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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Tufts declared ninth 'most Jewish' university

With nearly one-third of Tufts' student body identifying as Jewish, the presence of Judaism on campus may extend far beyond the challah bread at Dewick.

A recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education found that Jews outnumber Lutherans at Muhlenberg College, a Lutheran school in Pennsylvania, drawing attention to the growing and shifting demographic of Jewish students in many East Coast universities.

A list of the schools with the largest group of Jewish students, published by Reform Judaism magazine, listed Tufts as the ninth "most Jewish" school in the country, with 31.6 percent of the student body affiliating with some form of Judaism.

Tufts Hillel Director and Rabbi Jeffrey Summit does not find these statistics to be surprising.

"Tufts is really not that different from other fine East Coast universities in that many fine East Coast universities have a large Jewish population," he said.

Summit said that Tufts' high number of Jewish students fits into a pattern he has noticed across the Northeast. "It's common for great universities in the Northeast to have a high Jewish percentage of students, because more than 95 percent of all Jews go to college, and people are especially focused on schools in the Northeast," he said. "It's typical to have a disproportional number of Jewish students to the general population."

Hillel's president, senior Amy Spitalnick was also not surprised to discover Tufts' high ranking.

"The size and strength of the [Jewish] community is something that's been pretty continuous, at least during my time here," Spitalnick said. "The fact that the community is so strong attracts more [Jewish] students. It's sort of a cycle."

Summit emphasized, however, that rankings and percentages measuring religious affiliation do not always provide an accurate depiction of how a student body is made up.

"It's difficult to determine a precise Jewish percentage on campus for many reasons," Summit said, citing reasons why a Jewish population might be difficult to accurately quantify.

"Statistically, Jews self-identify less than other groups, and also, in this day when so many students come from intermarried and interfaith families, it's more difficult to track how a whole group of students understand and affiliate with Judaism."

Numbers aside, the Jewish presence on campus is clearly visible. Hillel is the second-largest student organization at Tufts, after the Leonard Carmichael Society, according to Summit.

Summit attributed the dynamic nature of many students within Tufts' Jewish population to their success in

maintaining a cohesive community on campus. "The fact that we have such talented Jewish students on campus has led to the development of a very vibrant Jewish community at Tufts that has allowed us to build the Hillel center," Summit said.

Spitalnick believes that one reason Hillel has become a significant presence in the Tufts community is the organization's encouragement of students of all kinds and levels of Jewish faith to experiment with and participate in Hillel.

"I think that given the [organization's] pluralistic nature, for students who didn't come from a place with a strong Jewish community, and with the many facets of Judaism evident at Tufts, it opens people's eyes to the extent or the array of Judaism."

Spitalnick added that Judaism on campus comes in a variety of forms, some of which don't directly relate to faith in the traditional sense.

"Judaism doesn't have to be just going to synagogue - it can be something like bringing in Nick Kristof and talking about genocide, or issues that are not obviously Jewish."

Spitalnick thought that, in addition to an active extracurricular community, programs and organizations in the university's academic departments have emerged and strengthened because of interest from Jewish students.

"Our Judaic studies department, our classes on Israel, NIMEP [New Initiative for Middle East Peace] - those connections are there; the fact that those things exist definitely comes from the fact that there's a large Jewish community," she said.

Summit recognizes that the emphasis on social action inherent in Judaism has been reflected in both extracurricular and academic activities and organizations of Jewish special interest.

"I think the high percentage of Jewish students does have an impact on the character of the university, specifically with focus on social justice and social action," Summit said. "These values are core values in the Jewish community...and that helps create a productive environment for Tufts' stress on active citizenship and social engagement."

Though other universities, such as Brandeis, may be better known for their Jewish presence, Spitalnick believes that Tufts is gaining recognition from the wider Jewish community.

"Amongst people I know, a lot of people are shocked to find out how high the percentage [of Jewish students] is, but a lot of what we do or what President Bacow does is well known in the Jewish community," Spitalnick said.

Bacow will co-chair the 2008 Hillel Summit in March, Spitalnick said.

"The theme of the conference is 'Promoting a Civil Society.' One of the reasons they selected Bacow is because of the large Jewish community at Tufts and the fact that he embraces it," she said.

According to Gloria Ascher, co-director of Tufts' Judaic studies department, the large number of Jewish students on campus may also promote dialogue between students of various religions, and increase non-Jews' awareness of the Jewish faith.

"I think maybe the presence of Jews contributes to the awareness of Jews as not just 'my friend so-and-so' but as people to get to know," Ascher said. "I have students who took courses who didn't know anything about Jewish tradition, but their roommate was Jewish, or people who have friends who are Jewish, or people who have ancestry themselves."

Summit said that the diverse religious backgrounds at Tufts combined with the university setting provide an atmosphere where students can learn from each other.

"I believe very deeply that when people have opportunities to have significant discussions and have significant friendships with people from other religious traditions, the 'other' becomes much more understandable," he said.