Jewish Students ‘Find an Unexpected Home’ at Medgar Evers

An Orthodox man works at a computer station at Medgar Evers’ library, where a bust of rapper Biggie Smalls sits prominently in the center. (Photo by Amy Sara Clark via The Jewish Week)

Rivka Seldowitz is one of a small but growing group of Jewish students in Crown Heights who decided to attend Medgar Evers College, a predominantly Black school located near the heart of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community. In a story for The Jewish Week, Amy Sara Clark describes what prompted the students to go to Medgar Evers instead of schools like Touro, Brooklyn College and Pace, which attract most of the Jewish students in the neighborhood.

A few years ago, the college put more focus on increasing enrollment and diversity, and one of its target populations is Crown Heights Jews. MEC has made changes such as making sure faculty excuse absences on Jewish holidays and allowing students to transfer credits from post-high school yeshiva study.

It’s been working, though slowly. When Seldowitz started four years ago, there were fewer than a dozen Jewish students on campus; today there are more than 50, according to Avi Leshes, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s government affairs director, who serves on MEC’s diversity committee.

Clark noted Jewish and white students remain a tiny minority, with the 86 white students making up 1.3 percent of the student body.

While Seldowitz said her fellow students have overwhelmingly been supportive and friendly, sometimes she feels out of place. For one thing, it felt strange to be categorized as “white,” she said. In nearly all her classes, she said, “I’m the only white person and I’m also seen as a white person. When you grow up in the ultra-Orthodox chasidic community, you’re not raised white, you’re raised chasidic,” she said.

But, she said, “I know that just me being at Medgar has been a good thing. The [black and Jewish] communities have been separate for so long.” Jewish and black residents have been working on bridging the racial divide since the 1991 riots. MEC diversification helps by giving students a platform to interact with each other, she said.

This hope for improving intercultural relations and cultural diversity was expressed by “everyone interviewed for this article,” Clark writes. To read their comments, and the response of the school and the student body after an attack on a Jewish student in 2015, go to The Jewish Week.

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