Jewish student boom in the Sunshine State
We can all picture the Florida Jew.
70 years old and retired, with the heavy Brooklyn accent and the polo shirt you wouldn’t wish on anybody: not the kind of Jew you’d expect at Hillel on Friday nights and a football game on Saturday, who listens to Guster and has a running win-streak in beer pong.
According to Reform Judaism Magazine, five Florida universities are among the top 20 public colleges in America with the most Jews: the University of Florida (UF) ranked second and the University of Central Florida fourth, with Florida International University, the University Southern Florida and Florida State University (FSU) not far behind.
In 2008, the Census Bureau recorded that Florida’s Members of the Tribe make up 3.6% of the US Jewish population. Coincidence or not, a majority of these Jewish households are sending their children to Florida public universities.
“Although it was partially an economical decision my parents did not want me to go out-of-state because they wanted me to stay relatively close to home,” said Yoav Mor, a junior studying Materials Science and Engineering at UF who is originally from south Florida. “I view Jewish families as wanting to stay a little closer than the average family,”
The struggling economy may have also become a large factor in the decision to stay in state. The College Board reports that in-state students at UF have to pay $3,790 each semester. Rutgers University, by contrast, costs $11,540 for in-state students each semester.
But aside from cheap tuition rates, many Floridians attend in-state schools because of scholarships. Bright Futures, the main Florida scholarship, rewards students who maintain a high GPA and high SAT/ACT scores. Earning this scholarship is a huge incentive to attend a Florida university because it can cover either 100% or 75% of tuition costs.
“I chose UF because I had 100% Bright Futures [scholarship]. At first, my decision was not based on a strong Jewish atmosphere,” said Jenna Anne Raduns, a sophomore majoring in Religion at UF.
Some Jewish federations in the state also offer scholarships for students attending Florida schools. The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach offers the Thelma and Isador S. Segall scholarship, which provides $5,000 to select students. With the crumbling economy, though, such scholarships are becoming harder to find.
“We wish we could give scholarships to Jewish students in the Orlando area, but with the failing economy there is no money to give,” said Lois Silver, a employee at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando.
Many students who pay the low rates, however, are not from Florida. It is common to see out-of-state students receiving in-state tuition prices due to claiming residency with relatives who live in the Sunshine State. Since Florida has a large Jewish population, there is an incentive for families from out-of-state to send their student for the best education at the lowest price, even if this includes adjusting residency terms with extended family.
Implementing strong Jewish organizations on campus is another perk of Florida campuses. All five campuses play host to thousands of students through organizations like Hillel and Chabad. Although Raduns came to UF through the scholarship, she has found her Jewish niche on campus.
“I never realized how important a Jewish community was to me until I started getting involved with Hillel,” Raduns said.
One factor that is difficult to determine, though, is the difference between how active students are in each of the Jewish organizations are on campus. The top thirty universities were ranked by their Jewish population size and not on the amount of Jewish turnout.
“Even though the Jewish population is not huge, sometimes you need somewhere to go to talk to people like yourself,” Annis said. That is what Jewish campus organizations are there for.”
But as with any school with a large Jewish population, attracting everyone is a challenge.
“On average we have twenty to forty students each Shabbat,” Annis said. “FSU is the most distant state school, which makes it difficult to promote a Jewish identity on and off campus.”
UF Hillel also encounters problems: it boasts a large number of Jews, but on one of the nation’s biggest campuses.
“Our average Shabbat turnout of about 100 students could be higher, but with such a large campus it’s hard to get the word out about most events,” Campus Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth said.
UF Hillel has had its share of successes, hosting a bonfire, art galleries, and a national Jewish music tour on campus, Shemspeed’s “40 Days and 40 Nights.”
“In general, I think UF is nationally recognized as a popular university that offers a well-rounded education. I also think that having a Chabad, a Jewish Student Union, and a very active Hillel contributes to bringing Jewish students to UF,” Kaiser-Blueth said.
But for some students, the Jewish nature of the programming is not as important as the fact that other Jews are there.
“I would be more likely to participate with Jewish organizations if non-Jewish activities were emphasized too,” said Jessica Arielle Jordan, a sophomore at UF. “I would really like an environment to just chill with other Jewish college students.”