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When It Comes to Colleges, What's Leading Them Where?
Becki Zaritsky played the dancer Iris Kelly in Neshaminy High School's production of "Fame" this spring. Last year, she appeared in the school's version of "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
But few roles have been as fraught for the graduating senior as that of college applicant.
For the last few weeks, Zaritsky and her family have wrestled with a decision that hung heavily over all their lives: Should the honors student send a deposit to Clarion University in Western Pennsylvania or to nearby Temple University to reserve her place in the Class of 2013? Both have accepted her.
Which school she chooses, as well which universities she originally applied to, depends on their academic programs, their proximity to home and their tuition, particularly in these perilous economic times.
Equally important, for many of these teens, is the Jewish piece.
Across the Delaware Valley, hundreds if not thousands of Jewish high school seniors were weighing similar choices this week as the universal reply date of May 1 loomed nearer.
To a greater or lesser degree, Judaism and its role in their lives factored into the decision-making process.
"I'll measure the quality of the education, how good I feel about my decision going there, and whether or not the school has a Hillel," Zaritsky said as she described the thought process that led to her final decision. "The Hillel won't be the deciding factor, but it will definitely play an important part in my decision."
"I definitely want there to be a Jewish community where I go to college," echoed Danielle Robertson, who's racked up straight A's at Cheltenham High School.
That desire put Penn State University (the alma mater of her mother, Peggy) and the University of Wisconsin (where her sister Nicole goes) at the top of Robertson's list. Both have accepted her.
Late last week, she made her decision: It will be Penn State, primarily for its relative proximity to home.
"Judaism is not a major part of my life, but it definitely is a part of my life," said Robertson as she mulled over her options. "I want there to be a big Jewish population, so I have Jews around me."
As she reviewed her mental checklist of college "musts" -- a large school, sports-oriented, lots of spirit -- Robertson sought input from Rabbi Larry Sernowitz, assistant rabbi of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, her fourth-grade teacher in elementary school before he decided to attend the seminary.
Sifting Through the Process
For Robertson, as well as for most of the class of 2009 across the nation, finances played a none-too-subtle role in the decision-making process.
Although Peggy and Michael Robertson never set limits on where Danielle could apply based on tuition and living fees, the vice president of the National Honor Society said that the faltering economy was always in the back of her mind as she mailed out applications last fall.
For that reason, she ruled out the University of Miami early on, although the school offered her a small scholarship.
Amy and Marcus Besser of Havertown originally told their son, Joe, to limit his applications to state schools, but eventually widened the playing field for the straight-A senior at Haverford Senior High School.
That left the future engineering major free to apply essentially all over the country -- University of Pittsburgh and Cornell, among others.
Earlier this month, Besser made up his mind: He's heading to the University of Michigan in the fall.
He said that his passion for Judaism was a compelling factor in the decision.
Being Jewish "is a major aspect of my life," said Besser, who leads children's services at Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown every Saturday, and serves as a teacher's aide Sundays and Wednesdays in the Conservative synagogue's religious school.
A seven-year veteran of Camp Ramah in the Poconos and captain of his school's alternate Frisbee team, Besser said that courses in Jewish history and Hebrew will be high on his list once he gets to campus.
During college visits with his parents this past year, Joe considered a stop at the various Hillels a no-brainer.
That's the best way to start a college search, longtime guidance counselor Carol Jacobs tells her students at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, where 100 percent of the senior class -- 57 students -- is college-bound.
But, she cautions, it's only a beginning.
"I ask them when they're visiting college campuses to stop at the Hillel to see what it's like," said Jacobs. "But I also ask them to stay overnight to experience a Shabbat. I ask them to think about what's important to them: Does the school have a morning minyan? Does it have a Zionist community? I ask them to do some soul-searching about who they are Jewishly."
On a scale of one to 10 -- with 10 being the highest -- Jacobs estimates that the Jewish component probably ranks about a seven for most of her students.
"Every year, we survey the seniors and ask them to rank their top reasons for choosing a college. Jewish life on campus always comes in within the top four on average," she said.
