This is the summer of transition for this year’s crop of high school graduates as they prepare for life away from home and the ever-watchful eyes of parents.
It is a time fraught with both joy and fear — more so, perhaps, for parents than for children. Will the rigors of academe prove too much? With no one watching over them, will the children find the freedom of living away from home so liberating that they forget to study? Will son or daughter latch on to the hard-partying bunch, or the library nerds? Will he or she even make any friends?
With the worrying comes the planning: what clothes to buy, what supplies to muster, what credit cards to get, what furniture to shlep along, and so on.
All too often, except perhaps in Orthodox homes, what gets very little planning, and at times too little thought, is everything that falls under the rubric “Jewish.” Yet parents need to focus on what kind of Jewish life will be available for their children in those college towns and how to induce their children to be a part of it.
Hillel, of course, comes to mind. Indeed, most Hillels are a positive presence on college campuses. Parents, however, tend to breathe a sigh of relief at hearing that a Hillel is available and get back to worrying about which laptop is best suited to turn a student into a scholar. But Hillels are not the end all and be all of Jewish life and should not be viewed as such.
Take time this summer to research the Jewish community in the area in which your child’s college is located. What synagogues are nearby, and what are their affiliations? The answers are just a few clicks away.
Most congregational websites usually post the name of the rabbi and the synagogue president, and ways to contact both. Contact them. Explain to them why you are calling and ask them when it would be most convenient for them to talk with you about their community and their congregation.
When you finally have that conversation, ask especially about what programs and services are available at the synagogue for Jewish students who find themselves far away from home. You will be surprised at how accommodating these people may be. If there are no programs, the fact that you asked may spark some ideas at their end. Before ringing off, ask them to put your child on their mailing list. (If your child does not yet have a dorm assignment, tell them you will call back with that information when it is available.)
In the course of these conversations, ask about other Jewish communal entities and services. For example, there may be a Jewish community center or YM-YWHA nearby. Make that your next call and find out what it would take to get your child in as a member, preferably at a student discount. At the very least, try to get your child placed on a mailing list of center activities. Perhaps there is a Jewish Family Services in the area; call it and inquire about counseling services for college students if that need ever arises.
If there is a local Jewish newspaper, see about getting a subscription for your child. He or she probably would argue that it is a waste of money, but ignore that, too. These newspapers have information about singles events, entertainment venues, various communal services and help lines, and the like, and will be consulted when the need arises or the mood strikes, protestations notwithstanding.
Now comes the hard part. You need to talk with your college-bound child about the need to maintain a Jewish life away from home. However you live that life at home, it is far easier than doing so in a strange environment, away from family and friends, and being subjected to conflicting influences. In any case, for children, the idea that these activities are now their responsibility to maintain probably is a nonstarter. In fact, the Jewish aspects of life may be among the things they seek to escape when they leave for college.
You need to let them know, perhaps for the first time, what being Jewish means to you and why you think it is important to them, as well. You need to convey to them that being Jewish is something that must not be taken for granted or dismissed as irrelevant to their lives.
If they are planning to go to colleges that have Judaic studies departments, encourage them to take at least one course each semester. Encourage them, as well, to join the local Hillel as soon as possible. Then tell them about your conversations and research. Give them a list of phone numbers in the area. Urge them to make contact with the rabbi or synagogue president, to avail themselves of the facilities at the local JCC or Y, and to just glance at the newspaper for 10 minutes when it arrives each week.
And buy your child a mezuzah for the dorm room that will now become home. It would be a good idea, as well, to pack a cheap pair of candlesticks for ushering in Shabbat (young men can light candles, too) and make a note to yourself to send your child a menorah and really cool candles in time for Chanukah. Check first, however, to learn whether lighting candles would be allowed. You may have to consider an electric alternative.
However blank a stare you get during this conversation, let it go. The fact that you took the time to make those calls and do that research and have that conversation will register on some level. It will not eliminate your worries, but your child will be better aware of them. It also will put the issue into your child’s head and to set him or her to thinking about it in some way.
Finally, find out what your synagogue and JCC or Y do for the Jewish students who are at the colleges in our own backyard. Their parents have the same concerns as you do, and maybe it is time we all focused on the problem instead of hoping it will resolve itself.