Reform Judaism magazine ranked GW the sixth private school in its “top 60 schools Jews choose” rankings earlier this month.
This year, Hillel – the national foundation promoting Jewish college life – reported that GW’s student body is 32 percent Jewish, the fourth-highest concentration on a college campus in the country.
With the magazine’s ranking and a vibrant campus Jewish population, some might wonder what’s behind the numbers.
A Jewish-GW history
When the Columbian College was chartered in 1821, it was loosely tied to Christian Baptism. Many students and professors were from the South and of Baptist faith until 1900, when the school dropped its Baptist ties and began to expand its student body.
“With the advent of the 20th century, a large portion of students started coming from New York and Pennsylvania,” said Univeristy Historian G. David Anderson. He added that these Northeastern states have often had larger Jewish populations.
Anderson said the first record of Jewish student life at GW was not until 1915 with the founding of The Menorah Society, an organization similar to today’s Hillel.
As more Jewish students gradually arrived on campus during the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish organizations at GW began to become more apparent, Anderson said. It was during this time that Jewish students excluded from campus fraternities began to charter Jewish fraternities such as Alpha Epsilon Pi.
According to documents from the University Archives, GW Hillel was founded in 1944 by Rabbi Louis M. Youngerman. Hillel and the Jewish population on campus gradually grew until the early 1980s when the organization moved to its current building and began to improve its program, Anderson said.
“When I got there in 1982, Hillel had a ramshackle building on F street,” said Gerry Serotta, director of Hillel from 1982 to 2000. “Hillel at GW in 1982 was one of the weakest in the country and now its one of the strongest.”
Motivations for GW enrollment
Officials theorized that a combination of factors draw students from the Jewish faith to GW.
“It’s very easy to speak to the qualities of GW,” said Jeff Rubin, National Hillel’s associate vice president for communications.
“GW has a lot of really important things going for it,” Rubin said. “It’s located close to many Jewish population centers, it has a fantastic setting and it also has great graduate programs in law and politics.”
According to the 2000 Census, Jews comprise slightly less than 2 percent of the total population and about 165,000 Jews live in the D.C. metropolitan area.
Robert Eisen, director of GW’s Judaic Studies program, said Jewish students may simply be more visible on campus.
“It’s a school that attracts people interested in international affairs,” Eisen said. “That means you attract a population of Jewish students who are interested in the Middle East, specifically Israel, and that’s a cause that makes a lot of noise.”
Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, said he’s not surprised by the high proportion of Jews at GW and other prominent universities.
“I would guess that the percent of students of the Jewish faith going on to study (at college), particularly at private universities, is higher than the general population,” said Chernak, who is a practicing Jew. “I also guess that students of various ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds tend to gravitate to colleges where they feel comfortable fitting in.”
Kyle Allen, a Jewish sophomore, said the number of Jewish students at GW didn’t draw him to the University.
“I came to GW for the location, the rigorous academics and the diversity,” Allen said. “The Jewish population, however, had no effect on my decision.”
Problems in counting
Although Hillel pegs the population at 32 percent, no one knows exactly how many students from any religious group attend the University.
“I … suspect that the 32 percent Jewish population might be somewhat overstated,” Chernak said.
The Admissions Office, which is under Chernak’s purview, does not identify religious affiliation in the application process. Hillel relies on less concrete sources when compiling the estimate of GW’s Jewish population.
Rob Fishman, executive director of Hillel, said the primary method used to assess the number of Jewish students is based on the number of people subscribed to Hillel’s e-mail listserv, which currently stands at approximately 2,100 subscribers.
“What we’re basically putting out there is how many students want to be a part of the Jewish community,” Fishman said.
The National Hillel data also uses an undergraduate population of about 8,700 to calculate the Jewish population. Chernak said the undergraduate student population is closer to 9,200 this year, making the population about 29 percent with Hillel’s numbers.
He said the methodology of using listserv figures, accompanied by information provided by administrators, is similar at other universities. In the past, GW Hillel estimated the Jewish population by using Jewish-sounding last names, but Fishman said that practice was abolished because of intermarriage.
-David Ceasar contributed to this report.