ALLENTOWN, Pa. — One of the hottest college campuses in the United States for Jewish students is also one of the unlikeliest: a small Lutheran school erected around a soaring stone chapel with a cross on top.
In what is being called a testament to word of mouth in the Jewish community, about 34 percent of Muhlenberg College's 2,200 students are Jewish. And the biggest gains have come in the past five years or so.
Perhaps equally noteworthy is how Muhlenberg has responded: offering a kosher menu at the student union, creating a partnership with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and expanding its Hillel House, a social hub for Jews.
"What makes us stand out is that we actually enjoy our diversity," said Randy Helm, the college's president, an Episcopalian. "Our close-knit community has embraced differences rather than pulling into its shell or fracturing along religious, ethnic or other lines."
Many major universities — including some of the country's most highly selective schools — have large proportions of Jewish students, far bigger than the 2 percent of the U.S. population that is Jewish. But how, one might ask, did this come to pass at Muhlenberg, a liberal arts school little known outside Pennsylvania?
Muhlenberg graduate Ben David, now a rabbi on New York's Long Island, said it is a question worthy of Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book The Tipping Point, which analyzes how trends develop.
"Jews are like nothing else in terms of word of mouth," said Patti Mittleman, director of Muhlenberg's Hillel House. "There are so many Jews at Muhlenberg who are having a positive experience at Muhlenberg. That gets talked about in the synagogue and in youth group and in summer camp and in all of those ways that Jews meet each other and talk to each other."
Muhlenberg's Jewish students range from the secular to the Orthodox, and most come from the Northeast. Allentown is an hour from both Philadelphia and New York.
Founded as a seminary in 1848, Muhlenberg (pronounced MYOOL-in-burg) was renamed nearly 20 years later for Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a founder of the U.S. Lutheran church. The college is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, though it says it receives only minimal financial support from the denomination. The campus chapel is used for both worship and annual student convocations. But there are no required religion classes, and there is no mandatory church attendance.
Muhlenberg's Lutheran roots are not relevant in an era when universities' religious ties are generally looser than they once were, said Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for the national Hillel organization for Jewish students.