In order to research how the undergrads view their school’s diversity, I asked roughly 70 percent of the school’s 125 students to complete an anonymous survey. The survey included demographic questions such as age, birthplace and major, as well as questions about students’ personal observance of Judaism and their perception of the AJU community.
According to the survey, the student body is 95 percent Jewish and 88 percent Caucasian. When you delve deeper, however, you will find that considerable diversity exists within the mostly Jewish population. Thirty percent of students were born outside of California, and an additional 12 percent were born outside the United States. AJU students come from seven other countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Israel and Ukraine.
While AJU exhibits a remarkable diversity of nationalities for a university of its size, the distribution of Jewish ethnicities closely parallels that of the global Jewish population. The survey revealed that Ashkenazim constitute 74 percent of Jewish students at AJU, compared to roughly 80 percent of Jews worldwide, according to an article published by the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs.
One part of the survey asked students to state whether they “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement “AJU has a diverse student body.” The student body was evenly split: 50 percent selected “strongly agree” or “agree,” and 50 percent selected “disagree” or “strongly disagree.”
The results indicate that Jewish denomination may influence students’ views. While American Jewish University has a separate rabbinical school that ordains Conservative rabbis, the undergraduate college has no specific movement affiliation. In fact, Jewish students at AJU represent a range of denominations: 44 percent are Reform Jews, 38 percent are Conservative Jews, 7.5 percent are Conservative/Orthodox (sometimes called “Conservadox”) and 10.5 percent are Orthodox. Ten more students identify as secular Jews.
Sixty-three percent of Conservative Jews think that AJU is diverse – considerably higher than the overall rate. However, the reverse effect was apparent among AJU’s Orthodox Jews, with 83 percent disagreeing that their school is diverse.
These findings suggest that students in the majority tend to view AJU as diverse, while Orthodox Jews may view their minority status as indicative of a lack of diversity. However, the opposite trend applies to race. While students of racial minorities constitute only 12 percent of the student body, these students generally agreed that AJU is, in fact, diverse. Meanwhile, the Caucasian majority was evenly split.
Individual interviews revealed that, regardless of religion or race, some students believe that AJU is not diverse primarily because of the university’s Jewish majority.
“Most of us are white, upper-class and Jewish,” said senior Megan Miller. “This lack of diversity shelters us – the school should offer more opportunities for students to get out of the Bel Air bubble.”
Miller speculated that the undergraduate school’s lack of diversity may be a product of outsiders’ perception of AJU based on the university’s name.
“The name ‘American Jewish University’ limits people’s scope of how they view the school. Many people I have encountered think that people come here specifically to become rabbis. These beliefs can shy people away from coming here, and that’s why the school attracts mostly upper-class Jews,” Miller explained.
While the school may seem demographically uniform, many students and faculty members recognize the variation within the student body.
“On the surface, the student body is homogeneous, but in fact, it’s really not,” said Ellen Weiss-Phelps, Dean of Student Affairs. “Students come from tremendously different backgrounds and have different abilities, needs and interests.”
“We are a diverse group of individuals in terms of who we are,” said junior Nathan Fleischer. “Everyone’s personality is a bit different, which has allowed me to meet and interact with a variety of unique individuals.”
Ninety percent of students surveyed feel that peers are accepting of the manner in which they practice their religion. However, interviews and written comments from individual students revealed that religious differences beget some underlying tensions.
One female student wrote on the survey, “I think there should be more tolerance among students of different denominations. People in one denomination sometimes think that another [denomination] is wrong. I hear a lot of arguments but no real understanding.”
In an interview, sophomore Ethan Rosenfeld concurred, “[Within the student body] there’s a fence of ‘you live a certain way, I live a certain way.’” Rosenfeld, an Orthodox Jew, added that Orthodox Jews in particular feel alienated.
“Some Conservative students have a stance of hostility towards Orthodoxy. They believe that Orthodox Judaism is sexist and immoral, which is hurtful,” he said.
More than half of Orthodox students who participated in the survey appear to feel the same way, disagreeing with the statement: “I feel like a part of the AJU community.”
“For a place that says it’s open to people of all denominations, I don’t feel the school welcomes us,” junior Zach Morrow, an Orthodox student, commented. He said that his fellow students have never offended him or insulted his beliefs. However, Morrow is upset by the absence of a minyan with separate seating for men and women, as well as the fact that the dining hall, which follows the Conservative standard of kashrut, lacks Glatt Kosher certification.
While the range of religious beliefs and customs appears to cause some isolation within the student body, many students embrace this diversity as a positive aspect of AJU’s environment. Eighty percent of survey respondents said that they feel like a part of the community, suggesting that AJU’s diversity has some benefits for the community.
“Everyone is accepting and welcoming, and everyone is open to each others’ opinions and beliefs,” said freshman Eden Bennun. “The school is not just Jews and not just one type of Jew – the whole range of beliefs opens your eyes to different ways of life and culture.”
Weiss-Phelps added, “As is typical of any Jewish community, we have a wide range of opinions about everything and diversity in our lifestyles. The good news about this diversity is that everyone is not in lockstep with everyone else. As tiny as we are, diversity forces us to think about our own lifestyles, views – political and otherwise – and how to live our lives.”