Study: Majority of Orthodox Young Adults Choose Secular Universities

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In the United States, more than three of every four Orthodox young adults (79%) choose to attend a secular university, a new study from the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus found.

OU-JLIC, which oversees Jewish programming on 22 college campuses, sponsors shiurim, Shabbat meals and religious guidance.

A few students explained they went the secular route because they could maintain their Jewish heritage.

David Sommer and his family
David Sommer and his family (Photo courtesy of David Sommer)

David Sommer of Merion said Cornell University’s secular offerings piqued his interest. However, it was Cornell’s robust Jewish community, which is part of the OU-JLIC network, that cemented his choice in attending.

Sommer attends Lower Merion Synagogue and studies at the Philadelphia Community Kollel when in the Philadelphia region. He graduated from Lower Merion High School in June.

“I’ve got it pretty covered,” the rising freshman said on maintaining Jewish study while at school.

“The rabbi actually just today texted me. When I was there, the rabbi pointed out some people who were studying (Jewish texts). There’s probably like, what, 75 Orthodox Jews there? I’ll find someone to study with.”

“It’s the reason why I decided not to apply to Notre Dame, the reason why I didn’t take Georgetown too seriously. It’s also the reason why I didn’t finish my application to West Point because there’s no way. They don’t have a Jewish life there.”

“They don’t make many accommodations for Orthodox Judaism because they don’t have this situation often,” he said of the Army academy. Sommer instead opted to enroll in Cornell’s Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Ilan Schwell
Ilan Schwell (Photo courtesy of Ilan Schwell)

Ilan Schwell echoed Sommer. He shared that he was apprehensive before applying to the University of Pittsburgh. Now a rising senior, Schwell serves as community service chair of Chabad at Pitt.

“I was a little worried. Then, during junior or senior year of high school, I visited Pitt with two friends for a weekend. I really liked it. We saw the Hillel and the Chabad. They seemed like they were enough for me,” he said.

The Bala Cynwyd local, who became a Bar Mitzvah at Lower Merion Synagogue, added that “my freshman-year roommate was somebody that I knew from the Jewish community. So, I knew I at least had one person.”

He soon fell into Jewish life he said. “I started out just going to dinners, like Shabbat. Then I started doing more things and met a lot of great people. Eventually, they asked if I wanted to join the board. I really like it.”

While neither Sommer nor Schwell took a year off between high school and college, some Orthodox students said the prevalence gap year programs in Israel have contributed to their acceptance of secular university.

A May JTA article found that at some religious high schools, more than 90% of graduating seniors spend a year in Israel before attending university. Often, they attend yeshiva or seminary programs that emphasize religious learning without secular distraction.

Eitan Schramm
Eitan Schramm (Photo courtesy of Eitan Schramm)

Eitan Schramm, a rising sophomore at Drexel University, lived in Beit Shemesh after graduating from high school. The Los Angeles native said the majority of his graduating class similarly lived in the Holy Land.

“It was a Jewish high school, so yeah, it was crazy,” he said on the number of his peers who attended Israel gap-year programs.

Schramm spent seven months at Yeshivat Ashreinu, learning Torah, volunteering in community service and exploring Israel. He said his experience in the religious program later assayed his, and his parents’, worries about secular university life.

When applying to Drexel, “my parents were supportive,” he said. “They liked it because it’s a good film school and had a good Jewish community, which is something they cared about.”

Schramm added his closest friends at Drexel are likewise involved with Hillel. On Fridays, they celebrate Shabbat together.

While his parents are religious, Schramm said he never felt pressure to hold a Jewish-related career. Aspiring to join the entertainment industry, he studies film and television at Drexel and produces short films on his YouTube channel, “Space Nerd Entertainment.”

Schramm admits he has embraced aspects of Drexel’s secular culture, which occasionally causes friction with his parents.

“It was hard at first. Especially the first Shabbat I didn’t keep on my own. I was really uncomfortable for those 24 hours.”

Calling home to check in after the weekend, Schramm told his parents he did not keep Shabbat. Then, he explained, “My dad made a weird noise in the background. I asked my ima what that was and she said, ‘He’s in pain ’cause you stabbed him in the back.’”

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