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Insights from College Counseling in the Wake of October 7

Mr. Michael Courtney
December 1, 2023

I have been privileged to work at SAR High School since 2007, assisting many hundreds of graduates with the college admission process. It has been a true labor of love, helping a student discover the institution that could be their perfect match for four transformative and memorable years. Front and center in the admission process has always been a student’s growth as a Modern Orthodox Jew, with considerations like kosher food, daily minyanim, Hebrew language and Jewish Studies departments, Torah learning opportunities, and Israel advocacy coming into play as much as academics and student life. We have always discussed the anti-Israel tenor on campuses as well, with rampant calls for BDS being a detractor for many students.

But since the October 7th terror attacks in Israel and the ensuing antisemitic fervor ravaging college campuses, the question I am most frequently asked is, “Would you still send your students to a secular university given what’s going on?” My answer, every time, is, “Yes, more than ever.” This reply, of course, is accompanied by my expectation, which I am clearly expressing to university representatives, that these institutions must implement training programs for students, faculty, and staff to confront and prevent antisemitism on American campuses. Jewish students MUST feel physically and emotionally safe.

So, given the current environment on campuses, why am I keen to continue sending SAR students to these institutions of higher learning? For starters, we have earned and deserve a seat at the table. We have a right to network with people who could become leaders of various industries and fields. Jewish students have been attending top universities for decades and, despite the disturbing quota years and a recent decline in Jewish acceptances at many schools, Jews have thrived at these colleges, contributing immeasurably to campus culture and establishing important connections. We have acted as an “Ohr L’Amim” for countless non-Jews who would have otherwise never met a Jewish person before, let alone been roommates and friends with one.

In addition, I ask myself, “Are we really going to allow the antisemites to win and get their wish, ridding their environments of Jews?” Of course, if families prefer not to send their teenagers to these campuses, I wholeheartedly respect their wishes; I am also sensitive to the fact that for many families, the prohibitive cost of some colleges is paramount. And I understand why prominent donors and board members are withdrawing their generous sums in response to university presidents’ tepid or even hostile responses to the Hamas attacks. But I also recognize that these schools have incredible infrastructures in place for our students to succeed: flourishing centers for Jewish living (Hillel, Chabad, JLIC, Maor, or other resources), extremely devoted and caring Jewish life staff members, and hundreds of students who stand for Israel and reject hate. The thought of many Hillel buildings and Chabad centers permanently turning out the lights both saddens and frightens me. These are the homes of our alumni who have grown into important campus leaders. I think of Ariela Feinblum (SAR ‘18), who was the President of both Hillel and Chabad during her years at Dartmouth College. I was amazed just weeks ago while watching Cornell student Amanda Silberstein (SAR ‘21) on CNBC testifying in front of Congress at a House antisemitism hearing. And I am in awe of students like Lia Solomon (SAR ‘19, Co-President of Yale Hillel), Bella Ingber (SAR ‘20, Co-President of Students Supporting Israel at NYU), Eytan Spevack (SAR ‘20, Vice President of Jewish Life at Binghamton Hillel), Elisheva Hermann (SAR ‘20, Orthodox Community Co-Chair at Rutgers University), and so many more alumni, who have run with the challenge of taking action with their Jewish communities. These include other SAR graduates presently serving as Yavneh Fellows at Harvard, Rutgers, Yale, Binghamton, UChicago, City College, Cornell, Emory, Brandeis, and NYU.

If we turn our backs on these schools by discouraging future students from attending, we’re essentially saying to the current freshmen, sophomores, and juniors on these campuses, “I’m sorry, but you are on your own next year and beyond.” And we are sending the same message to graduate students, who count on the undergraduate population in order to have kosher food, minyanim, and other essential resources. Campus rabbis and their spouses, along with a plethora of other staff members, have dedicated thousands of hours to building beautiful campus communities so that Jewish students can enjoy home cooking, sing Shabbat songs, honor holiday rituals, pray in a spiritual environment, visit Israel together, and so much more.

Finally, as I am writing in a publication with a wide Modern Orthodox circulation, I keep thinking about the Jewish students on campus who are not as affiliated with religious observance but are equally scared of virulent anti-Israel rhetoric and antisemitic actions. Just because students from Jewish day schools might be less attracted to these institutions in the future doesn’t mean that public school students, or those who attended independent schools, will likewise refrain from attending these universities. Our Jewish day school students are not only an “Ohr L’Amim” but also an “Ohr L’Yehudim” on these campuses. We don’t want non-observant or less observant Jews to shy away from defending Israel and to feel that they must fend for themselves.

At the same time, I am intrigued by the opportunity to expand our students’ college options. Yeshiva University, for example, has always been an incredible landing spot for many of our young men and women, including 95 SAR graduates currently at YU. That fact should never change, and I am elated when a high school senior expresses their desire to attend YU. The Brandeis University leadership team has likewise taken an unequivocal stand against antisemitism; we presently have 30 SAR alumni on the Brandeis campus, and I would love to see that number grow. And the University of Florida, a longtime haven for Jewish students with the fervent backing of President Ben Sasse, can hopefully become a landing spot for Modern Orthodox Jews from the Northeast as well. These are just three examples, but there are others worth considering, too, including the growing number of international programs at Israel universities.

There is no doubt that the horrors of October 7th will resonate with the Jewish community for generations to come. The awful campus displays of anti-Israel and antisemitic vitriol have left us feeling that we are at a higher education crossroads. As I compose this article on the bus ride back from the November 14th rally in Washington, I am heartened by the impact that massive crowds of Jewish students can have, and I want nothing more than for our young men and women to find their post-secondary and post-gap year footing at the appropriate campus. Wherever they choose, they will play a crucial role in shaping campus culture as they learn, grow, and become the present and future leaders of our Jewish community.

Mr. Michael Courtney

Mr. Michael Courtney

Michael Courtney has been a member of the College Counseling team since 2007. He also leads the school’s Senior Exploration project and coaches the JV Boys Basketball and Varsity Softball teams. He co-chairs the school’s and yeshiva high school Guiding Good Choices.

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