By Itamar Blauer
Do Jewish students choose their university based on the vitality of Jewish life at that university? If it is a factor, to what extent does it inform our decisions? How does it inform those decisions? And would we really not go to the uni of our dreams if it didn’t cater to the Jew in us?
I’m a sixth-former at JFS, where we’re told which universities boast a good “Jewish culture,” encouraging us to choose an establishment in which we would get an experience of Jewish life as well as good grades.
But Jewish schools need to balance their arguments about whether it is better to apply to universities with an active Jewish life on campus, whether that be social, spiritual or both.
Places like Nottingham and Leeds – often promoted by schools – offer active Jewish societies, as well as academic excellence. But you wonder whether they are being promoted principally because of their great results, or because there are lots of Jewish pupils studying there?
Other top-ranking universities, like UCL, Warwick and Durham, are seen as lacking a large Jewish contingent, and therefore are presumed not to offer the Jewish student a fulfilling Jewish life in higher education. Does that mean that Jews will be less Jewish if they apply for those universities? Are we, as Jews, afraid to mix in with other societies and people?
We need to ask ourselves first, why do many Jewish students apply to so-called “Jewish universities”? Do we think we’ll gain a better university experience if Jews are united within certain universities? True, the Jewish population is not large, so the presence of potential Jewish bonds at university is a positive. But does this mean that other good universities will not provide such a good experience?
The idea that we stick together is not new. Despite there being Jewish societies in over 60 universities, a study by JPR in 2011 found that half of all the Jewish students in the UK attend only eight universities, including Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham and Manchester. Why? Is the Jewish social-bubble such a huge draw? Opinions are mixed.
“I was more focused on how my university could get me into research after university,” says Tammy, a university graduate. “I didn’t know anything about the Jewish Society at [my university], but only after going, I realised there wasn’t one. I was more focused on my course than my Judaism.”
Both Leeds and Nottingham are ranked in the top 25 universities in the country, but what if they weren’t? What if they weren’t in the top 50? Would they still get all those Jewish applications? In short, what’s most important?
“Personally, a good Jewish culture is not my number one priority when choosing a university,” says Mitchell, a sixth-former from JFS. “Obviously it would mean that more people I know from JFS would be there, however, the uni that is right for others is not necessarily the best for me.”
The ‘Jewish pull’ is stronger for others, such as Asher, a sixth-form student from King Solomon High School. “I think a Jewish culture encourages young students such as myself to explore a variety of different universities with strong Jewish communities,” he said.
Likewise JFS student Yuval says: “Remembering and preserving my Jewish heritage is very important, and so when choosing a university, Jewish life on campus is a vital factor to consider.”
However, she adds: “I wouldn’t say it’s my deciding factor. I would still like to explore other cultures. I know even in secular, “Jew-free” environments I’d still be the one to talk about Judaism, as it will always be part of me.”
Those of us who have spent the last decade in Jewish schools are used to a Jewish environment, which can act as a comfort blanket. But comforting though it is, we’re able to live without it. For many, great teachers, a great social life and great results trumps great Jewish society every time.
Going to the right university and doing the right course is more significant than experiencing a good Jewish culture. Teachers, parents and others will no doubt keep making their recommendations, by the point of application, students know their own mind, and will make their own decisions, based on what they feel is right for them. That’s exactly the way it should be.