Jewish applicants to top colleges. “The counterargument is that they’re discriminated against the same way any other white person in the Northeast whose parents went to top schools are discriminated against.”
This “discrimination” against Jewish applicants isn’t narrowly the result of affirmative action, at least not in the sense of the redistribution of benefits, like elite university admissions, as a way of rectifying historical wrongdoing. Instead, the muddling of admission standards under the sign of social justice is an expression of a deeper and much older mentality among the Ivy administrations, one that predates affirmative action by decades or even centuries. The Ivy League schools are jealously protective of their self-image as the vanguard of the national elite—a self-appointed purpose that was always the sole determinant of whether Jews or any other demographic group would be admitted in large numbers. The Ivies operate like rentier states whose legitimacy depends on the wise dispersal of a lucrative and diminishing resource. In Ivy League administrations, that resource is prestige.
Toward the middle of the 20th century, after decades of trying and failing to maintain their status as exclusionary clubs for monied Northeastern men, the times called for the prestige-supply of the Ivies to be distributed among the best and most qualified students—male and female, gentile and Jewish—in order for the Ivies to credibly retain their gatekeeping role. Conversely, in the 2020s, another period of social upheaval, excellence has gone out of fashion among an elite whose new watchword is “equity.” Given that Jews are less than 2% of the U.S. population, harsher and even more significant reductions in already-declining Jewish undergraduate populations at the Ivies would be necessary in order for closely curated student bodies to “look like America.”
In their implementation, the Ivies’ attempts at demographic engineering have little to do with any clear idea of either merit or justice. Indeed, if historical wrongdoing was the core issue, it would be hard to find a group in America that was explicitly targeted for exclusion for longer and to greater effect than Jews, including by the Ivies themselves. Instead, the Ivy student bodies reveal the absurdity of present efforts to equitably distribute prestige in an increasingly unequal society. At Penn, the percentage of Black students barely changed between 2010 and 2016, a time when the Jewish population sharply declined. The percentage of Asians and international students markedly rose—along with the average income of families sending their kids to Penn. “The admissions data allowed Penn to virtue-signal that it was doing something for diversity,” said one source familiar with Jewish life at the school. “But what it really was doing was swapping out wealthy Jews for wealthy Asians.” This was partly enabled through an initiative to prioritize “first generation” college students in admissions. But the university employs a tortured definition of “first generation,” one that allows it to create the illusion of greater equity without risking its academic reputation or its bottom line: At Penn, a “first generation” applicant includes people whose parents earned college degrees outside the United States—the children of nearly anyone who immigrated to the U.S. with a degree, no matter how rich or poor—or who did not “attend a research university with the resources and opportunities a Penn education provides.”
The gap between the ideal of representation and its practical, real-world outcomes frequently manifests itself at elite universities. In 2004, Henry Louis Gates Jr. estimated that between two-thirds and one-half of Black students at Harvard were immigrants or the children of immigrants, rather than the descendants of American slaves. Apparently, little has changed since then: “To be a descendant of slavery is to be an ‘other’ within the Black community at Harvard,” one student wrote in a February Crimson column. The writer noted that in 2015, the median income of U.S.-born Black households was about 30% lower than that of Black immigrant households. Harvard figured out that it could appear to be helping the primary victims of American racism by accepting the high-achieving children of relatively wealthy African professionals.
With a similar eye toward establishing diversity without threatening the finances or reputation of the institution, international students now account for over 10% of Ivy League student bodies. These students are often the private school educated children of foreign elites whose parents or national governments are happy to pay the entire tuition bill, eschewing the financial aid that would be necessary for the children of poor, native-born minority groups to attend. “You get extremely wealthy people from abroad who pay full freight—that’s the only demographic at Penn that’s gotten bigger in this time period,” one alumnus active in Jewish life at the university explained.
The Ivies’ efforts to protect their constantly endangered position as America’s defining pathway to power and success has resulted in the schools’ obscuring any clear criteria for admissions, with the effect of winnowing its Jewish students without seeming to have achieved any higher social objective. The picture will become even more confused if and when the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Asian American plaintiffs suing Harvard for discrimination, a decision that would prohibit the use of race in college admissions, thus forcing the schools into ever more absurdist, arbitrary, and very likely secretive means of maintaining “diverse” student bodies.
In the post-meritocratic environment, Jewish applicants and alumni have been forced to prove that they are beneficial to the Ivy League prestige cartel for reasons that go beyond their brainpower or potential as future donors. There are now various examples of what this advocacy looks like in practice. On Feb. 23, the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel held a Zoom call for parents and alumni from the school’s Orthodox community addressing the “serious decline in Jewish population and concomitant decline in the Orthodox and traditionally observant community” over “the past 15 years.” The notice for the meeting, signed by Hillel Director Gabe Greenberg, added that Penn Hillel had “begun a process of educating the University on this critical issue.” The call would be part of this ongoing “process,” a chance to lay out the terms of the problem in a way that might receive a sympathetic hearing from Penn’s administration.
“People were very upset,” recalls one participant in the call. The roughly 100 people on the line proposed ideas about how to approach university administrators: Perhaps they could argue that a smaller Jewish community would put additional mental health pressures on the existing Jews on campus. Maybe by getting more specific admissions data from Jewish day schools college counselors could help bolster the argument that Orthodox Jews no longer saw Penn as the place to use their single early admissions application.
“There used to be a playbook of what you were supposed to do to lobby the university,” said one source familiar with Jewish communal affairs at Penn. “The reason you should want a sizable Jewish community is that it’s good for the university. There used to be this line of, show me a university with less than 15% Jews and I’ll show you a mediocre university.” That line no longer works, but as the Zoom call shows, no one seems sure how universities with an obscure commitment to academic excellence and which define Jews as an overrepresented subgroup of “white” people can be convinced to let in more Jews, rather than, say, wealthy Chinese or Nigerian applicants.
