Starting about 2013, the staff at the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania wondered what they were doing wrong. Each year, the number of students at their High Holiday services, Passover seders, and the first annual Shabbat dinner of the year seemed to be smaller than in years past. “We thought we just hit this wall, where 15 years ago the people who didn’t want to go to services did so, even if out of guilt, and today they don’t,” said Michael Uram, the Hillel executive director and campus rabbi. But after running numbers on the student body, he concluded that wasn’t the whole story. “While that is probably still true, what is also true is that there are just several hundred less Jews on campus.”
In 2010, Penn was just under 20 percent Jewish, according to data collected by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute. By 2016, only 13 percent of the campus identified as Jewish by religion, a decrease of over 600 Jewish students. (When including students who claimed only ethnic or cultural affiliation, those numbers jump three percentage points.) And Penn is far from the only Ivy League campus to note a decline. To take another example, throughout the 2000s, about 20 percent of incoming freshmen at Yale University identified as Jewish, according to data collected by the Yale University Chaplain’s Office. In the 2010s, that number was closer to 16 percent. For the past three years, The Harvard Crimson has reported that about 10 percent of incoming first-year students identified as Jewish, according to their own survey. For the incoming Harvard class of 2020, that number has dropped to 6 percent.
Attention to declining Jewish numbers is not new: In 1999, The New York Times noted that the Jewish presence at Princeton University had fallen to 10 percent in the past decade, from a high of over 18 percent in the early 1980s, and warned that these “figures closely track a nationwide pattern; the percentage of college students who identify themselves as Jews has declined steadily over the last two decades.”
Of course, getting accurate numbers for this kind of thing is notoriously difficult, and whether a decline should inspire concern at all is an open question: By any measure, Jews, who are at most 2 percent of all Americans, remain vastly overrepresented on Ivy campuses. Nevertheless, for better or worse, attendance at Ivy League institutions has long been shorthand for evidence of academic and social success in American society. Numbers matter. The high numbers of Jewish students at Ivy League schools in particular has been a point of pride within the Jewish community, especially when focused on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, symbolizing both Jewish intellectual prowess and, perhaps more important, Jewish acceptance into the upper echelons of American society.
And historically, a drop in Jewish attendance at these institutions indicated deliberate action. In 1925, Jewish students were over 25 percent of Harvard. Then the fast-growing Jewish population in America dovetailed with nativist movements, and criteria were introduced that reduced Jewish representation to 15 percent for the following three decades—with similar unspoken quotas at Yale, Princeton, and elsewhere. But since the 1960s, when such criteria were dropped alongside other admission reforms, Jews have flourished on Ivy campuses. Kosher dining options proliferated, Judaic studies offerings increased, Jewish research was funded, and centers were built for Jewish student life. Schools allowed exemptions from Saturday test-taking and honored religious holidays. Today, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania all have Jewish presidents. Jews are not just present, but visible.
As such, the falling numbers have become a topic of conversation in some Jewish circles. For those with memory of our recent exclusion, declines in the Jewish populations at such schools feel like progress undone. “I’ve heard the concern about declining numbers, but more from parents, or alumni, or Slifka staff”—the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, said Maytal Saltiel, an associate chaplain at Yale University. “Not so much from the students.” For others, the concern is about claiming Jewish identity. As one prominent New York rabbi, a graduate of Yale, wrote to me in an email, “It’s not just that fewer Jews are being accepted to these schools. It is also that they don’t feel and think and identify as Jewish. I find it terribly alarming. And I’m not usually alarmist.” The rabbi was responding particularly to the fact that the low numbers recorded by The Harvard Crimson have been attributed to their survey listing the options of “Jewish,” “atheist,” and “agnostic” as mutually exclusive, meaning many Jews might be checking a different box as their primary affiliation. (The 2016 study at Penn found this trend explicitly, noting that while 13% of campus identified as Jewish when asked about religion, the same criteria used for the 2010 numbers, an additional 3% identified as having no religion but indicated they were Jewish “aside from religion,” an amorphous identity that might also point to the increase in multi-faith identities and growing secularism.) Others worry that smaller numbers are reflective not of self-identification trends but culture: Jewish students are losing their intellectual hunger, this argument goes, and thus no longer as worthy applicants as in decades past.
