College applications come due as campus climates rise
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Where should we go?Planning for the future

College applications come due as campus climates rise

Increased antisemitism on campus, prompts high school seniors, parents and professionals to weigh options

College-bound seniors have what to consider after months of heated tensions on campus. (Photo by ijeab via iStock)
College-bound seniors have what to consider after months of heated tensions on campus. (Photo by ijeab via iStock)

Two weeks after the Israel-Hamas war began, Squirrel Hill resident Josh Siebzener visited University of Pennsylvania’s campus. The Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh senior was among nearly 25 college-bound students invited to spend Shabbat at Penn Hillel in Philadelphia.

Before encountering Locust Street or the LOVE Sculpture, however, Siebzener had spent weeks following social media posts of “attacks, outbursts or protests turned violent” at universities post-Oct. 7, he said.

Four days after war erupted, an Israeli student at Columbia University was allegedly hit with a stick by a fellow student in front of the school’s Butler Library, the Columbia Spectator reported.

On Oct. 15, a University of Toronto student was arrested and charged by Peel Regional Police after posting a “threatening and hateful” message, according to CP24.

Two days earlier, a women’s bathroom at Drexel University was defaced with antisemitic graffiti, “by someone within our community,” the university’s president said in a message to students and colleagues.

Between Oct. 7-23, the ADL Center on Extremism recorded 312 antisemitic incidents (190 directly linked to the war in Israel) — a two-week sum representing a 388% increase from the same period in 2022.

Siebzener visited Penn and gleaned a “firsthand perspective” by talking to students, he said. “I didn’t feel unsafe for a moment there, but in the weeks following the Shabbaton I felt confused again.”

On Oct. 31, a Cornell University student was arrested after posting he was “gonna shoot up” a dining hall where kosher consumers gather, “stab” and “slit the throat of” Jewish males on campus, decapitate Jewish babies and “rape and throw off a cliff any Jewish females,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of New York.

One week later, CBS News Boston reported that during a solidarity demonstration for hostages held by Hamas, a UMass Amherst student punched a Jewish student holding an Israeli flag, then spit on the flag.

On Nov. 10, hours after two women entered The Ohio State’s Hillel Wexner Jewish Student Center, took Israeli flags and yelled “derogatory words,” two Jewish students were assaulted near campus, ABC15 News reported.

Higher learning, heated tensions

As the Israel-Hamas war crept into its second month, and high school seniors explored options for future study, the news cycle and politicians continued following Jewish life on campus.

On Nov. 7, the Department of Education issued a reminder to schools of their “legal obligation to address discrimination, including harassment.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called rising reports of hate incidents post-Oct. 7 “deeply traumatic for students” and “alarming to all Americans.”

“Antisemitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of hatred go against everything we stand for as a nation,” he said.

On Dec. 11, the ADL released an updated report that between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7, the organization recorded 2,031 antisemitic incidents — a 337% increase from the same span last year.

Six days earlier, during a five-hour congressional hearing, lawmakers probed presidents of Penn, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology about antisemitism and whether calls for genocide against Jews violate university codes of conduct. The presidents said the answer depended on “context.”

Thank you, next

Squirrel Hill resident Elli Kanal has closely followed reports of campus life at Harvard.

His interest, he said, was driven by his son’s receipt of an invitation to apply.

“He did really well on his SATs, but he’s still probably at the bottom edge of what they’re considering,” Kanal said.

Weeks before Harvard president Claudine Gay sat before Congress, Kanal emailed Harvard College Admissions about campus affairs and university leaders’ reactions.

The email begins with appreciation for the invitation but notes the reason why his son is forgoing an application to Harvard: “My son is Jewish. Through many, many well-documented actions and inactions, Harvard has made it clear that not only is my son not welcome on campus, but in fact would likely be in moderate personal danger. To that extent, we will most definitely not be considering sending our son to Harvard.”

Kanal said he isn’t sure about the message’s effect, but believes it’s necessary to tell university representatives “you actively lost a candidate.”

Campus life is prompting questions. (Photo by COD Newsroom via Flickr)

Before Oct. 7, Casey Weiss, an assistant principal at Hillel Academy, had already spent scores of hours working with high school students and their families on the college admissions process. She helped students craft essays, gather requisite materials and find schools best matching their interests — whether it be an eruv on campus or a “pro-Israel group,” she said.

Oct. 7 changed the experience.

As war unfolded and news of campus unrest increased, students and families began rethinking earlier selections, Weiss said.

On Nov. 2, she joined colleagues from Jewish day schools across the country on Zoom to discuss the effects of antisemitic incidents at universities on the application process.

One takeaway of the meeting, Weiss said, was how best to “support students and their families.”

The topic of recrafting personal statements was raised. While one participant told students to avoid writing about being Jewish, Weiss disagrees with that approach.

“I think if the institution doesn’t want that then we don’t want them,” she said.

During subsequent meetings with students and parents, Weiss said she reiterated that sentiment.

“The messaging has been clear,” she said. “We are proud of who we are and we will be proud of who we are.”

Lauren Lieberman, director of college counseling at Shady Side Academy, said she hasn’t seen evidence that Oct. 7 and its aftermath is “changing college lists or where kids are choosing to apply to.”

More apparent, however, is the nuanced approach some students are taking to addressing Jewish identity in essays and related materials.

“It’s something that they’ve asked about and had some concern about,” she said.

“My response for this is pretty much like everything else: If this is your authentic story, and your authentic voice, and this feels like the story you want to tell, then you should tell that story. And you have to believe that any school who would not admit you based on your authentic story is not a place where you belong.”

Some teens have rebuffed the advice by claiming, “That sounds like such a mom thing to say,” Lieberman said. “But I believe it’s true. You have to hold out some faith.”

Planning for the future

Many college-bound seniors who applied early decision or early action already have heard back from prospective schools. Regular decision applications are due in the coming months.

Siebzener, who hopes to study architectural engineering, is still following reports about Jewish life on campus post-Oct. 7.

He said that conversations with friends, at school and on social media, along with news from Facebook and YouTube, have been insightful tools for refining his list.

“I still plan on applying to all the places I planned on applying to, but I added Yeshiva University,” Siebzener said. “I don’t know how this is going to turn out over the next seven to 10 months.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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