Just before sundown on the first night of Hanukkah, Patti Mittleman rushes around the student union at Muhlenberg College, setting up menorahs, checking on the dreidels and gelt, and keeping hungry students away from dishes of doughnuts and steaming latkes.

"Jonathan, get rid of that plastic wrap behind the menorah. It looks like hell," she barks at a student, who removes the offending box of wrap.

With everything set, Mittleman welcomes several hundred people to the Jewish festival of light by saying "Hi, Daniel," into a microphone, joking that it's such a common name among the crowd that she knew it would get everyone's attention. "I could have used Joshua or Rachel, too," she cracks.

Such a scene surely never occurred to the founders of the small Lutheran college in Allentown, which is now one of the most popular schools in the country for Jewish students.

According to Hillel International, a Jewish campus organization, Muhlenberg has the 10th-largest percentage of Jews among U.S. colleges, with more than 700 Jewish students this academic year, nearly a third of its enrollment.

On Hillel's list of top 20 schools by percentage of Jewish students for the 2006-07 academic year, the University of Pennsylvania ranked 11th, one place below Muhlenberg, with 3,000 Jewish students representing 30.8 percent of Penn's enrollment.

Yeshiva University, a private Jewish university in New York, was first on the list, with 2,807 Jewish students representing 93.5 percent of its enrollment.

Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., the only nonsectarian university sponsored by the American Jewish community, was second, with 1,900 Jewish students representing 61.7 percent of its enrollment.

Barnard College in New York was third at 43.5 percent and the State University of New York College at Oneonta was fourth at 35.7 percent. The remaining 16 schools in the top 20 had Jewish enrollments between 33 and 27 percent.

At Muhlenberg, Jewish enrollment has grown 300 percent in the last 20 years and represented 31 percent of its enrollment during the 2006-07 academic year. Another third of the students are Catholic, but that percentage has been stable for years. Twenty percent say they are Protestant, and only 6 percent of students attending Muhlenberg are Lutheran.

Administrators cite many reasons that the school has become a magnet for Jewish students - its location near several large urban areas in the Northeast; an active Hillel, the Jewish center on campus; and the school's deep focus on faith.

But nearly everyone agrees that the driving force behind the school's dynamic Jewish community is Mittleman.

Two years ago, she received the chairman's award from Muhlenberg's board of trustees for her work as director of Hillel. Married to a rabbi, she calls herself a "Jewish mother" to the hundreds of Jewish students on campus.

So it is surprising to learn that the former Patricia McGinty comes from a large Irish Catholic family in Northeast Philadelphia, graduated from Archbishop Ryan High School, and converted to Judaism as a 19-year-old religion student at Temple University.

The reasons, she said, were deeply "spiritual, theological and personal," and she is reluctant to articulate them lest she offend people of either faith.

Her conversion, she said, was not a rejection of Catholicism but an expression of what she said she had felt since she was in seventh or eighth grade and attended daily Mass.

"I knew in my heart I was not a Christian. I was a Jew," she said.

Her family and friends were supportive. When she finally told her father she was studying with a rabbi, he said, " 'It's about time,' " she said. For years before that she had kept kosher.

"Some of the best things I learned in Catholic school informs the work I do every day," said Mittleman, who still donates to Ryan and who could pass for a nun in a modest midcalf-length gray suit, sensible brown shoes, and short gray hair.

In 1988, she and her husband, Alan, whom she met at Temple, got an offer to come to Muhlenberg - he was the first Jewish teacher on the school's religion faculty and she was to create a home away from home for about 180 Jewish students.

She began organizing bagel brunches and daily activities at the Hillel house. Her goal, she said, was to help kids stay connected to their faith.

"These kids can walk away anytime from being Jewish," said Mittleman, 48, and a mother of two. "My goal is to create a lasting and enduring commitment to the Jewish people."

She insists she has nothing to do with Jewish students' coming to Muhlenberg. "Jewish people attract other Jewish people," she said.

Others, however, say she is the reason that Jewish life and culture have taken a prominent position at the university, which was founded by Lutherans in 1848 and named 19 years later in honor of the patriarch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg.

Peter Bredlau, the campus chaplain and a Lutheran minister, called Mittleman a "star producer."

"She has a pastor's heart and an innate sense of what her students need that I've rarely seen in people," he said. "There's a reason that alumni from the last 15 years still write to her and send e-mails and pictures of their kids."

But he added that the notion of hospitality is important to Lutherans, who welcome people of all faiths, even though their history with Catholics and Jews hasn't always been smooth. Martin Luther, of course, broke with the Catholic Church to form Protestantism in the 16th century. And the Lutheran church has apologized for his anti-Jewish writings.

According to a 2007 study by the Higher Education Research Institute, only about a third of the students at 19 Lutheran colleges nationwide were Lutheran. For Protestants, the report found, cost is more important than religion in choosing a school.

If there's a downside to Muhlenberg's strong religious affiliations, it's that students don't intermingle as much as the school would like, said Bredlau, who is putting together an interfaith student council to come up with activities for everyone.

"They're just not used to working together," he said.

But it was a strong Jewish community that Becky Stern wanted for her daughter Danielle, who transferred to the school in the fall.

"It was important to find someplace where she felt comfortable," said Stern, who came from Pittsburgh with her husband for the Hanukkah celebration.

Nothing helped more than the weekly Shabbat dinners at the Hillel house. Every Friday, up to 200 students crowd into the large house on Chew Street.

"It's a true family feeling," said Nicole Bernard, 20, the group's president. About 20 percent of attendees aren't Jewish.

Alex Ganci, 22, a senior from Long Island, said he rejected several top schools, including Penn, to come to Muhlenberg.

"It was the most welcoming to me," said Ganci, who will be studying dentistry at Stony Brook University in New York.

Still, students get homesick. Marissa Herskowitz, 20, said she missed her mother's huge Hanukkah parties in which 20 to 30 people brought their menorahs on the last night of the holiday.

"It's something very unique to being Jewish," she said.

Mollie Korff, 20, of Wynnewood, also wanted to be home for Hanukkah. "It's my first time away," she said.

And Mittleman said her phone rings constantly with calls from worried parents.

"If you're a Jewish mother and you're worried about your kid, you call the Jewish mother on campus," she said.

So after the crowd sang holiday songs and lit the menorahs, Mittleman did what any good Jewish mother would do.

"Time to eat," she said.

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8123.