USC ranks among top universities for Jewish students

Reform Judaism magazine recently named USC one of the top institutions of higher education chosen by Jewish students, ranking 11th among private colleges and universities.

Mazel tov · Alex Kojfman, USC Hillel director of student life, works in the Hillel building located near the corner of Hoover and 32nd streets. The organization aims to develop leadership opportunities for its members. - Dario Griffin | Daily Trojan

The rankings were compiled on the basis of academic courses and programs offered in Jewish studies, extracurricular activities available on campus, including social and religious programs, and the total percentage of Jewish students in USC’s undergraduate population.

“From a spiritual perspective, USC has a number of Jewish student groups and community centers, such as Hillel and Chabad, and these organizations provide opportunities for Jewish students to explore their religious identity,” said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at USC.

The rankings also took into consideration the strong relationship that the Office of Religious Life has with the university. USC has more than 80 student religious groups on campus, the highest in the nation, Soni said. Six of these groups are dedicated to supporting Judaism.

“Los Angeles has a remarkably diverse and active Jewish community, and USC works closely with our Jewish partners in Los Angeles and around Southern California,” Soni said.

USC also offers resources on campus for Jewish students, who make up approximately 12 percent of the undergraduate student body, such as USC Hillel, a Jewish student organization that aims to develop leadership opportunities for its members in both the university and local community.

Alex Kojfman, director of student life for USC Hillel, said the ranking reflects the active Jewish community on campus.

“Some students come from high schools with a small Jewish population, so they look for a school, like USC, with a large Jewish community,” Kojfman said. “[Former] President [Steven B.] Sample has made USC a de facto place for Jews to come.”

Michael Jeser, executive director of USC Hillel, believes that USC’s ranking is accurate of the university’s efforts to reach out to Jewish students.

“It’s hard to measure; you’re looking at data and feedback from people, but 10 to 15 years ago USC wasn’t as friendly to Jewish students,” Jeser said.

In addition to student groups, the university also sponsors the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which was established in 1994 by award-winning film director Steven Spielberg, a longtime trustee and benefactor of USC.

The institute was established to collect video interviews of Holocaust survivors and witnesses and has accumulated nearly 52,000 testimonies since its inception.

Jewish students at USC said they agree with the high ranking that the university received from Reform Judaism.

“I’ve noticed and appreciate the university’s ties to Jewish organizations like the Shoah Foundation and the Hebrew Union College,” said Jeff Cohn, a junior majoring in cinema-television critical studies. “Although I’m not religious, I maintain a strong Jewish identity culturally and applaud the university for its endeavors to maintain a healthy cultural diversity on campus.”

The university also offers multiple academic opportunities for its students interested in Judaism. The USC School of Religion has partnered with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to offer a bachelor’s degree in religion with an emphasis in Judaic studies. In addition, students may obtain a minor in Judaic studies and take courses in Hebrew.

“USC now has more Jewish students than Brandeis University, and I believe that prospective Jewish students are attracted to our large and engaged Jewish community on campus,” Soni said.

Additionally, the College of Letters, Arts, & Sciences hosts the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, an organization that supports research regarding what it means to be Jewish in America. The institute sponsors numerous events throughout the year, including various lecture series, conferences and symposia that relate to Jewish life.

“Over the last 20 years, USC has been extremely proactive in creating unique curricular and extra-curricular opportunities for our Jewish students,” Soni said. “This new ranking reflects the fact that we have been successful in our endeavors.”