American Jews are known for the emphasis they place on academic success.
Jewish professors populate America’s universities, and, respectively, Jewish doctors, lawyers and politicians help fill the nation’s hospitals, law firms and legislatures. 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 found 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 can be expressed about college students’ connections to Israel, though that is another matter.
No magic bullet exists to quickly and cheaply reverse this phenomenon. But 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.
A Jewish 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 the parents’ responsibility to raise their children.
Jewish education works best when it reinforces deep, rooted values established by parents.
Ideally, parents should begin educating their children at birth; however, they can begin at any age, and even after the children are off at college. In today’s hyperconnected world, students studying at schools across the country are just a phone call or a video chat away. Using technology, parents can 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. Parents must have a similar conversation about Jewish values and observances—a discussion in which they articulate expectations and hopes that too often are left unsaid. Of course, such a conversation carries more weight when parents “walk the walk” by serving as role models of Jewish living.
Parents can also support their college students by sending them care packages associated with Jewish holidays and themes. Some synagogues already do this, but 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, a resident adviser 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 few committed 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 –more than just something, even—that could interest them.
If parents want their children to have a close connection with Jewish life on campus, they should connect with the campus Jewish mentors who are there 24/7 for students. Just as parents support their children’s secular education, it is imperative that parents also support their children’s Jewish education at college by providing financial support to Jewish organizations there. This will also help to create a culture of Jewish involvement from the home to the campus.
These ideas, when delivered to young people with a bit of space and a lot of love, can resonate during college and long after.
(Rabbi Hershey Novack is the director of the Chabad on Campus - Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University in St. Louis.)