Jewish Students from Away at Colby College:
Anti-Semitism and Acceptance in the Interwar Years
by Desiree Shayer ’12 (January 2010)
Jewish enrollment at Colby rose steadily between 1917 and 1940: while on average three Jewish seniors graduated each year in the second half of the 1920s, an average of eight graduated each year in the late 1930s. Most of these students traveled long distances to reach Colby, many taking trains to Maine from Boston or New York. For some students, such as Judy (Quint) Schreider ’39 from Boston, the trip to Colby College was long and difficult.
That day that I arrived, I must have been eighteen years old at the time, that day that I arrived it took close to nine hours, no, it couldn’t have been nine hours… but many, many, many hours. When we came home for Thanksgiving it was a nine hour car ride. And we went with anybody. We went with a salesman, not a relative, we didn’t even know who he was, but the school allowed us to go with any kind of a salesman that was around trying to sell merchandise in the town.
Jews began to attend college in increasing numbers throughout the interwar period. According to a study funded by the B’nai Brith Hillel Research Association, published in 1937, 90% of Jewish students attended a college or university close to home. The study showed that 50% of the Jewish students who travelled to attend school were from New York City (Levinger 91-100).
The study also showed that fewer Jews travelled for school than non-Jews. Some explanations for this were found in other literature. While many non-Jews saw college as a social experience designed to give their children what Thorstein Veblen called “a grounding in those methods of conspicuous consumption that should engage the thought and energies of a well-to-do man,” Jewish immigrants viewed a college education as a mechanism for upward social mobility (Steinberg 72).
As Jews could not always find jobs in established business fields, many Jewish students studied medicine or law before establishing their own practice. As a result, most Jews attended the large universities with medical and law schools near their homes. The movement pattern of Jews who did leave home showed that most students were leaving large, well populated Eastern urban centers, particularly New York City, to attend school in the Southern and Western areas of the country.
These trends can be explained by the pervasive use of religiously and racially influenced quotas to limit enrollment of Jews at schools nearer the large Jewish centers of population. For example, regional quotas were often used to limit the entrance of Jews into top universities, forcing Jews to travel away from home to attend college. This idea is supported by Stephen Sternberg ’41, who said, “In 1937 when I applied, it was difficult for Jewish students to get into medical school, especially in New York City, there was a big demand.” Sternberg attended Colby College as an undergraduate, and eventually got his medical training at Tulane in New Orleans.
Quota policies were implemented in a variety of ways. Harvard used an emphasis on “regional diversity” to create a policy that allowed students from the South and West who failed the entrance exam to attend that institution if they were in the top seventh of their class and had strong recommendations. This new rule was used to limit the enrollment of “undesirables” by replacing them with unqualified students from the “right” background. In addition, admissions policies began to include materials other than exam scores to help assess the “right” sort of student. This was based on the knowledge that an exam score and name cannot always identify unwanted students, while an immigrant accent would be obvious during an interview.
Knowledge of these quotas had a strong influence on the schools Jews applied to and attended. Like Sternberg, Doris (Rose) Hopengarten’s educational choices were impacted by Jewish quotas. When asked why she chose to attend Colby in the late 1930’s, Hopengarten responded, “Colby College was one of the very few colleges that did not ask for religious affiliation. That was a very important factor in choosing colleges then, because many of the colleges had quotas for different religious people. Colby didn’t, and that was a very big factor.” That both of these students were able to attend Colby demonstrates an important distinction between Colby and other New England colleges in their policies on Jewish enrollment.
