Jeff Gabriel knows that when he arrives at the University of Colorado in Boulder this September, connecting to his Jewish roots won't be a priority. As the Calabasas High School senior prepares for college, his primary concern is adjusting to his new lifestyle, while living more than 1,000 miles from home.
"I love Judaism, but it won't be the No. 1 thing on my list," admitted the 17-year-old Reform Jew from Calabasas. "If I have time and I can go [to synagogue] with my family friend, who is a senior there, maybe I will."
Like many incoming freshman and older students, Gabriel is already anticipating the challenges of staying in touch with Judaism while in college. For the first time, young Jews find that observing the Jewish holidays and traditions, as well as engaging in the local Jewish community, is not a requirement but a choice.
Rabbi Scott Aaron, education director at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, believes part of the problem is that American Jewish education neglects to focus on students after high school.
"Once children leave the nest, we assume they are on their own," said the educator, noting that many Jews reconnect when they marry and have children. "We as a community say, 'It's college,' and we let them go. We skip a crucial life step in there."
To help students over the hump, Aaron, who worked as a Hillel director at several East Coast colleges, including New York University and Ohio State, wrote "Jewish U: A Contemporary Guide for the Jewish College Student" (UAHC Press, 2002).
Aimed at both affiliated and nonaffiliated students, the book offers suggestions for "Jewishly" preparing for college, dealing with anxious parents, communicating with roommates, handling holidays, finding Jewish resources and practicing without parental guidance. Early on, Aaron advises students to think about what being a Jewish college student means and to consider finding the Jewish community on campus.
"Even if you have no interest right now in being Jewishly involved or identified, just find out some basic details in case you ever need to know," Aaron writes.
For some out-of-state students, like Alison Peck from Houston, establishing an on-campus Jewish connection can be crucial. "Where I grew up, it was not a strong Jewish community, so it was important for me to find it in college," the 20-year-old admitted.
Peck, who just completed her sophomore year at USC, chose the school, in part, because of its growing Jewish population, which is now up to 10 percent. She considers the campus Hillel center her "home away from home."
The filmic writing major attends services and has Shabbat dinners at Hillel every Friday night. She is also a member of Alpha Gamma Gamma, a local Jewish sorority.
For students like Linda Alpert, a senior a Milken Community High School, choosing a school close to home may be enough of a Jewish connection for now. Alpert, 17, plans to continue her Conservative observance with her family when she attends USC in the fall.
"That's the attraction for going to USC -- to come home for the holidays," the Encino resident explained. In addition, Alpert takes comfort in knowing that many of her Milken classmates also plan to attend USC. "If I were going away to college, I'd probably try to get involved with Hillel or the Jewish Student Union," she explained.
While Peck and Alpert are more concerned with simply staying connected, other students feel that college is an opportunity to grow religiously. Chad Rosen, a UCLA freshman, arrived from Scottsdale, Ariz., with hopes of reaching beyond his Reform roots.
"I came to UCLA with the knowledge that I wanted to be more traditional," said the 19-year-old, who is a double major in psychology and Hebrew. "Living at home, I had more limitations, and at college, I'm able to explore Judaism more."
Involved in both the campus Hillel and JAM (Jewish Awareness Movement), Rosen believes that college has allowed him to learn more about Jewish politics, community and text.
While some students may opt to disengage from Judaism in college, Aaron said that many students -- particularly those with strong religious backgrounds -- will eventually turn back to religion.
"Going to college into your first adult freedom and choice experience is overwhelming and [students] have to adjust to making their decisions," the rabbi explained. "They know that they are supported and that their Jewish identity is there for them. They come back."