Jewish Education Amidst Rising Antisemitism  volume 22:2 Winter 2024

Reflections on College Guidance after October 7th – 2004 📄

by | Jan 1, 2024 | Antisemitism 2024 update | 0 comments

One of the most significant arenas in which antisemitism has been expressed and experienced is on the university campuses throughout North America. The Congressional testimonies of three university presidents and of Jewish students were featured prominently in the media, and explicit and implicit threats against Jewish students at campuses such as Cornell, Columbia, and Cooper Union received considerable attention as well. The concern for the safety of Jewish students on campuses was felt immediately not only by those currently studying on those campuses, but in the Jewish high schools whose graduates attend those universities. A coalition of forty Yeshiva high schools put out a joint letter expressing their concern, and some conditioned recruitment of their students by the universities on the universities’ ability to demonstrate their plan to combat antisemitism on campus. See one such letter from Ma’ayanot here. The article below from Milken, a community Jewish high school in Los Angeles, is an edited transcript of a conversation with the Director of College Guidance describing how one school defined the challenges and approached them.
This all happened at a very interesting time in the college application cycle. When the war started and we started seeing anti-Israel and antisemitic activity happening across the country, our immediate thought in the Milken college admissions office went to students applying early decision to schools, because that’s a binding contract—if you’re admitted, you have to attend. October 7th was a month before early decision, early applications were due, and we had to do triage for those students. For students who were not applying early decision the timing wasn’t as critical.

Our first action was to check in on students currently in universities to make sure that they were okay. That was important not only for their sake, but because we wanted up-to-date information. We looked at how the universities themselves responded to antisemitism—were they denouncing the protests or supporting Jewish students? Some colleges had vague responses, such as, “we’re thinking about you all during these times,” while others explicitly denounced Hamas and their attacks. We gathered information from videos, from WhatsApp groups, and from the news—we wanted to get a real sense of what’s happening on the ground on college campuses around the country. And we checked in with recent alumni from those universities about the climate on campus. Some students reported that it was bad—consistent antisemitic and anti-Zionist activity, while others acknowledged that there were protests, but that they felt fine going to classes and to the Hillel and that they were not particularly worried.

One of the interesting things about working at a pluralistic day school is that we have a wide spectrum of students that we are trying to support and guide, so our job is to make our students and our families informed consumers. Every student, every family has a set of values, a set of priorities, and it’s my job to make it extremely clear what is going on, give them the facts, help them understand, find and put together the resources, connect them with students, and do everything in my power so they know exactly what they’re walking into. Ultimately, when a student and family make their decision, I have to support the decision that they make, because they know what’s best for their family and for their kid.

Aside from providing accurate and timely information to the students and their families, an important part of the college guidance process here involves a lot of self-reflection and clarifying priorities. What do you need out of your college experience? What do you want your dorm to look like? What do you want your major to look like? What do you want the Hillel to look like? What do you want the Chabad to look like? The surge in antisemitism did force us to make abundantly clear how important it is for students and families to revisit those priorities, including those related to being a Jew on campus.

For a number of years now I’ve been advocating that instead of looking to see if there is antisemitism on campus, we should be looking at how the university reacts when there is. What kind of protections do they put in place? What kind of support do they offer their Jewish students? After October 7th we looked at the intensity of the universities’ responses to get indications about how our students might be supported by those universities in the future as well. Now, having worked in undergraduate admissions, I understand the bureaucracy involved and the desire to tread carefully. But I also know the steps that the administrations need to take when students are suffering, when there is unrest, when there are safety issues on campus—and it is disheartening to see how long it has taken some of them to respond. For example, it took months for Stanford to put out their tweet, and insensitivity sends a very clear message to our students. If this were to happen again, when you’re on campus, then you kind of know what you’re expecting.

There is another area of our work which has changed in light of the recent events. Traditionally, we have a lot of conversations and training specifically with our seniors, preparing them to transition out of Milken. “What is it going to be like on college campuses? What happens when you face antisemitism? What’s it like when you move out of Los Angeles?” This year, we’ve had to take a new look at the type of training and information we are providing for our students, including beginning with the younger grades. It’s not like there wasn’t conversation with them earlier about things like social media literacy, but the questions of how to engage in social media and in person, providing them with tools and vocabulary, has taken on a more significant role in the earlier grades. Even though our students live in somewhat of a Jewish bubble by being here, they have lots of friends in their broader circles who are not Jewish, and October 7th shook them, forcing them to come to grips with the reality to really understand that they don’t necessarily know the world that they’re about to step into. So, for example, immediately after October 7th, our Israel educators partnered with our social science department to provide a brief, robust, holistic history of the conflict that’s been going on in Israel—because they need the tools and skills needed to handle whatever is going to come at them.

Let me give you a sense of how this is impacting students. One of my seniors told me that a few weeks after the war started, she was wearing her Jewish star and someone spit on the ground at her as she was walking in the street. For someone who has been in that bubble for years, and to have that happen to her, it was shocking, to say the least. She was at a loss; she didn’t know how to react.

I also want to highlight the psychological toll that this is taking on students. Even if they’re able to navigate the college process, even if they’re able to submit their applications on time, they’re not doing okay. They’re not mentally or emotionally in the headspace they would have been in in previous years. Throughout October, before the November 1 application deadline, there were so many moments where I’d be sitting in my office with a student working with them on their common application essay when suddenly they started to cry. We would stop, so that they had the space to just express their feelings, and when they were ready, we would go back to working on their essay. The whiplash that these students have had to experience of feeling their connection to Israel, of doing everything in their power to support and raise money and raise awareness, and then also navigating just being a teenager and applying to college is more than they have ever been asked to handle. And I suspect that this psychological toll is going to last well beyond this process; it’s something that I am concerned about.

I’d like to share one final thing. We generally focus a lot of time and energy on helping students understand how to show up as their authentic selves. They attend a Jewish high school, the spend part of their tenth grade studying in Israel, there is no way for them to hide their Jewishness and connection to Israel. Many of them are really worried about how that will affect their admissions. Our students are seriously thinking about and grappling with this, which is really hard to watch.

Gratz College Master's Degree in Antisemitism Studies
Pardes Jewish Studies In-Service Teacher Training Program
Spertus Institute The Leadership Certificate in Combating Antisemitism
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Eli Shavalian is the Director of College Counseling & Academic Planning at Milken Community School (Los Angeles). Eli spent the formative years of his career working in Undergraduate Admission at Yeshiva University and the University of Southern California (USC). He was previously Director of College Counseling and Academic Guidance at Shalhevet High School. Eli holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University and an MPA from USC.

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I think among the things that are concerning for me is that the people that I work with, and I’m in a Reform congregation, we’re a very large community with a lot of diversity within that community. I think that what is particularly concerning to me is that our people are so caught off guard and surprised. That all of the sudden in 2023, all of the sudden it’s as if there wasn’t antisemitism before October 7th. We either had our heads in the sand or we were just kind of in a position of not really acknowledging the extent to which antisemitism is still a part of the human existence. I won’t say the Jewish existence because I think antisemitism and anti- antisemitism is more than a Jewish concern.

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