When she has one-on-one meetings with students, and at a later point with their parents, Jacobs urges the youths to examine what it would feel like to be at a university where there are only a few Jewish students, as opposed to being surrounded by many.
When classes this fall start at Towson University, the second-largest university in Maryland, Alexis Small hopes she'll have a Jewish roommate.
A member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park and a longtime camper at the Reform Movement's Camp Harlam in the Poconos, the Cheltenham High School senior (A-minus/B-plus average) said that she wasn't thinking specifically about Judaism when she sent out her applications last fall, but most of her choices wound up having large Jewish populations anyway.
Location was a consideration in her final decision -- Towson is a two-hour drive away, not a six-hour plane ride, for example -- as were tuition and expenses.
"My parents never really said this is your cap, you can't go past this, but when I was looking at some schools, I was cautioned they might not be feasible," said Small. "I would say the financial aspect was a little more of a factor than the Jewish one, but it wasn't overpowering."
Jessica Lippert of Merion still has a year to go before she has to make her final decision, but she already has a strong feeling about the atmosphere she's seeking as she pursues her interest in math or the sciences.
"Coming from Lower Merion High School, where close to 50 percent of my school is Jewish, it's important for me to have a strong sense of Jewish community and to know there will be people like me wherever I go," said the 16-year-old.
Lippert said that she prefers a smaller campus near a large city. Her search has taken her to the likes of Brandeis, Wesleyan, Brown and Princeton universities, and Amherst College, among others.
At all stops, she first checks to evaluate the campus Hillel, then she tries to get a handle on the surrounding community and its Jewish presence. Is kosher food readily available? Does the school offer Hebrew-language classes? Will she find a home base for High Holiday services?
"The Jewish lifestyle is important to me," said Lippert, a member of Congregation Adath Israel in Merion Station. "Judaism helps you make a lot of decisions in life -- it's always there for you. It gives you morals and values."
As for Becki Zaritsky, the jury came back last Friday, when she and her parents sent their first check to Temple.
"It feels really good," she said. "I'm nervous, but I guess all freshmen are."
In the end, it was distance that clinched it for her: "I liked the idea of being close to home in case I got homesick."
Are There 'Jewish' Schools?
Rabbi Howard Alpert can envision a map of the United States and rattle off the campuses that house vibrant Jewish communities.
Brown, Yale, NYU, Columbia, SUNY-Binghamton, Tufts, Princeton, Penn, Temple -- "up and coming," he says of this last one, with a kosher-meal plan on tap next year for the first time in two decades -- University of Maryland, Vanderbilt, UCLA, San Diego State ...
There are more, but a listener quickly gets the gist. It's part of Alpert's job to keep tabs on the next big draw for high school seniors who flock to his office on the University of Pennsylvania campus seeking his counsel.
Alpert is executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia (www.phillyhillel.org), a constituent agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and an affiliate of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Under his wing, metaphorically, are an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 Jewish undergrads on campuses throughout the city and its environs.
"Our goal is to help the students define for themselves who they are as Jews, and what type of community practice they're looking for, then help them choose a campus with Jews with whom they'll be comfortable," explains the rabbi. "There are many active campuses, some smaller, some larger. A student just has to find the one that fits one's vision of oneself as a Jew."
Alpert and his staff regularly visit high schools to meet with juniors and seniors on their home turf. They often bring with them students already experiencing Jewish life at Penn or Drexel, for example: Young men and women eager to pass on firsthand information about where to find a kosher hot dog or a Purim celebration on or near campus.
"Unless they are coming to us already strongly committed -- and that's a small percentage -- most often don't even know what questions to ask," notes the director. "I ask them to think about what is important about Jewish life for them. For instance, there are many students who would like to have a Friday-night Shabbat environment, but don't want to be shomrei Shabbat [Sabbath observant]."
Additionally, Alpert reminds his visitors that how Israel is perceived is another critical factor.
When it comes to finances, there are options for students looking for an authentic Jewish experience, but whose families might be struggling with budget constraints, he says.
Temple falls into that category, suggests the rabbi, as do Queens College in New York, the various components of the State University of New York (SUNY), Rutgers and the University of Maryland.