There’s a similar lack of clarity at Princeton, where there is rising concern over the near-term viability of the school’s religious community. The number of incoming Orthodox Jewish students has apparently declined even as the school expanded its available admissions spots. Yavne, the university’s Orthodox student organization, could identify fewer than 10 potential observant Jews in incoming classes that are at least 125 students larger than in past years, thanks to an ongoing enlargement of Princeton College. Major Jewish donors have met with Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber to discuss the perceived decline in Jewish enrollment. Student leadership from Yavne has met with admissions officials to raise their doubts over whether the school’s once-vibrant Orthodox community can last.
In some sense, unease over the disappearance of Jews from Ivy League campuses is disconnected from any actual numbers, which the universities themselves may or may not formally keep. Myles McKnight, a Princeton senior active in Yavne, explained to me that there are tensions within the Princeton Jewish community, with frequent Israel-related uproars and a growing perception that the university’s Center for Jewish Life isn’t supportive of the more traditionally minded side of the community. “There is a sense that the CJL is quickly becoming another social justice center on campus,” said McKnight. Yet it is possible Jews on campus are experiencing their own specific consequences of a general atmosphere of drift. I asked McKnight about the overall feeling on campus and received a discouraging reply. “Obviously there’s a huge mental health crisis,” he explained. “I think people are a lot more detached in general from the overall purpose and mission of the university as a place of study and learning, and more so regard this place as an empty steppingstone to a job in consulting or a job on Capitol Hill or something.”
Versions of this story crop up across the Ivy League, with the takeaway that life on campus is transactional and status-obsessed, and breeds a particularly sour kind of cynicism. “The hyperwoke environment there in general is not a friendly one for the Jews,” said a recent Yale graduate, “and certainly drives many of them to leftist politics as a matter of seeking out personal safety, even if only subconsciously.”
The eight Ivy League schools do not march in lockstep. Even if the universities are guided by a similar set of values and interests, they are still competitors within a uniquely American marketplace, jostling for a limited pool of resources, attention, and status. A decision made at Yale or Havard creates a chance for differentiation somewhere else. Even within the Ivy League there is already a compelling example of what an elite university eager to welcome Jews on campus might look like.
The percentage of Jews at Brown is reportedly going up: from 15% in 2015 to 24% in 2022, according to the nonscientific count in Hillel’s college guide, which is based on self-reported numbers supplied by the various campus Hillels. There are also other, perhaps even more reliable signs of an increase: A vastly expanded eruv opened in College Hill in 2017. The kosher dining hall will move to the main dining hall on campus next year. “It’s going to be amazingly positive for the student experience here at Brown,” George Barboza, vice president for dining programs, said when the news was announced. “This really allows for a robust community where students of many religious backgrounds and ethnicities can get good meals and share them in a dining hall, without the restriction of having to eat certain meals in particular places or at certain times.”
Where in the past couple of decades Penn has gone from having two daily Orthodox minyans to just one, Brown might soon have its first daily minyan in recent memory. There are students “experimenting with a Thursday morning minyan,” reports Brown Hillel Director Joshua Bolton, in addition to the Orthodox services held on Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. “Once you get a minyan, that’s a major fact on the ground,” said Bolton, who adds that he’s observed a gradual increase in day school graduates attending Brown. “Over the past decade the infrastructure to support Orthodox observant Jewish life has dramatically improved,” he said.
It is possible Brown sees an opportunity in the decline of day school admissions at the other Ivies—by rapidly building up its infrastructure for religious Jews, Brown can enroll the talented Orthodox students that Penn and Harvard no longer seem to want.
There are signs that Brown’s approach may be less cynical than that. Christina Paxson, the university’s president since 2012, has repeatedly spoken about the importance of having religious Jews on campus. In 2017, Paxson, a noted academic economist and convert to Judaism, addressed the dedication of Brown’s eruv expansion, making her perhaps the only American college president in history to have appeared at such an esoteric Jewish event. Her remarks showed that she did not consider a physical marker determining what religious Jews can and can’t carry one-seventh of the week to be the least bit esoteric. “God’s presence is reflected across the public good, in many beautiful and meaningful ways, and I think what we’re doing here adds to that,” Paxson said, closing a speech in which she suggested that the new eruv was an expression of “community-based diversity and tolerance.” Paxson, Bolton explains, publicly lights Rosh Hashanah candles at Hillel every year, which is something much different and more deliberate than an annual photo-op with a Hanukkah menorah.
Like her counterparts at Princeton and Yale, Paxson is an outspoken advocate of demographic management of the student body. She wants students of atypical Ivy League backgrounds on campus; more students who grew up on army bases, or in tightknit Christian communities. Her vision of a balanced campus requires a Jewish presence, along with a kind of Jewish confidence and vibrancy that other universities now appear to discourage—Paxon also addressed Hillel International’s Israel summit earlier this year, for instance.
Paxson’s position as president of Brown was hardly inevitable. The head of the search committee that selected Paxson was Tom Tisch, an investor and veteran donor to Jewish causes. The Brown board now includes Mitchell Julis, namesake benefactor of the Israeli and Jewish law program at Harvard Law and a former member of the Princeton board.
The notion of Jews as one of many ethnic constituencies competing for the attention of the people who run the country’s prestige dispensaries is hardly an encouraging one. But a principled rejection of the post-meritocratic system may not be practical, and it is not too late for Jews to carve out a space within the new and bewildering vacuum that is consuming the American elite, the Ivy League included.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.