Advice and resources for Jewish students heading to college

May 17, 2024 | Article, JCRC, Newsletter

Mark ShpallMark Shpall is the Head of School at de Toledo High School, a coed, college-preparatory Jewish high school located in West Hills, California. A recognized leader in Jewish and educational communities, Shpall has been featured in the Jewish Journal, People, LA Magazine, and Jewish News Syndicate. He holds a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University, and a JD from USC’s Gould School of Law. Recently, JEWISHcolorado talked with him about the current challenges Jewish students face as they choose colleges and prepare to start school in a time of campus protest, violence, and increased antisemitism.

You have nearly 400 students at de Toledo. Juniors and seniors have had the issue of college choice on their minds during the difficult months since October 7, but for you, this issue is also personal.

Yes, my youngest son is a senior in high school this year. He committed early to USC, a school that is experiencing a lot of protests, so I am looking at these issues not just as a head of school, but as a father.

Because of the problems with the FAFSA financial aid form, many schools have delayed college decision day past the usual date of May 1. That means some students may still be deciding on a school at the same time they are watching protests at college graduations. What kind of questions are you hearing from parents as they and their children make final college decisions?

I think the number one question is, “Will the college that my child is considering keep them safe?” Parents want to know, “What is this university doing to support Jewish students?” Also, parents are asking “Can this school protect my child and ensure that they are in an environment where they can get to class without being barred from entering a classroom?”

There was a time not long ago when a student’s main concern might be whether the school offers courses in their major area of study. Now, they fear that they may be stopped when they try to enter a classroom.

It is complete and utter madness. Students have to worry that they will be bullied or shouted down—or worse—for wearing the Magen David or for wearing something that says “Free the Hostages” or any other external paraphernalia that identifies you as Jewish or a Jewish ally.

Given this current environment of bullying and harassment, what advice are you giving students and their families?

In the past, you could wait until you got to campus to make Jewish connections. You would arrive, settle in, and after a while, find your Jewish community. Now, we are advising families to be much more intentional and proactive about creating Jewish community before they ever step on campus.

What are some ways to do that?

At de Toledo High School, we put our current students in touch with de Toledo alumni at the schools they will attend. Alumni can prepare incoming students for how it will feel to be on that campus. I would advise students to find a Jewish student at their chosen college who knows the high school environment they are coming from. Talk with them about the college atmosphere to prepare yourself.

Also, make sure you get in touch with leaders of Jewish organizations on campus—whether that is the Hillel Executive Director, the Chabad rabbi, the director of the Office of Jewish Student Affairs, or leaders of a Jewish fraternity or sorority.

I would encourage students to be proactive. Look at multiple Jewish organizations on their campus of choice and do it intentionally as early as possible so they know where they will be able to meet up with Jewish connections.

Any additional advice?

I suggest that families and their college-bound children spend time before August educating themselves about current issues, so they have the knowledge to answer phrases like “from the river to the sea” and “genocide.” Whether with webinars or seminars, arm your children with facts so they can recognize lies, misinformation, disinformation, and know how to respond. If you are prepared and knowledgeable, you do not have to be afraid to head to college.

(Editorial Note: Sources for information include JEWISHcolorado (see below), OpenDor Media, the ADL, AJC, IAC, the CELL, and StandWithUs.)

The very fact that you have to be giving this guidance reflects such a painful commentary on what has happened on college campuses since October 7.

I have to ask, why are college presidents not doing more? Why are they not unequivocally condemning bullying, harassment, hatred of Jews? Why are they allowing students to be blocked from going to class? The same college presidents were very quick—as they should have been—to protect students of color after the death of George Floyd.

Are there some families that are rejecting opportunities to go to schools with prestigious reputations just because of protests and fear of harassment?

Yes, I am getting the question, “Should we even apply to this school?” I don’t recommend that students avoid high-profile universities that have received news coverage about campus violence. If we choose not to attend these schools, campuses will have no Jewish students. That is the last thing we want. It is what the Nazis attempted to do. We cannot let that happen because then the fringe voices will have won.

I attended UC Santa Barbara in the late ’80s. I had a student who found out that I was Jewish and asked if I had horns. I was a member of the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, and we had a swastika painted outside our house. What is happening today is louder and more prevalent, but it is not new.

Did you ever imagine on October 7 that you would be wrestling with these issues today?

Our high school runs very active global exchange programs where our students spend time living with Jewish families around the world. On October 7, we had a dozen Israeli students living with our families, so our priority was to get these very distraught students back home. One of our alumnae was shot at the music festival. She survived, but her father did not Our school has 80-100 alumni who have joined the IDF, so some were on active duty, and some were called back from the reserves.

The attack by Hamas was horrible, unfathomable, and our focus was always on Israel’s safety and security. Still, I never imagined we would be sitting here trying to figure out the college implications many months later.

Even if the war ends tomorrow, the situation is here for a while. There has been a paradigm shift created by the Hamas attack and by the inability of college leadership to come down strong on the side of our students who are being targeted just for being Jews and loving the state of Israel.

Are you concerned about sending your son to college this fall?

Every child is different, and every family is different. Parents need to assess their individual child and make the best decision for college. We will meet with Hillel at USC before classes start, so my son knows where to find resources. I am worried because you are always worried about your child, but I am confident that he can stand strong in the face of whatever he sees, proud of his religion and of his Jewish homeland.

JEWISHcolorado Resources for College Students

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  • ADL Campus Crisis Alert
    • This email features firsthand accounts from campuses, photos and videos direct from the protests, links so you can make your voice heard and resources so you know what to do if your alma mater comes calling for a donation or a student you know is being harassed.
  • Hillel International
  • AJC on Campus