As a suburban kid from New York, my upbringing was fairly unremarkable. My parents were realizing the dream promised to ambitious Jews. Their parents toiled in sweatshops, and slung cow carcasses at the Gansevoort Meat Market. My grandparents worked hard so my parents could go to college and work hard. I was expected to continue living that promise and head off to a respectable and reputable college.
Yet, instead of eagerly awaiting word from SUNY admissions departments with most of my classmates, I was drawn to smaller, more personalized liberal arts schools. Sadly, such education carried a prohibitively high price tag for middle-class families like mine. It was in a trade paperback titled How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University that I found a tiny, offbeat college in Florida: a few hundred students in a hodgepodge of buildings on the Gulf of Mexico. Although New College had once been private, financial hardship forced it into an uneasy alliance with the University of South Florida.
And so, after graduation, off I went to a college no one had ever heard of. But it was at that strange little place that I learned how to think.
New College bases its academic program on contracts students make with advisers. There are no grades. Students are encouraged to explore and experiment with areas and modes of studying. Passionate conversations in class spill out onto sidewalks and common spaces.
I learned how to read critically at New College, how to make arguments based on facts. I learned about Durkheim and bell hooks and supply curves and Ionesco and externalities. I met people who challenged me to think in a way that revealed my own best self. In short, I was allowed the space to create myself.
It was at New College, too, that I fell in love with Judaism. Religion didn’t figure prominently in my family’s suburban dreams; as what would come to be known as “cultural Jews,” we did what we were expected to do. We lit an electric menorah on Chanukah, attended seders at my aunt’s house in Canarsie. I “got” a bar mitzvah. But it was at New College that my religious identity flourished.
The first Gulf War coincided with my first year of college. People were on edge. It was a gentle (and gentile) college adviser at New College who suggested to me that perhaps I wanted to “go to synagogue and pray for peace.” The thought had never occurred to me.
But as I began to attend shul, New College gave me the space to grow—not only academically but also religiously. I helped start a campus Hillel. New College allowed me the room to grow in mind and spirit such that I could be become a rabbi and, eventually, a leader.
Now, this little kooky place, beloved by students and alumni alike, is being destroyed by another kind of leader, Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor has packed the New College board of trustees with “culture warriors,” hell-bent on destroying what makes the place so special. It’s ironic that this tiny school where so many nerdy kids come to find refuge from bullies is itself now being assaulted by Florida’s bully in chief.
Raised in Orlando and the beach town of Dunedin, and with degrees from Yale and Harvard Law, DeSantis embodies a certain kind of ham-fisted privilege assumed by a burgeoning cadre of people who literally have everything—money, status, titles, access—but somehow remain unsatisfied. Instead, they have to take the little that you have. Not because they need it or even want it, but just to show you that they can. The only logic relevant to them is the logic of force.
And, needless to say, their religion is the brutal and brittle kind that finds meaning in demeaning others. It is a religion anathema to the Judaism I discovered at New College—a path of ethics and justice, a path that insists that every human is created in the divine image.
I hold out hope for a New College miracle. But, as of now, none of what I learned at New College is a match for the ugliness taking hold in too many American hearts and halls of power.
This Republican crowd loves to extol its tough-on-crime credentials. But if you know anything about New College, know this. There was a break-in. We were mugged. Something special, something essential has been stolen—and the thief doesn’t even want what he stole.
American education can do better. This country must do better.