To study Colby’s acceptance of Jewish students, data for this project on enrollment at Colby was collected from Oracle records at the Miller Library on the Colby College campus. The Oracle, Colby’s yearbook, listed all students and their hometown. Jewish enrollment data was based on the research of Dr. David Freidenreich and Margo Derecktor. The research categorized students by religion, gender, and place of residence. The religious categories are ‘Jews’ and ‘Non-Jews’, the gender categories are ‘Women’ and ‘Men’ and the place of residence categories are ‘Local’, ‘Other Maine’, and ‘Away’. ‘Local’ refers to students from Waterville, Winslow, Oakland, or Fairfield. ‘Away’ includes anyone from outside of Maine, including international students. Students are listed by their year of graduation; therefore students who attended but did not graduate from Colby are excluded from this study.
The data shows that from 1917 to 1940, total enrollment at Colby increased 167%, from 81 to 135 students. Jewish enrollment grew even more rapidly, increasing 500% from 2 to 10 students. This increase in enrollment resulted in a growing percentage of Jews in each graduating class. In 1917, 2.5% of the graduates were Jewish, but by 1940, Jews comprised 7.4% of the graduating class.
This graph shows an upward trend in Jewish enrollment (as evidenced by graduation data), punctuated by two clear anomalies. In 1927, no Jews graduated from Colby, while 1934 and 1935 showed a spike in Jewish representation. This is due to increased Jewish enrollment combined with a drop in overall enrollment. It is also interesting to note that most of the increase in Jewish attendance occurred beginning in the early 1930’s, probably due to changes in Colby policy as argued by Derecktor. This theory is based in the fact that Jewish enrollment sharply increased when President Johnson was installed in 1929.
During this time, there was also an increase in Jews attending Colby from away. This trend followed the overall pattern of an increasing number of Colby students of any denomination attending from outside of Maine. However, a higher number of students within the Jewish population attended Colby from away than in the student body as a whole, and the percentage of Jews from away increased more rapidly than the percentage of non-Jews attending from outside the state. This indicates that the increased number of Jews attending Colby was probably due to an influx of Jews from outside of Maine, not an increase in Jewish students from Maine.
Colby’s differentiation from the mainstream trend can be explained in multiple ways. First, most schools moving to limit Jewish enrollment had a much higher percentage of Jewish students than Colby, and the general rationale given for Jewish quotas dealt with the size of the population. A dean at New York University highlighted this in 1922 saying, “We do not exclude students of any race or national origin because they are foreign, but whenever the student body is found to contain elements from any source in such proportions as to threaten our capacity for assimilating them, we seek by selection to restore the balance” (Steinberg 72). At Harvard, President Abbott Lawrence Lowell “based his oft-recounted attempt to restrict Jewish students on a simple premise –that Jews as a group posed a ‘problem’ apart from any member’s individual characteristics.”
At Columbia, the rationale was slightly different –Dean Frederick P. Keppel held the belief that the characteristics of individual Jewish students, namely the first generation of children of immigrants, constituted the main problem. He then split Jews into two groups: the ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ Jews, desirable Jews being the descendants of German Jewish immigrants whose families had been in America for two or three generations (Wechsler 650). Yet even with a focus on individual characteristics, the Jewish population at Columbia was reduced over two years in the early 1920’s from 40% to 22%. At Colby during these years, only 5 to 7 Jews were on campus, no more than 2% of the student body. Since few Jews attended Colby, limiting their enrollment may not have been seen as a priority.
A second explanation centers on internal decisions made by Colby administrators. Colby acted much like the schools in the South and West that accepted Jews travelling from large Eastern population centers, supported by the fact that all Jews during this time period who were not from Maine came from either New York City or the Greater Boston area, excluding two German Jews who came to Colby after escaping Nazi Germany. These last two students highlight the willingness of Colby to accept Jews into the student body. In his History of Colby College, Ernest Cummings Marriner supports this view, commenting that “since the 1880’s Colby had welcomed Jewish students without discrimination” (468).
While the administration seemed open to Jewish enrollment, students did not always treat their Jewish counterparts equally. Judy Schreider reported experiencing anti-Semitism on campus, saying, “I get up to Colby and nobody can say hello to me, except my roommate that I brought up with me.” Other students, such as Doris Hopengarten, remember their time at Colby differently. “My sister and I never felt any discrimination,” said Doris, whose sister was Judy’s roommate. However, Mrs. Hopengarten also explained that there were some things the college could not control, such as sororities’ policies on acceptance.
