Back in the 1960s and 1970s, about a third of the students at Chatham University — then an all-women’s college — were Jewish.
Now, for a variety of factors, the Jewish population at the school, located in the heart of Squirrel Hill, has dwindled to about 2% of the 2,400 students that comprise the total undergraduate and graduate student body.
David Finegold, the president of Chatham, is keen to reverse that trajectory, and with a grant from the Fine Foundation is advancing efforts to enhance Jewish life on campus.
The location of the campus, along with its academic offerings, could make it an attractive option for Jewish students, Finegold said.
“We are in the heart of Squirrel Hill, the most densely populated Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh,” he said. “We thought it was a natural fit for Chatham as we looked for new ways to grow and enhance the diversity of our campus and what we offer.”
There is a demographic decline of high school students in the region, he explained. For regional colleges and universities that tend to attract students living in the area, “it’s a pretty fiercely competitive environment. You are always looking for the things that will be a differentiator for you, and the fact that we are within walking or easy bike distance for a large number of synagogues, it’s a nice advantage.”
The college-going population is predicted to drop by 15% between 2025 and 2029, according to Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota. Regional institutions serving mostly local students are projected to lose more than 11% of their students, dropping from 1.43 million in 2012 to down to 1.27 million in 2029.
Chatham is now planning to do “active outreach” to Jewish students, said Finegold, and is working “to understand the needs of and interests of the student population and try to make sure that we have the offerings that meet those.”
Chatham was founded as a women’s college in 1869. While the school has been accepting male graduate students for the past two decades, the entire university did not become co-ed until 2015.
Since the school began admitting men, Chatham’s growth has been rapid, increasing its undergraduate population from fewer than 600 students to more than 1,140, according to Finegold. Still, the university is aiming to achieve an undergraduate student body of 1,400.
Despite the relatively small number of Jews currently on campus, student life at Chatham is nonetheless “quite active,” he said.
“Chabad here locally has been very active in terms of offering the cultural, historical part of Jewish life on campus, so we have different events to celebrate the different holidays,” said Finegold. “We will have students of all faiths, not just Jewish students, coming together to make challah or for a Friday night Shabbat dinner. We have Sukkot on the main quad right now, and so that’s been a nice way as part of our interfaith efforts to expose all of our students to the Jewish faith.”
Jewish students at Chatham also are connected and included in programming at the Hillel Jewish University Center, which mostly serves students at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
“Part of what we are hoping to do in this effort is to build a more formal Hillel chapter here on campus that would be part of enhancing Jewish life,” Finegold explained. “We have been talking with the (Jewish) Federation (of Greater Pittsburgh) and with Hillel about that.”
Finegold envisions a designated Hillel staff member who might work with Chatham students as well students at other smaller area universities with Jewish student populations.
“That may be one way to share the costs and think about it but we are still in exploratory planning,” he said.
Chatham is also considering other possible efforts to enhance Jewish life, such as offering kosher food, allowing students who study in Israel for year or two to transfer credits, and establishing single sex floors in dorms for men. The university already offers a single sex dorm for women.
Finegold sees Chatham as being an attractive option for Orthodox students in particular.
“They need to pick somewhere where they are within walking distance of the community,” he said. “We already have a number of Orthodox students who come, who commute in to Chatham because they want to be with their family. We think it could serve the local population but also do more to attract others who want to come to Pittsburgh, which is a great city for Jewish students.”
Leah Berman-Kress, a sophomore who grew up in Squirrel Hill, chose Chatham because she wanted to attend a small school where she could form close relationships with her professors and advisors.
“I also wanted to stay close to home — this is really close to home,” said Berman-Kress, whose family is affiliated with Temple Sinai. “I think the benefit of being here is that I can have this college experience but also spend time with my family.”
Berman-Kress, who lives on campus, said that Jewish life was one of the things she considered when choosing a college. Chatham, she said, fit the bill because of “the offerings of the Hillel Jewish University Center and its proximity to Chatham.”
On Chatham’s own campus, Berman-Kress has taken the lead in founding the Jewish Student Association, which she just launched this semester. So, far, she estimates she has about 15 members, who currently meet every other week and are now beginning to plan events.
“We just want to foster Jewish life on campus and we are very inclusive of anyone who wants to come,” she said. “You don’t even have to be Jewish, you just have to support our mission to enhance Jewish life on campus.”
More Jews might be attracted to Chatham, said Berman-Kress, if there were a kosher food option, and if the school promoted “not just the club I’m involved in, but Jewish life on campus.”
Education regarding Jewish traditions on the part of those working to foster Jewish life is important, she said.
Although this fall, Chatham erected a sukkah on campus, “it’s not what one would call a kosher sukkah — and it’s still up,” explained Berman-Kress. “I was talking to some other Jewish students about that and we are really pleased that they made that effort, it’s just taking it a step further to really understand what it is, how to do it correctly, stuff like that. I know they weren’t intentionally doing it halfway, but education is a big part of it.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at