Florida universities among the top schools Jewish undergraduates choose

An interior of the Hillel Center at the University of Central Florida
An interior of the Hillel Center at the University of Central Florida

When it comes to college, many Jews choose Florida schools.

Four of the top 20 public universities with the largest numbers of Jewish undergraduates are in the Sunshine State — with the University of Central Florida rising to the No. 2 spot among schools in North America.

That’s according to Hillel International’s annual “Schools that Jews Choose” college rankings. Hillel bills itself as the largest Jewish student organization in the world. The rankings rely on self-reported data to list the most popular public and private colleges for Jewish students.

“There’s more and more Jews every year, so we’re going to do everything we can to cater to every last student we can find,” said Rabbi Chaim Lipskier, who founded the UCF Chabad in 2006.

UCF edged out the University of Florida, which for the last two years, was the top public school on Hillel’s list. This year, UF dropped to number five nationwide and Rutgers University in New Jersey moved into first with 6,400 Jewish undergrads.

Located in Orlando, UCF has size on its side. With more than 50,000 undergraduates, including an estimated 6,000 of the Jewish faith, it’s the second-largest university in the country.

“Jewish students were coming here, but not because there was a high-quality Jewish experience,” said Central Florida Hillel CEO Aaron Weil.

That has changed dramatically. The Jewish community in Orlando has actively worked to make UCF more attractive, with investors and the university working together to build a luxury housing complex, opened in 2013, with room for a new Hillel center modeled after Google’s offices.

Though the backers of the project weren’t UCF alum, building the NorthView — which has a Hillel center and a Catholic campus ministry — made perfect sense, Weil said.

First off, Jewish philanthropists tend to give generously to education. And with UCF exploding in size, it has also become a major pipeline for local jobs, Weil said. Throw in the fact that Florida has one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, along with the fact that a majority of Jews go to college, and UCF becomes the most likely place to cultivate Jewish students, Weil said.

Because the school is so huge, Jewish students make up about 12 percent of the student population — a ratio that is more middle of the pack for the 60 public schools ranked by Hillel. But Weil expects UCF’s Jewish population to continue to grow.

“When you see a Hillel built on campus, this is a major change for a university,” Weil said. “It is fair to say that within the next three to five years, this will have the largest Jewish population in the country.”

The effects are already being seen around campus, with a Kosher restaurant opening up in the last month and Lipskier, the Chabad rabbi, saying he’s looking for a bigger space to accommodate standing-room only crowds at services.

Lipskier called UCF “a place where people can feel and identify as a Jew.”

Other Florida schools also ranked high on Hillel’s list. At UF, the estimated 5,000 Jewish students actually make up a larger percentage of undergrads: about 15 percent.

Florida International University ranked No. 14 with 3,500 Jewish students, making up 9 percent of the student body. Florida State University was No. 20, with 3220 Jewish undergraduates, about 10 percent of the student population.

The only Florida private school to make the top of the list is University of Miami, ranked No. 11. At the Coral Gables school, 2000 students — about 18 percent of undergrads — are Jewish.

Though Hilell has released the rankings for a few years, they are now part of new college guide by the organization that weighs everything from the availability of Kosher food on campus to whether degrees in Jewish studies are offered.

“Jewish life on campus is an important consideration for many students as they weigh their options for college,” Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International, said in a press release. “Our goal with this new magazine is to empower students and parents to find the opportunity that’s best for them to engage with the Jewish community during college.”

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