The university has portrayed the move as part of a broad effort to increase diversity. But the administrator in charge of the effort acknowledged that Vanderbilt is also trying to tap into a group of students who tend to score highly on the SAT.
That kind of talk is making some worry that the university is promoting the inflammatory idea of Jewish intellectual superiority.
"It dredges up stereotypes and issues we really don't want on the table," said Jessica Keimowitz, director of college counseling at the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston.
Vanderbilt, a private university ranked 21st on U.S. News and World Report list of top colleges, has long had a reputation as a Southern, white, wealthy--and Protestant--school. Jews account for about 4 percent of its enrollment of 10,500, compared with more than 20 percent at Ivy League schools. About 2 percent of the U.S. population is Jewish.
The only Top 25 university with fewer Jewish students than Vanderbilt is the University of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic school.
It is a statistic Vanderbilt's chancellor, Gordon Gee, wants to change and a reason he hired Rabbi David Davis as an assistant to the provost a year and a half ago.
Central to Vanderbilt's recruiting effort is the new $2.2 million Schulman Center for Jewish Life, a two-story building with a copper dome and stained-glass windows. It is named for 1939 graduate Ben Schulman, who contributed $1 million to build it. A kosher cafe will open there this summer.
"What we're doing with Jewish students is the same we're doing with a whole host of underrepresented individuals on campus," said Michael Schoenfeld, vice chancellor of public affairs.
Davis also said: "We want the best students to come to Vanderbilt - Jews score well on the SAT."
Last year's college-bound Jewish seniors averaged 1161 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT, second only to Unitarians among 35 religions, according to the College Board, which administers the entrance exam.
Keimowitz said she worries that the recruiting could put pressure on Jewish students and feed stereotypes that Jews have the "inside track" or are part of some kind of conspiracy.
"Part of the problem is that, given the situation in the Middle East and the anti-Semitism that followed in Europe immediately afterward, it is fresh on people's minds," she said. "We are more ripe for anti-Semitism now than we have been in a while."
Tamar Rudavsky, director of the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, said Vanderbilt and other schools that are recruiting Jews are also trying to pump up donations.
"Universities have figured out that there are many wealthy Jews who want to contribute to universities," she said. "They see this as an opportunity to get Jewish money. There is an aging population of 60- or 70-year-old second-generation Jews who want to give back but want to do so in a way that enhances education."
Vanderbilt's Schoenfeld said that getting donations is not a primary concern of the recruiting effort.
Still, Vanderbilt's intense, high-level effort to recruit Jews, even if part of a broader diversity effort, is uncommon.
Vanderbilt was founded in 1873 through a $1 million gift from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and steamship industrialist. It started as a Methodist school but severed its church ties in 1914.
Despite its location in a city where only about 6,500 of 570,000 residents is Jewish, Vanderbilt once drew a substantial number of Southern Jews because other elite universities would not accept them, Davis said.
As recently as the 1960s, some top universities used quotas to hold down Jewish enrollment. During the 1970s, Jewish enrollment at Vanderbilt was 9 percent or 10 percent, but it slipped as Ivy League and other prestigious universities abandoned the quotas.
If Vanderbilt seems unabashed in its courting of Jews, Davis said, it is because it is playing catch-up.
Some Vanderbilt students said they do not mind the push for diversity. On campus, senior Ashley Hunt of Hanson, Ky., motioned toward the new Jewish life center and said: "I don't know if it will make a difference, but I think it's a bold statement."