Then there is plain demography. The applicant pool at elite schools has broadened and become more diverse, including not just more Americans but international students, too. It may not be that fewer Jews apply to Ivy League schools, or are less likely to identify as Jewish, or are even less-worthy candidates, but simply that, as Penn’s Uram puts it, “It’s really hard to get into college today.”
But increased competition for spots does not, for many, seem like the full story. For decades now, there has been a popular theory that the latest generation or two of Jews, raised without the immigrant mentality of their parents and grandparents, is less driven toward traditional academic success. “It is a narrative that is so convenient it almost seems superimposed, but I do think it is true,” said Andreas Rotenberg, who graduated from Princeton in 2013, adding that among the parents of his friends in his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, “there are so many doctors and lawyers and academics, and so many of their kids are filmmakers or comics or writers of some kind. I have maybe one friend in medical school.”
I graduated from Yale in 2014, and I certainly have more friends in medical school than pursuing filmmaking. But the narrative hits home. I’m also named after a grandfather who moved to Brooklyn from Belarus when he was 16, and despite arriving without any knowledge of English, enrolled in City College 18 months later. My grandmother, born in 1912, remembered starching her shirts as a small child to go to the library, because it was a place worthy of dressing up (and this before she was even 10-years-old). My Jewish friends all have similar stories of hard work and educational pursuit in their family backgrounds. We grew up with stories of children who taught themselves to read English, who studied in between shifts at the factories, who valued education like a treasure. The narrative of generational decline is hard to escape. In 1996, Nicholas Lemann, writing for Slate, bluntly summed up this point when reflecting on Jewish students of his day: “Something is gone: That old intense and generalized academic commitment, linked to sociological ambition, is no longer a defining cultural characteristic of the group.” Like others, he used the Ivy League as a proxy to discuss merit and modern Jewish mediocrity.
But that was in 1996, long before this familiar concern could be hung on declining enrollment numbers of Jews at Ivy League schools. Much of this narrative today, in its nostalgic bent, skips a generation, heading straight back to stories from the Great Depression. And it’s a narrative that is not uniquely Jewish, but broadly adopted by many immigrant groups in America—as the Irish-Catholic character Jack Donaghy bemoans in an episode of the television series 30 Rock, “We are an immigrant nation. The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things. The next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation … snowboards and takes improv classes.” As Jews, the argument that we’ve lost our drive has existed for decades, well before the recent declines in Ivy numbers. The anxiety in our community about declining Jewish numbers at Ivies might be focused on work ethic, but that also isn’t the full story. The true concern for many Jews, still unformed and much less likely to be voiced, is about the implications of this trend on the future of Jewish success and influence in America. Put simply: What does this trend in numbers say about the caliber of Jews in American society?
Again, declining Jewish numbers are not just about Jews, as noted, but about changes within the universities themselves. In the same years that Penn went from being 20 percent Jewish to 13 percent Jewish, the overall population of white students—a category that would include most, though certainly not all, Jews—at Penn declined from 64 percent to 44 percent. That’s pretty huge. And this reality raises new questions for Jews, who in the span of a few decades went from being castigated outsiders to part of the establishment on Ivy League campuses. The speed of those changes means we’re still adapting our sense of self to the reality of our new social position. Is the concern about declining numbers similar to white Christian elites who worry about losing their long-held power, or to other minority groups worried about the impact of resurging discrimination? Sometimes, for Jews, it feels like both.
