by Rabbi Hershey Novack
American Jews are famous for the emphasis they place on academic success. Jewish professors populate America’s universities, just as Jewish doctors, lawyers, and politicians help fill the nation’s hospitals, law firms and Capitol. At the core of this success are generations of American Jewish parents who have encouraged their children to focus, work hard and succeed from kindergarten through college and graduate school.
College in particular is a formative time for students’ Jewish identities. In a widely publicized essay written in 1968 for the journal Judaism, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “by and large, college is a disaster area for Judaism, Jewish loyalty, and Jewish identity.” More recently, in a 2006 study for the Avi Chai foundation, Brandeis University researchers indicated that “In the soup of the college experience, Jewish students are making religious choices and these are often decisions to do less, not more.”
(Similar sentiments have been expressed about collegiates’ connection to Israel, a subject worthy of its own article.)
It must be stated that there is no magic bullet that will quickly and cheaply reverse this phenomenon. That said, parents can play a vital role in helping students – their children – maintain a connection to Judaism by setting an example of Jewish involvement and by partnering with the agencies that bring Jewish life directly to young people.
In Judaism, a parent’s relationship with a child is so sacred that it is codified in the Ten Commandments, requiring children to respect their mothers and fathers. But just as it is the children’s duty to respect their parents, so too is it parents’ responsibility to raise their children.
The single best way for parents can strengthen their children’s Jewish identity is by setting an example of Jewish living. Indeed, the Jewish educational complex functions best when planted over the deep rooted values established by parents.
Ideally, education should begin at birth or earlier; however, it can begin at any age, even after the children are off at college. In today’s hyper-connected world, students studying at schools across the country are just a phone call or video chat away. Through these technological miracles, parents can role-model Jewish living from home while still allowing their children the space to grow up.
Before children head off to college, parents often engage their children in various coming-of-age discussions. It is critical for parents to have a similar conversation about their Jewish values and observances. A discussion in which they articulate their expectations and hopes, that are too often left implicit. Without a doubt, this conversation carries more weight when parents “walk the talk,” by role modeling a Jewish life.
Parents can also support their students by sending their children care packages associated with Jewish holidays and themes. Some synagogues already do this, however, when these gifts come from home, they carry that much more intergenerational meaning and educational value.
Universities have evolved to become more inclusive in the services they offer to students – whether from a psychological or career counselor, resident advisor, or even a campus rabbi. Instead of only supervising a university’s kosher food or facilitating prayer services, campus Jewish groups have broadened their reach to serve as much of the Jewish student community as possible. Far from being a place of refuge for a committed few Jewish students, these organizations have developed programs to reach out to all those seeking meaning in their Judaism.
The challenge is to reach all Jewish students – not just those who are already inclined to participate. The goal must be to show Jews of all stripes and backgrounds that within Judaism’s incredible depth and breadth is something – indeed, much – that could interest them.
And if parents want their children to have a close connection with Jewish life on campus, they would do well to connect with the Jewish mentors who are there 24/7 for students. Just as parents support their children’s secular education, it is imperative that they also support their children’s Jewish education at college by providing financial support to college Jewish organizations.
Beyond just writing a check, parents should consider including their children in deciding upon and delivering their philanthropic resources. Indeed, this form of charitable giving provides more than support to a particular organization, it role-models Jewish living and creates a culture of Jewish involvement from the home to campus.
These ideas, when delivered to young people with a bit of space and a lot of love, will hopefully resonate during college and long after.
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light; republished courtesy of the author.