Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,
Who was the first Jewish student at Princeton?
A. An exhibit at the Historical Society of Princeton speculated that Albert Mordecai of the Class of 1863 was “very likely the first” Jewish student at the College of New Jersey (now named Princeton University). Although Mordecai might well have been the first Jewish student at Princeton, our records cannot offer a definitive confirmation.
It is, of course, nearly impossible to determine the “first” student in any given category. Students might have concealed their backgrounds and/or records may not survive. Also, generally in the early nineteenth century the religious distinctions among students at Princeton and many other colleges were recorded as “professors of religion” or those who were not yet (i.e., those who had what we might loosely define today as an evangelical conversion experience and those who had not) rather than in terms of who was Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, etc. Everyone was presumed to be Protestant. Statistics were kept on how many “professors of religion” were in the school and how many were not, and these statistics were reported to the Board of Trustees. Princeton did not begin collecting data on religious affiliation until 1871, though it did print statistics on the Class of 1872 in the Nassau Herald, which would give us some sense of the campus religiously as early as 1868. No members of the class are recorded as Jewish.
The first student to be recorded as Jewish in the Matriculation Register is Michael Rhine, who arrived in 1876. He was a special student and not in a degree program, and thus not a part of the Class of 1880.
As for Albert Mordecai, I believe the basis for assuming his Jewishness is simply his name. Though Mordecai was only at Princeton for two years and left in 1861 to join the Confederate Army, his classmates continued to include updates about his life in their reunion books. They don’t seem to have known whether or not he was Jewish (“Hebrew”) or not themselves, saying that they understood him to be descended from the prominent Mordecais of the Carolinas and Georgia (Albert Mordecai was from Columbia, South Carolina), but they are not sure. Mordecai himself did not respond to inquires from his classmates for updates on his activities. We do know that he attended medical school in Philadelphia after leaving Princeton without a degree in 1861 as part of the departure of Southern students en masse from the institution at the beginning of the Civil War. For more on the Mordecais, some of whom identified as Jewish and some who did not at the time of the Civil War, please see Emily Bingham’s Mordecai: An Early American Family.
We encourage anyone with additional information on this topic to contact us.
Update 5/18/16: Thanks to our readers, we have found that Jewish student presence at Princeton extends back at least 50 years before Albert Mordecai, Class of 1863. Please see this blog post for more details.
Class Reunion Books Collection (AC214)
Office of the Registrar Records (AC116)
Undergraduate Alumni Records 1800-1899 (AC104.02)
Bingham, Emily. Mordecai: An Early American Family. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.
Historical Society of Princeton. “Old Traditions, New Beginnings: Celebrating 250 Years of Princeton Jewish History.”
Klionsky, Abigail. “In the Tiger’s Lair: The Development of Student Life at Princeton University 1915-1972.”
Mendez, Rossy. “Proudly We Can Be Jews: The Jewish Experience at Princeton.”
van Rossum, Helene. “Being Jewish at Princeton: From the Days of F. Scott Fitzgerald to the Center of Jewish Life.”