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Jewish, Israeli high school seniors wrestle with college decisions amid campus antisemitism fears

Yuval Levy, an Israeli Brookline High School senior who is changing her college application plans due to antisemitism on campuses. Photo by Artemisia Luk
December 19, 2023

As reports spread about increased incidents of antisemitism on college campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, some Jewish high school seniors are rethinking the mix of schools to which they are applying.

The shifts range from ruling out specific schools to making plans to avoid American colleges altogether.

“I want to feel safe on my college campus, and I want to feel welcome,” said Yoni Tsapira, a Brookline High School senior whose father is Israeli.

After reading reports of antisemitic incidents at New York University and Tulane University, Tsapira said he no longer plans to apply to those schools.

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NYU has been sued by Jewish students alleging that it has allowed antisemitism and discrimination. At Tulane, a Jewish student was attacked during a rally after he stepped in to try to stop protesters from burning an Israeli flag. His blood was photographed on the sidewalk after the incident.

“It’s just a pretty awful sight,” Tsapira said.

Yoni Tsapira, a Brookline High School senior. Photo by Artemisia Luk

Brookline, along with Brighton and Newton, comprises the center of the state’s Jewish population, according to surveys by Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Almost 1,000 Brookline residents identified themselves as Israeli in the 2020 U.S. Census.

At the Maimonides School, a modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Brookline, three students, or nearly 10% of its 35 seniors, have tweaked their application lists in the wake of the war, said Tamar Gelb, the school’s college counselor. But the issue resonates beyond that as well.

“For our students, what Jewish life is like on campus … has always been something that students thought about. But I would definitely say there’s heightened sensitivity to that,” Gelb said.

“That is not the college experience I want”

Even before the presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania sparked controversy with their recent testimony before Congress about campus antisemitism, Gabriel Spagat, a BHS senior, had taken those schools off his list.

The war and the response to it have “definitely altered my thought process on college,” Spagat said.

“There’s schools that I favor more heavily now, as well as schools that have kind of been removed off my list, because I don’t want to have to be afraid for my safety at a college,” Spagat said. “That is not the college experience I want. I don’t think anyone wants to go to a college where they don’t feel safe or accepted.”

He fears the issue will persist.

“It’s something that I do believe unfortunately will be constantly going on for the four years of my undergrad college experience,” Spagat said.

“College is such an important part of my life,” he added. “I’ve spent a lot of time over the summer and beforehand working on college applications and the goals that I’ve had, and in a day or a week to have that completely turned around, it was difficult to process,” he said.

Brookline High School senior Gabriel Spagat. Photo by Artemisia Luk

“Brookline is a bubble”

Tsapira and Spagat’s BHS classmate Yuval Levy, whose parents are Israeli, has ruled out U.S. colleges after seeing some of their responses to the war in Israel. She has Canadian citizenship and plans to attend college north of the border.

Levy sent her high school transcript to several U.S. colleges, but no longer plans to apply, even to Columbia University, which she has long admired. “My values don’t align with its values, and I have no interest in contributing $90,000 of my parents’ money every year to attend the institution,” she said.

Columbia is one of the universities under federal investigation because of allegations by Jewish students that it has not done enough to protect them from antisemitism.

“Brookline is a bubble. Most places in the world are not like Brookline, for good and for bad. It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about, where I feel safe as a Jew, where I feel supported as an Israeli,” Levy said.

Hard to quantify

It is difficult to quantify how many BHS students are adjusting their college-application lists in the wake of the war. Lenny Libenzon, one of the school’s college counselors, wrote in an email that the issue has not come up for him. Other counselors did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, at Maimonides, alumni, including some at colleges that have been in the news, have been talking to and helping to guide seniors, Gelb said. The alumni have described Jewish communities on campus that have become more united over the last two months.

“They’re telling them, yes, this has posed some challenges, but come here,” she said.

What about Brandeis?

Spagat said he has been taking a closer look at Brandeis University in nearby Waltham. The university was created by the Jewish community and was named after the first Jewish Supreme Court justice.

“I know that Brandeis is a school with a high Jewish population compared to most colleges in the country, and the world. That was a college that I started thinking about and liking more, definitely,” he said.

Tsapira, however, has ruled out Brandeis.

“I would love to go to Brandeis, except it’s in Massachusetts,” he said – in other words, too close to home for a young person looking to branch out for his college experience.