Jacqueline Firsty grew up going to temple with her dad almost every Shabbat and celebrated the High Holidays with her grandparents every year. Judaism is such a significant part of her self-identity she even wrote about the impact being Jewish had on her life in her college applications.
Still, when looking at schools, Jewish life wasn’t something that she factored into her decision. Firsty explains, “I went to a public school where I was one of the only Jewish students, and at my own temple I was the only person my age. So, I never had a Jewish group of peers, like my own age.”
Because of this, being surrounded by Jewish peers was not something she went looking for as a part of her college life. And she isn’t alone in her experiences as a young Jewish American. In speaking on the affluence of the Jewish people, Alan Dershowitz, a law professor at Harvard University, claims that, “a Jew today can live in any neighborhood,” which creates small communities within cities and towns.
In looking at the religions of college-educated adults in the US, the numbers closely reflect the religious breakdown of the overall population. Per the Pew Research Center, only 3 percent of college graduates in the US are Jewish, while 66 percent are Christian. Compared to the percentages of Jews and Christians in the total population, 1.8 percent and 70.6 percent respectively, these numbers are relatively close. The percentages for other religions follow a similar story.
Look at the data from another angle, though, and it reveals information on the education levels of members of different religions in the US. The Pew Research Center found in a separate study that there is an extensive gap between the most and least educated religious groups in the US. Hindus were found to be the “most educated” religious group with 77 percent of Hindu adults having a college degree, while only 12 percent of adult Jehovah’s Witnesses have a college degree. Jewish adults also reside near the top of the list, with 59 percent having a college degree, compared with just 27 percent of all US adults.
There are several factors that may influence the likelihood for religious individuals to pursue higher education. Despite many common themes in religions around the world, members of each tend to have slightly different values. A report from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute on the spirituality of college students found that, “There are at least two clear-cut clusters of religious preferences. The first—involving Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, Baptists, and ‘other Christians’—is strongly spiritual, religious, and religiously/socially conservative and expresses very little religious skepticism.”
Students in this group show a pattern opposite that of students who profess no religious preference at all, while “[t]he second group—involving Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus, Episcopalians, Jewish students, and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church—tends to score low on religiousness, high on Religious Skepticism, and high on Ecumenical Worldview, Ethic of Caring, and Charitable Involvement.”
In comparing these two clusters of religious groups with the list of education attainment compiled by Pew Research Center, they are essentially divided into the ‘most educated’ religious groups and the ‘least educated’ religious groups.
Among other fundamental values of Judaism, education is one held in high esteem. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of the book Why Nations Fail, acknowledge many theories for why the Jewish people are so educated. Some propose that being a minority caused Jews to form educated communities in urban cities, others think it stems from being barred from agricultural fields. Acemoglu and Robinson, however, suggest that this trend goes back to when the Second Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem. The Jews of the rabbinic era to follow saw a democratization of education. Studying Torah became an activity for all Jews: “Traditions such as reading and teaching the Torah to one’s sons and supporting primary schools for Jewish communities and synagogues as learning institutions developed after this period.”
Northeastern’s own Rabbi Mendy Posner says, “Historically, there has always been a stress on education and studying Torah in Judaism … Throughout the Torah and Talmud, the importance of educating children is discussed many times. In the Talmud, it discusses the importance of parents teaching their children a trade in order to support themselves. I would suggest that the culture of spending much time from a young age studying, as well as understanding the importance of being able to support oneself contributes to the large number of Jewish students getting college degrees. There definitely is a lot more to it but these are two factors.”
Roni Mandelkern, a transfer student to Northeastern from Muhlenberg College, adds that, “[Education] has always been a huge part [of Judaism], like learning Torah and asking questions…That’s what our religion is based on.” Jewish students go to college for a number of reasons, some look for Jewish life when they get there and some don’t.
Regardless, one thing that seems to unite the Jewish people is the understanding that education is something to be valued and pursued.
It’s been three years since Jacqueline Firsty came to Northeastern. Now, she is a prominent leader in the Jewish community on campus and can’t imagine how different her schooling experience might have been without it. “A large portion of my best friends are from the Jewish community,” she says “and I wouldn’t have found them if I hadn’t been a part of the Jewish community [too].”
Photos: Jewish Students From Northeastern and Neighboring Schools Gather to Bake Traditional Bread
On the night of December 1st, 2016, dozens of students from Northeastern University and surrounding schools such as Boston University and Wentworth Institute gathered in Northeastern University’s Raytheon Amphitheater to share in the joy of baking challah. Challah is a Jewish bread that is traditionally baked on Friday for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
The event was co-sponsored by Northeastern’s AEPi and Chabad at Northeastern and was held to bring awareness to and to support the organization Sharsheret. Sharsheret is a “Jewish breast cancer awareness and research organization” which aims “to offer a community of support to women, of all Jewish backgrounds, diagnosed with breast cancer or at increased genetic risk.”
After a successful event held by his wife, Mussy Posner, Rabbi Mendy Posner posted pictures to Facebook along with the caption, “What an amazing event!! First time I’ve ever made my own Challah.”