What is the Jewish future at universities?

A new series asks the important questions about the future of college.

“Get Out.” The writer Liel Leibovitz issued this controversial word of advice last year to Jewish students at American institutions of higher education. He argued that the rise of anti-Zionism, poor teaching quality, and inflated prices made elite colleges hostile places for both Jewish flourishing and liberal education. Leibovitz called upon his readers to cease applying and donating to institutions like Harvard and Yale.
Is it true that American colleges are hostile to Jewish students? If so, what can educators who value both liberal education and Jewish pride do about it? And should Jewish students and their parents vote with their feet or stick around for the fight? Upheavals caused by Covid-19 make this an opportune moment to consider these issues. What is the future of college for Jewish students?
A new Townhall series by the Tikvah Fund, a Jewish think-tank and educational institute, brings together seven great minds from academia and the Jewish world to discuss these timely questions.
The Townhall series opened with Jonathan Haidt of Heterodox Academy, an organization that promotes diversity of opinion in higher education. A recent study by the Knight Foundation found that 78% of college students support “safe spaces” on campus where they can be shielded from ideas they disagree with. Is this opposition to the free exchange of ideas compatible with liberal education? Later in the series, Harry Ballan, the former Dean of Touro Law School, will explore the future of liberal education in the age of Covid-19. What does a good seminar look like when it is conducted behind a screen?
For observant Jewish students, the challenges to maintaining a Jewish lifestyle in college are manifold. A recent study by the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus found that 79% of orthodox students attend a secular college. Earlier this week, R.J. Snell of Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute and Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, Senior Director at the Tikvah Fund, examined the obstacles to religious observance at university and offered advice for students seeking friendships and alliances with other religious groups.
Ruth Wisse, pioneer of Yiddish Studies and indomitable thinker in the field of Jewish ideas, will share her decades of wisdom on the academy. What did she learn from teaching Yiddish at Harvard? Can Jewish students retain a sense of pride in college and avoid the culture of victimhood that so often prevails at American institutions?
While the question of religious identity in a secular culture is key, the foremost worry for Jewish students and their families might be something else altogether: the rise of anti-Semitism. In the past few months alone, swastikas have appeared at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, and Columbia University, adjacent to Manhattan’s Upper West Side and home to a student population that is almost a quarter Jewish. Aliza Lewin, director of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law, will discuss methods to combat the Jew-hatred plaguing campuses around the country, with the increase in both traditional anti-Semitism and targets against the Jewish state in the form of BDS campaigns. University administrators might offer vague promises to protect Jewish students, but anti-Zionist groups at elite institutions like New York University and Tufts University continue to receive approbation from their administrations with prestigious awards.
An academic field known to have a troublesome relationship to the Jewish state is the field of Jewish studies itself. Leora Batnitzky, long-time Religion Department chair at Princeton University, will help us take stock of the complicated field of Jewish studies. Does this supposedly “neutral” mode of studying Jewish texts and history strengthen Jewish identity?
Lastly, Leil Leibovitz himself will address the message of his provocative “Get Out” essay. In at least one sense, Leibovitz’ contention has revealed itself to be true: students are now “out”—or “in,” so to speak, as formal college is cancelled, Zoom classes replace lecture halls, and students graduate in their parents’ living rooms.
This is the opportune moment to examine the future of college for Jewish students. Join the Tikvah Fund throughout the summer months as we take a step back and consider what college is for, and what it means for the development of young Jewish adults.
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