And there were sororities, for social life. And the dean did call us in because my mother was Jewish, and she wanted to explain to us that we may not be called during rush period not because of Colby’s feelings on this, but because the charters of many of the sororities had religious affiliations in their charter. And she wanted us to understand this. Even though they didn’t ask for it, this was part of the atmosphere in colleges at that time… I guess they couldn’t avoid what the sorority rules were.
This story simultaneously underscores the administration’s relative openness and the social anti-Semitism common in this time period.
The variance in the two women’s social experiences could be explained by Judy’s more religious background. While Doris did not celebrate Jewish holidays or practice her religion on campus, Judy felt uncomfortable eating the food served at the campus dining hall. Instead, she found a woman willing to cook her meals.
There was a woman in town that had a little, little tiny old store, I think a Hershey bar must have been a nickel, a big bar must’ve been a nickel. So my mother said to me, “Why don’t you ask her if she’ll cook for you every night and you can eat in the back of her store?” So I did. So for ten dollars a week I walked to her store seven nights a week for ten dollars. She was an old fashioned Jewish lady. She made me lovely, lovely dinners.
Since Judy did not eat with the other students, this may have made her more clearly different than other students. However, by the time she returned from Thanksgiving break, the other girls were more open to her, and she soon made many new friends and very much enjoyed her time at Colby. One of her proudest moments at Colby was when she was elected Vice-President of the Senior Class, and asked to speak on Class Day. These two honors reflected the acceptance she had received from her peers.
Jewish students seemed to be moderately accepted into the social scene at Colby. While some activities, such as participation in a sorority or mainstream fraternity was not available to Jews, a Jewish fraternity, Tau Delta Phi, was established in 1933. In addition, both Steve Sternberg and Doris Hopengarten discussed dating non-Jews at Colby and attending the many dances and school social events. Doris was also accepted into the Glee Club, a prestigious choir.
Judy, however, commented that not all of the Jewish girls participated as actively in the social scene, particularly those who did not date non-Jews. “Life was very dull for the Jewish girls,” Judy explained. “Even though there were, oh, quite a few Jewish boys, but their accomplishment was to get a non-Jewish girl to go out with them Saturday night.” This highlights the difference in opportunities available for those Jewish students who had mostly assimilated into American culture and the students who followed more traditional Jewish practices and were reluctant to date or marry non-Jews.
The data and stories collected for this project demonstrate how Colby’s administration was ahead of its time in accepting Jewish students without limitations. The school’s leadership stood out from that of other top colleges and universities at the time and in some ways surpassed its student body, as evident in exclusionary sorority and fraternity policies. The students interviewed for this project had positive experiences at Colby. Each one expressed much respect for the school and spoke of their years at Colby as an overwhelmingly positive experience. Said Judy, “I loved it. I can’t tell you how much I loved it. I will repeat the sentence over and over and over again… I loved, I just loved it.”
Levinger, Lee J. The Jewish Student in America. Cincinnatti: B’nai Brith, 1937.
Marriner, Ernest Cummings. The History of Colby College. Waterville: Colby College Press, 1962.
Steinberg, Stephen. “How Jewish Quotas Began.” Commentary, 52.3 (September 1971): 67-76.
Wechsler, Harold. “The Rationale for Restriction: Ethnicity and College Admission in America, 1910-1980.” American Quarterly, 36.5 (Winter, 1984): 643-67.
Hopengarten, Doris Rose. Interviewed by Desiree Shayer, January 11, 2010.
Schreider, Judith Quint. Interviewed by Desiree Shayer, January 21, 2010.
Sternberg, Steven. Interviewed by Desiree Shayer, January 14, 2010.