Jewish life influences students’ college decisions

Ben Schenberg performs at Rock, Chalk, Shabbat at University of Kansas. Photo courtesy of Ben Schenberg.

By Greg svirnovskiy, Junior, Marquette High School

For high schoolers all over the country, senior year has become synonymous with one thing: the college selection process.  

This month, thousands of seniors will learn the results of their early decisions and early action applications just as millions will send essays and resumés to dream schools and universities for the first time. In April, students will choose their homes for four years, complete with their new favorite colors, sports teams and subjects.

But lost amid the excitement of the college application process is an important link between the colleges Jewish students select and the Jewish life offered on campus.

Since 2014, anti-Jewish incidents on American college campuses across America risen sharply. The Anti-Defamation League reported in June incidents targeting Jews doubled in 2015: 90 incidents at 60 schools in 2015,  compared with 47 at 43 schools the previous year.

Brandon Bleyer, a senior at Marquette High School, has taken the SAT and ACT a combined six times. He’s braved 13 AP classes and participates in seven clubs and organizations at his school.

“There’s always that motive to make oneself attractive for colleges,” Brandon said. “Education increases your human capital. My goal in all of my involvement is just to build my perception of reality and my career opportunities.”

Brandon has applied to six prestigious universities, four of of them via early action applications. He is still considering several more.

“They’re all fantastic schools with great general atmospheres,” he said.

Not lost on Brandon is anti-Semitic sentiment exhibited on an increasing number of college campuses.

In May, Jewish moviegoers on the campus of the University of California, Irvine were harassed on their way to a screening of a pro-Israel documentary. The Students for Justice in Palestine organization at Northeastern University in Boston was temporarily suspended in May 2014 due to its persistent harassment of Jews. On Nov. 17 at Oberlin College in Ohio, a professor and his wife awoke to find the outside of their home vandalized and a note, formed with cut out letters, jammed under their mezuzah. It read: “Gas Jews Die.”

These incidents have forced Brandon to reconsider his applications, choosing schools with foundations that he believes will allow him acceptance as a Jew on campus.

“Out West, a lot of colleges have some issues with anti-Zionist sentiment,” Brandon said. “It’s a turnoff to be strung onto a college environment where just because you hold pro-Israel views, you feel like you might be attacked. I’ve been looking at colleges with a really active Jewish Student Union chapter. I’m really passionate about the causes.”

Emma Barnes, a senior at Parkway Central High School, said the reported incidents have not changed where she is applying to college. However, she plans on taking them into account when making a final decision about which school to attend. 

“I had already decided where I was applying before these recent attacks,” Emma said. “With that being said, depending on where I get accepted, I will most likely choose a school with a large Jewish influence or population.” 

Emma said she is sure that her faith and love of Judaism will not waiver no matter where she attends college. 

“I’m extremely confident that wherever I go, I will still be proud of my religion and heritage despite the possibility of anti-Semitic attacks,” she said. “My Jewish faith is something that has guided me through life, and if someone questions that, it doesn’t bother me.“

Ben Schenberg is a freshman at University of Kansas, where he participates in Hillel and Chabad. Schenberg went through the college selection process last year and made a point to choose a school with a strong Jewish organization and community. 

“While I applied to schools without a Hillel, I didn’t even end up considering any of (them),” Schenberg said. “I also stay involved in Chabad, which at KU is stronger than ever. Hachnasat orchim, the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, is very apparent and acted upon at KU.”

Despite the strong community and friends he has made at university, Schenberg has seen racially motivated verbal violence in many settings in his college experience.

“I see racial microaggressions almost daily in the way people speak and act, as well as in the actions they take,” he said. “KU has a large social influence centered around bars for those of age, and often I see drunken behavior that is borderline terrifying, including physical violence and emotional abuse.”

Schenberg said his sense of Jewish community and faith have provided him with a backbone to weather the storm of racial prejudice. They have served to guide him from dark moments into the light of the future.

“Faith has always been one of the most important things to me,” he said. “I don’t attend services often and sometimes it’s hard to find time to be involved, but Judaism is who I am. The Jewish community keeps me as grounded as Judaism itself.”