Much of the rhetoric in this conversation has focused on Asian-Americans as “the new Jews,” especially when considering the values of intellectual success and hard work. This makes Jews the new WASPs—the old guard, coasting on past glories. And this change in social position is reflected in changing Jewish attitudes to merit. As Jacob Scheer recently wrote in Tablet, while Jewish organizations once opposed affirmative action in the 1960s and ’70s, arguing that it devalued merit and hard work, today they tend to support “well-rounded” admission policies, because they value diversity in the classroom, to be sure, but also, perhaps, because such policies now bolster Jewish numbers rather than limit them.
By contrast, Asian-Americans, the new subjects of admission controversies, have sued Harvard, explicitly fighting what they see as unofficial quotas that artificially limit their numbers. If they win their current court case, the number of Jewish students could decrease further. For Jews worried about the decline of Jewish prowess, this feels like just deserts for a community that lost its drive for excellence. For Jews concerned about the maintenance of Jewish influence, the concern more closely resembles that of the old elite.
So while the Jewish work ethic might have changed since the early 20th century, that’s probably not the reason behind these very current new changes in Jewish student populations at Ivy League schools. Instead, the Jewish place in a changing American society has evolved, quickly and drastically. We are no longer outsiders looking in—though we might not retain our insider status for long. Which raises another question: Should we care?
Most students I spoke with today said no. Elena Hoffenberg, who graduated from Harvard in 2016, said that while she heard concern about falling numbers at Harvard, it wasn’t the students themselves who cared. “As a student, I definitely heard the anxiety about fewer Jewish students at the university, but mostly from [older] Harvard Hillel board members and sometimes staff,” she wrote in an email, adding that some of the anxiety also centered on concerns about Jewish students being less involved in Jewish life. Some students felt like the population of Orthodox Jewish students had stayed pretty stable, and others felt the whole situation was more about luck than anything else. This fall, the incoming freshman class at Yale accepted about 15 students from Orthodox Jewish homes (some of those planning to come have deferred to go to Israel). Students I spoke to there felt the concern was a generational gasp from a different time.
That students could be so nonchalant about the situation of Jews at Harvard and similar schools shows how much has changed in the past 50 years of American Jewish, and Ivy, history. Today, of course, most everyone works hard at elite schools, which testifies to the meritocratic impulse that allowed Jews to crash the gates. But accepting students based on individual merit alone is never what the Ivies were traditionally about; they were training grounds for the elite. When Charles Eliot took over as president of Harvard in 1869, he was known for his emphasis on academic standards, but in his inaugural address, he reassured the rich that they would always have a place, remarking how “the country suffers when the rich are ignorant and unrefined. Inherited wealth is an unmitigated curse when divorced from culture.” Therefore, “to lose altogether the presence of those who in early life have enjoyed the domestic and social advantages of wealth would be as great a blow to the College as to lose the sons of the poor.” This logic held firm for nearly a century. Affirmative action for preppies maintained this goal: In 1909, over half of the incoming freshman class at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had failed the entrance exams of the schools. The sons of high society, they were seen to nonetheless positively influence campus culture, and this policy lasted well into the 20th century.
When, in the 1920s, the growing focus on academic merit began to threaten the WASP elite, admissions became more contingent on “character” and other traits Jews were thought not to possess. As Jerome Karabel deftly shows in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the introduction of alumni interviews, college essays, and letters of recommendation was formulated to identify and control the number of Jewish students admitted. When Stephen Greenblatt, the celebrated Harvard English professor, who graduated from Yale in 1964, went to his Harvard admissions interview as a high school senior in 1960, his father did not coach him on how to brag about his test scores or highlight his obscure intellectual achievements. “He was mostly concerned I not appear as too much of an intellectual,” Greenblatt recalled. “He told me, ‘They are interested in sports and you being a regular fellow.’ That was his way of talking about not seeming too Jewish.”
‘The Jewish focus on the Ivies was the product of a historical experience that has now passed.’
