Jewish connections top campus criteria

Anya Tullman (left) visits the University of Pennsylvania with her family in September.  


From spring break of my junior year to Oct. 24 of my senior year, I visited 11 colleges in 10 states. I consulted college counselors and essay specialists, and I spent long hours obsessing over the word count for my personal statement. My parents and I made countless pro-con lists, weighing the value of school spirit against class size and, of course, quality of food. 

Being the oldest child and the daughter of two rather clueless parents when it came to the whole college thing, my search felt intense and somewhat endless. 

I decided that, in order to have the highest chance of acceptance, I wanted to apply somewhere as an early decision applicant. Early decision is a binding agreement under which the applicant acknowledges that if accepted, he or she must attend that school. Therefore, I could apply only to one college through the early decision process. 

As the Nov. 1 early decision deadline drew closer, I found myself at a loss, with too many schools I loved and no clear way to choose which was the best fit for me. I even considered flipping a coin. Then, on Oct. 27, my entire perspective changed.

That day, a man entered Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and, driven by anti-Semitism, shot and killed 11 people during Saturday morning services. As Pittsburgh’s Jewish community mourned, it received overwhelming support from people of all faiths, and a message of strength and resilience emerged from the suffering. The response was inspiring.

I realized how much of my identity was defined by being Jewish. I needed a Jewish community at college, one that would nurture that same message of strength and provide the sense of hope and security that I currently feel at my temple, Congregation Shaare Emeth. 

I immediately found myself on the Hillel International website, browsing the “2017 Top 60 Schools by Jewish Population.” From that list, I found the school that I was interested in with the largest Jewish population and submitted my early decision application there. 

Not all of my Jewish peers had the same priorities as I did when selecting a home for the next four years. Lila Bensky, a senior at Ladue Horton Watkins High School and member of Central Reform Congregation, will be attending Elon University in North Carolina, where she will run for the school’s cross country and track teams. Bensky’s top three criteria while undergoing athlete recruitment were a healthy balance between academics and athletics, a good student-to-teacher ratio and a noncompetitive environment. 

However, Bensky still hopes to engage with the Jewish community at Elon, which is 10 percent Jewish.

“Though being Jewish has not been a huge defining characteristic in my life, I would like to become more involved [in college] and have it become a larger part of my identity,” Bensky said. “I also believe that it would be a great way to meet some amazing people and learn more about my religion.”

For Adina Levy, a graduate of Parkway Central High School, member of Traditional Congregation and freshman at the University of Kansas (KU), having a Jewish population was a defining factor in her college search, along with distance from home and programs in elementary education. Since arriving at KU in the fall, Levy has become involved in Hillel and Chabad, attending social events and Shabbat services. KU has 1,500 Jewish undergraduate students.

“I hope to continue my connection to Judaism in college by remaining active in both Hillel and Chabad on campus and remaining present in my Jewish community when I am home,” Levy said. “Even little things like putting up Hanukkah decorations in my dorm or buying challah to eat with my friends on Friday have helped me stay connected to my Jewish faith.”

On Dec. 13, I learned of my acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania, a school in which 17 percent of undergraduate students are Jewish. I look forward to the next four years at a place where I can further my Jewish connections by becoming active in Hillel and hopefully get to know the university’s president, a Jewish woman. 

Go Quakers!