Sam Mendales is the executive director of Hillel Council of New England. Hillel’s goal is to support Jewish life across college campuses. In his role, Mendales frequently hears from concerned parents (and students) who’ve unwittingly selected a college without a vibrant Jewish community. Mendales focuses on small campuses throughout the New England area.
“If you add up the number of Jewish kids who attend small colleges in this area, it’s equivalent to the Jewish population at Brandeis. It’s somewhere around 2,000,” he says.
Here, he offers tips to keep in mind when touring colleges.
  1. Realize that the term “Hillel” isn’t generic. “Administrators or recruiters might say, ‘We have a Hillel,’ but this runs the whole gamut,” he says. Ask to tour the Hillel building, ask who the director is and whether they work full-time, inquire about specific programming and ask whether they appear during the first days of school. “If the Hillel is doing its job, there will be a presence at orientation,” Mendales says.
  2. Ask to be put in touch with students who are involved in Jewish life on campus. Don’t be shy! Not only will you get candid information, you’ll also start to make important connections before enrolling. “They may give you a completely different picture,” Mendales says.
  3. Inquire whether or not the campus offers kosher dining options. If so, this is a good sign that there’s a sizable Jewish population on campus.
  4. Inquire whether there’s a Jewish studies major or minor.
  5. Inquire about how the school responds to incidents of discrimination or bullying. “This isn’t just a Jewish issue,” Mendales says. Ask for a recent example and how it was handled.
  6. If you do get to campus and feel that there isn’t a Jewish presence, take action. Mendales suggests approaching your campus’s residential life office to spearhead initiatives, whether it’s planning monthly Shabbat dinners through services like Shabbat in a Box or organizing volunteering activities.
  7. Last but definitely not least, browse Hillel‘s comprehensive college guide, which outlines statistics, such as the number of Jewish students on campus and the number of Jewish studies courses, for hundreds of schools. “Their college guide is a great place to start before you leap,” Mendales says.