For Jewish students today, the world of informal quotas can feel like ancient history. Today, acceptance at a top school is, for a clever boy or girl at many elite Jewish day schools, desirable but, in the attainment, not groundbreaking. “Getting accepted to an Ivy League school was incredibly exciting, of course, but also just a relief,” said one Harvard College graduate, who attended a Jewish day school in New York and refrained from sharing his name for fear of sounding like an elitist. “It seemed like everyone in my life had been accepted to one of the Ivies, and it was presented as the accepted next step for smart kids.” When asked, multiple other students who had attended Jewish day schools and were accepted to colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, all agreed: Getting accepted was thrilling, but it hardly had the frisson of breaking barriers for the Jewish community. Mostly, they worried about the intense pressure in Jewish circles around college acceptance.
“It’s a new world, and the Jews have a different place in it than they used to have,” says Paula Fass, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting From Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. “The Jewish focus on the Ivies was the product of a historical experience that has now passed.”
As the Jewish community has established itself in America as a wealthy, successful, highly educated bunch, the Ivy League has become less the exotic status symbol of American acceptance that it might have been for first- and second-generation Americans, and more a contested site for identity politics. In other words, the increased competition for spots at Ivies has resulted in fewer Jewish students, but has also opened these institutions up for other groups. There is no reason to think that Jewish students feel any less pressure to get accepted to top schools than their parents—but these schools are harder to get into than they were for their parents.
While some Jews, particularly the alumni of elite schools, worry that declining numbers of Jewish students at these schools will spell doom for the future of American Jewry, others, like Fass, believe such concern is misplaced. “The truth is that Jewish kids in the 20th century succeeded for generations without going to the Ivies,” she says. “We don’t need to be so worried.” In fact, to be so worried can feel ridiculous. “If 15 percent of Yale College was Jewish, and we make up 2 percent of the population … then I’m not troubled by those kinds of numbers,” says Dan Oren, author of Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale. “There are some people who could see that 15 percent number and think Jews are vastly overrepresented at Yale.”
But after working from the outside to build up influence and power, being told that they have not only succeeded, but in fact become part of the old elite, can rankle. Especially at a time when we feel newly vulnerable in American society, this can be a difficult shift in self-perception. After all, we knew we were forcing our way into such institutions, not being welcomed, and, especially given the current nativism and anti-Semitism in American discourse, a few decades seems thin evidence to confirm our new status as comfortable insiders. Across conversations about identity, Jews are struggling to reconcile our self-protective distrust of power with the reality of our own power, and with how to feel secure in a world where, historically, not having clout and influence has been disastrous for us. To recognize that our presence at institutions like the Ivies, a presence that has helped to shore up Jewish success, might be declining feels scary to some, because it is only recently that to be Jewish in America has ceased to feel scary.
Like Fass and others, I agree that such concerns are misplaced. The American-Jewish community will be fine, and as we all know, there are many great schools in the United States. No reason to fetishize the Ivy League. But as an observant Jewish student at Yale, I loved the robust Jewish community, and if the Jewish population was reduced to a point where we didn’t have a good Shabbat community, or maintaining a kosher kitchen no longer made sense, that would feel like a loss. There were certainly several hundred active Jewish students among the undergraduates when I was there, and that meant multiple prayer options, diverse social and political groups, and a tangible influence on campus life. Scores of non-Jews came to Friday night dinners, for example, as well as to Yale Hillel parties. As Jews on campus, we felt both fully Jewish and fully part of the school.
And as Orthodox students know, if the community falls below a certain threshold, it can be hard to build up again. If it’s impossible to get a prayer quorum of 10, then those seeking such a prayer quorum will, pretty soon, look elsewhere. Every few years, the most exciting Ivy League school for Jewish undergraduates seems to shift campus, and schools compete for the limited number of Jewish students accepted; many current students voiced concern that an article like this one, emphasizing smaller Jewish numbers on a particular campus, might divert observant students to other options. Numbers do matter. How big those numbers ought to be, or what those numbers say about American Jewry today—those are the questions.
Read more from Campus Week, when Tablet magazine takes stock of the state of American academia and university life.
Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.