When Rivka Seldowitz got her first English assignment at her new college, she was stumped.
“I couldn’t write a paper,” she said. “I had to write a two-page paper … and I had no idea how to do it.”
Luckily her school had resources. “I walked into the writing center and I was just like, ‘Help!’ And a tutor showed up,” she said. “That tutor sat with me for six or seven hours, and we went through every step of the paper together.”
For someone who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch community, Seldowitz, 29, made an unusual choice: Instead of going to the handful of colleges that attract most Crown Heights Jews — Touro, Brooklyn College and Pace — she decided to go to the one down the street: Medgar Evers.
Founded in 1970 at the behest of the NAACP and Bed-Stuy activist groups, Medgar Evers College, aka MEC, is a predominantly black institution, with 8-in-10 students identifying as African- and Caribbean-American.
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.
And while Seldowitz sometimes felt isolated, more recent arrivals seem to be having an easier time.
“The truth is I’ve only had positive experiences there,” said Aleksandr Shakhnovitch, 36, an accounting major. “I haven’t experienced any open anti-Semitism; if anything, it’s the opposite. Everyone is very inclusive, very friendly.”
His professors have accommodated his religious conflicts, and the cost and location can’t be beat, he said. “It’s kind of the best value — it’s right here [and] it’s [the relatively low] CUNY prices.”
Shakhnovitch, who is Lubavitch, sees the school’s predominately black student body as a plus — and an opportunity. “What a great way to get cultural exchange happening. We live next to each other but have barely exchanged more than a few sentences. This would be tremendous.”
Boruch Wilansky, another Lubavitcher, chose MEC for similar reasons. “It’s a 20-minute walk in Crown Heights, and it’s three grand versus eight grand,” at a place like Touro. (For New York residents, tuition for a semester at MEC is $3,265; at Touro’s Lander College it’s $9,585.)
He was also attracted by the possibility of getting as many as 48 transfer credits for the three-plus post-high school years he spent learning Torah.
Wilansky, an especially friendly guy, said he’s connected with students in all his classes. “I have friends that are Christian, Muslim, Indian. The fact that I’m a minority [makes] people go out of their way to say: ‘How are you doing?’”
Located on Crown Street at Bedford Avenue, MEC is a 20-minute walk from Kingston Avenue, the main thoroughfare of chasidic Crown Heights.
On campus late last month, a mix of Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanza decorations, including at least two enormous menorahs, graced the halls and grounds. In the glass-walled library, patrons — including at least two Jews, Seldowitz and a man wearing a kipa — worked intently on final papers and projects. At the center stood a 6-foot-tall bust of slain rapper Biggie Smalls. Posters of African-American leaders and a display of costumes from artist and African diaspora activist Cheryl Byron added color.
In the lobby of the building hosting student activities, the free newspapers on offer were Our Time Press, Brooklyn Community News and Amandla, all aimed at an African diaspora readership.
The diversification efforts at MEC got a push in December 2015, after a visibly Jewish student who was chatting with a friend outside of a classroom was punched by a passerby who told him: “We don’t like Jews.” Soon after, the school instituted a cultural diversity committee composed of administrators, students (including Seldowitz) and black and Jewish community leaders.
The initiatives are paying off. In the past 10 years, overall enrollment has jumped from 5,551 to 6,652 and the number of students identifying as Hispanic jumped from 244 to 918 (4.4 to 13.8 percent); Asian/Pacific Islanders from 56 to 153 (1.0 to 2.3 percent); European-Americans from 33 to 86 (0.6 to 1.3 percent); Native Americans from 6 to 20 (0.1 to 0.3 percent); and African- and Caribbean-American students went up in numbers from 5,079 to 5,475 and dropped percentage-wise from 91.5 to 82.3 percent.
But while the school’s white population has more than doubled over the past decade, Jews and other white students are still a tiny minority.
This didn’t faze Seldowitz, a social work major who plans to pursue an MSW. Having grown up Lubavitch, she is accustomed to identifying as part of a minority population. More important to her were the less-than-five-minute commute and the wealth of supportive services, an asset for graduates of many chasidic yeshivas, where students spend far more time on Torah than times tables and Gemara than grammar.
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.
The most important change, many Jewish students said, is the more flexible transfer-credit policies.
“We thought, if we could offer prior credits to students … [for such experiences as] traveling, working on Wall Street or going to yeshiva, then this would perhaps attract some who would decide to come,” said Professor Ethan Gologer, interim dean of liberal arts. “In the same way that if someone wants transfer credits in Swahili or Arabic and we don’t offer those, it doesn’t mean we can’t … . If you’re required to take a language course, who says it has to be French or Spanish?”
A student who spent several years learning Torah can, potentially, get up to 48 transfer credits — a full two years of school — putting MEC on par with Touro College.
Like Seldowitz, Gologer sees a larger good in bringing Jews to the school.
“I think that this is a very constructive step for the college, for the community as a whole,” he said. “And not to be too grandiose about it, but maybe we’ll serve as an example for many other troubled places in the world.”
Everyone interviewed for this article, in fact, articulated a version of this hope.
“I happen to believe that’s what these moments in our history require, they require us to lean into cultural diversity, to accept it as a norm, and then to build the skillset that young people need to have so that … they actually prefer to be in an environment in which they can see the reverence that’s given to people from other lands and other faiths,” said MEC President Rudolf Crew.
Both Leshes and fellow diversity committee member Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, say they’re impressed with how seriously the administration has taken this mission.
“Dr. Crew is very, very genuine in his desire to make the college a welcome environment for all students,” Rabbi Cohen said.
Regarding the transfer credits, Leshes said, “It took a year and a half to get going, and to constantly have that dedication … and not let it get lost in bureaucracy, is a point proven that this is how dedicated and focused they are to this mission.”
Latchmie Marajh, who is senior class president and vice chair for international students at the University Student Senate, said that as a Muslim, she feels comfortable at MEC because of its “family feel where everybody could come and feel accepted.” “Everybody helps everybody. Everybody participates in everything — different religious festivities that we have here,” said Marajh, who is from Trinidad and Tobago. “Back home, my family was like: ‘Take off the hijab to feel comfortable,’ and at Medgar I never once felt like that.”
Diversification, she said, “is an opportunity for us as a whole, as a black community, to learn and to grow. And with the [global] climate … right now where there’s such a high intolerance for religious views, I think Medgar Evers actually sets a stage to build that [dialogue].”
Marajh was the person chatting with the Jewish student who was punched back in 2015. While the attack was reported to the police and in the press, what wasn’t widely known was the reaction of the other students, she said.
“The most beautiful thing happened, students came out of the classroom, students from the corridor came and said, ‘No, not here, not at Medgar … they do not tolerate that,’” she said. Regarding the tolerance that the administration has instilled on campus, she said, “I feel that it trickled down to the students, and the students showcased that.”
Chaim Levin contributed reporting.