Surveying ‘America’s Jewish Freshmen’

When Adam Bergman researched colleges toward the end of his senior year at Milken High School, he looked very closely at the quality of their soccer teams and not so closely at the size of their Jewish populations.

"I don’t consider myself religious at all. I have never chosen a faith," said Bergman, the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. As he approaches his freshman year on the soccer team at UC Santa Cruz, Bergman is not looking to have a Jewish experience.

Bergman, however, is not alone in his religious neutrality. "America’s Jewish Freshmen," a survey recently released by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, reveals a surprisingly low level of Jewish identification among students raised in interreligious families. The study, which asked incoming college freshmen to identify their religious preference, found that 40.2 percent of students raised in families where only the mother was Jewish identified their religion as "none," and 40 percent raised in families where only the father was Jewish identified their religion as "none." Of the students who were raised by two Jewish parents, only 6.2 percent claimed "none" as their religious preference.

"America’s Jewish Freshmen" profiles this rapidly growing segment of the student population who, like Bergman, have never chosen a faith, but have at least one Jewish parent. The study labels this category of students NR/JP (no religious preference/at least one Jewish parent), and compares them to self-identified Jewish students in areas such as their academic and family backgrounds, degree and career aspirations, and leisure activities. The study also compares Jewish and non-Jewish students in the same categories.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life sponsored "America’s Jewish Freshmen," in hopes of assisting Jewish educators to address student needs.

The study was conducted by Linda J. Sax, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA, and is based on data from CIRP’s Freshmen Survey, which has tracked more than 10 million students at more than 1,600 baccalaureate institutions for the past three decades. "America’s Jewish Freshmen" represents the first analysis of the CIRP survey’s Jewish sample, both by analyzing the 1999 CIRP Freshmen Survey and comparing it to the past 30 years of data.

"There’s a lot of stereotypes about Jewish students, but I wanted to see in reality how they compare," Sax said.

The study compares the responses of 8,000 Jewish students, 232,000 non-Jewish students, and 2,000 NR/JP students. It gives insight into one finding of the CIRP Freshmen Survey, which shows that while 5.4 percent of the student population identified themselves as Jewish in 1970, the figure dropped to 2.6 percent in 2001.

Among other things, "America’s Jewish Freshmen" found that NR/JP students were more often raised in homes where their parents were divorced or separated, compared to Jewish students. NR/JP students were also more likely to earn B averages in high school and less likely to earn A averages. They were more likely to aspire toward doctorate or masters in education degrees, but were less likely to aspire toward medical degrees.

"This is one category that Hillel will try to engage on campus," said Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel. Rubin emphasized the importance of Jewish Campus Service Corps fellows reaching out to this group of students in particular, rather than waiting for them to come to Hillel. The survey notes that "although NR/JP claim to have no religious affiliation, Hillel looks to engage them in Jewish campus life because they have at least one Jewish parent and have not affiliated with any other religion." Additionally, despite differences, NR/JP students typically resembled Jewish students more than they resembled non-Jews.

"These students lack a traditional Jewish home life. We have an important opportunity, maybe an obligation, to provide them with the Jewish experiences that they failed to get at home and to provide them with a warm environment that will inspire them Jewishly…. We have to create programming with that in mind," said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel.

"We’re at the beginning stages of learning what the research tells us," Rubin said. He does, however, offer several suggestions for program implementation based on some of the statistics, which he derives mainly from the part of the survey comparing Jewish and non-Jewish students. For instance, Jewish students have a stronger intention to participate in community service while in college. Rubin suggests "alternative spring breaks," such as one where students from USC Hillel helped build health clinics in Uruguay and Buenos Aires.

Additionally, the study found that Jews are more likely than non-Jews to be interested in business, medicine, law and the arts. Rubin suggests Hillel internship and mentor programs and highlights several arts programs, including an a capella choir.

While the survey will undoubtedly be a valuable tool in aiding efforts of Jewish educators, Sax emphasizes that the data does not represent college students, but rather students who are about to enter college. She hopes that the study is a steppingstone to follow-up studies. "The ultimate goal is to see how they [Jewish students] develop throughout college," Sax said.

School’s Out — Forever?

At a time when many Jewish day schools in the area are bursting at the seams and new ones move closer to opening their doors, Temple Isaiah Day School is making plans to go out of business.

The formal decision about the fate of the school has just been handed down by the Reform congregation’s board of directors, who concluded that their membership can no longer afford to underwrite the school’s operations. According to the timetable laid down by the board, the school will cease to exist at the end of June.

Temple Isaiah, a K-through-6 school founded a decade ago, has always struggled in its effort to build a student population. While Westside day schools at Temple Emanuel, Beth Am, and Sinai Temple each attract more than 300 students, Isaiah has not had the same success; its student body currently numbers 76, down from 80 a year ago.

Concerned observers have long noted that graduates of Isaiah’s popular preschool tend not to feed into the day school. In fact, in recent years, Isaiah’s preschool parents have largely reversed the familiar trend of preferring a private education for their children.

Susie Leonard, who heads the preschool, confirms that among 60 children who moved on to kindergarten last year, only 25 opted for private schools of any sort. Of these 25, a mere four entered Jewish day schools. Two of the graduates would probably have joined a sibling at Isaiah’s day school, but were apparently scared off by the school’s enrollment woes.

Isaiah’s decision to end its day school does not sit well with parents. They have nothing but praise for Director Sari Goodman and for a school they see as exemplifying the best in Jewish family values. Many are also angry at what they regard as the temple’s insensitivity; they believe that the letter they received in December, warning of a possible closure, did not give them time to take constructive action.

A parent active in the movement to keep the school open argues that Temple Isaiah has never made the strong commitment needed to shore up the school’s finances. He questions the dedication of the congregants to the school’s existence — “the school and the congregation are pretty well divorced” — and cites the lack of money and personnel for recruitment efforts as a reason the school has floundered.

Parents plan to attend this week’s temple board meeting en masse, bearing their own proposals for making the school viable. Among their ideas is a scheme to affiliate with other congregations that have preschools, in hopes of incorporating them into a feeder system for Temple Isaiah Day School.

Isaiah’s senior rabbi, Robert Gan, disputes the parents’ contention that the school has been underfunded from the start. He insists that there has always been “a heroic and enormous commitment on the part of the temple to sustain this school.” But the consistently low enrollment figures, coupled with the fact that fully 40 percent of the school’s students attend on scholarship, have pushed the temple into the reluctant decision to pull the plug.

Gan argues that parents have long known about the school’s precarious situation, and that the letters sent in December were a responsible way to warn them to pursue other alternatives for next fall.

Countering the accusation that Temple Isaiah devalues Jewish education, Gan points to a flourishing religious school, with more than 400 children enrolled. He also mentions a new family life center, now on the drawing board, that will serve the educational needs of congregants of all ages.