Preparing College-Bound Kids Jewishly

Jerry Ostrov has given us permission to reprint excerpts from his recent book, Oy Vey, It’s Time to Apply – A Cultural Guide to Colleges for Jewish Parents.  This chapter covers some of the fundamentals Jewish parents will want to instill in their children before they set off for college.

In December, we reprinted the chapter Knowing Jewish History as a Means of Defending Against the Campus Assault on Israel.

Jerry Ostrov

The chances are fair that, if you, as Jewish parents, are taking the time to read this book, you probably already have a working awareness of the universe of colleges and that, in general, you probably are proceeding from a position of accomplishment in your own right. But, for what I have to say next, it doesn’t matter. Think hard and expansively, for a moment, about what you want most for your aspiring college kid. Now, think equally hard of what you hope for him or her as a Jew. It should be no surprise to any of us that, with success and acceptance, assimilation has taken a toll on the continuity of Judaism in the United States. Studies indicate that almost 50% of young Jewish adults are marrying outside of the faith, and, of that number, substantially less than half are likely to raise their children as Jews.

More after the jump.
But, acceptance is not the only cause for young Jewish adults who stray from the fold. Secularism is also at fault. So many of us are so busy with the process of both dealing with life’s daily demands and doing everything we can to advance our position in the world, as the well as the position of our children, that we leave precious little time for instilling in our children a sense of Jewish identification, let alone a strong Jewish foundation, that will be available for our kids when they are ready for college and courting.

How many of us have even heard of Maimonedes’ 613 mitzvot, or blessings. Much more immediately, how many of us provide our children with Jewish foundational building blocks by enabling them to associate their childhood with Jewish ritual and observance? Once our kids become B’nai Mitzvot, we tend to think of them (or, at least, conduct our lives, as if they had) “graduated” from Judaism. Admittedly, attending shul on a regular basis is time consuming for all of us and often mind numbing for young adolescents. But, less demanding and considerably more user friendly, and, often more satisfying, is the observance of Shabbat at home through a Friday night Shabbat dinner.

The rule in my home when I was growing up and the rule in my wife’s and my home from the time our kids were small was that Shabbat dinner, replete with all of the embracing rituals, was and is mandatory. After dinner, the child’s time is his or her own. Imagine, one evening meal a week dedicated to the best meal of which the family is
capable, the singing of ritual songs and recitations from the children as to what went right and wrong during the week, as well as those activities, school or otherwise, of which the child is particularly proud. For many of us, the time is not too late to introduce such a tradition, and, with it, the immersion of our children into a world of Jewish identification which will help nurture them through their adolescence and into their college years.

Lest I leave this discussion with the impression that young Jewish life in the US is coming to a screeching halt and that our kids are significantly at risk to leave their heritage in its tracks when they go to college, allow me to also note a number of encouraging phenomena and ideas that give one hope. First, is the increased interest in Jewish day schools. These institutions provide Jewish kids from Kindergarten though 12th grade with an awareness of their Jewishness that the traditionally dreaded Hebrew School educational track could never provide. The curriculum is referred to as “dual curriculum” and kids spend equal time on general studies courses as well as on courses which comprise the Jewish curriculum. In most instances, admission is open. However, because of the demands of the curriculum, the cost of a private school education and the emphasis on Hebrew as a language, attendees at such schools are from a self-selecting pool of applicants.

Once in a Jewish day school environment, kids are immersed in a world of Jewish culture, observance and ethics that they are unlikely to encounter anyplace else. Tfillot, or prayer, is a daily phenomenon, as is an emphasis on ethics and morality from day one. Many times, Jewish day students will impart so much of a sense of Judaism to their parents, that the parents are forced to negotiate for a continuation of their accustomed, secular lifestyle. Occasionally, of course, the kids will become so enamored of Jewish observance and culture that their parents will throw up their hands in submission. But, of course, that is the point.

At most Jewish day schools which go to grade 12, close to 100% of the students go on to US colleges and universities, and, I assure you, the colleges that you care about are well aware of the difficulty of the curriculum and the type of inquiring minds that come from such programs. Of course, what they don’t know is how utterly mind
expanding these programs can be to young and very young inquiring minds. In early elementary school, many of these kids will learn Rashi Hebrew — an 11th Century form of Hebrew used by one of the great Jewish scholars of all time — to enable such youngsters to study Talmud — the 3rd through 5th Century commentary on the Torah —
in its original script. In addition to general studies research papers, Jewish day school kids will investigate vigorously and write copiously on any manner of subject, including Jewish history, Israeli history, ethics and rights of passage. Some, such as the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, will graduate their kids early in their senior year so that they can spend several months visiting Jewish heritage sights in Europe and in Israel.

Make no mistake, the Jewish Day School phenomena is not just a goody-two-shoes educational program for those of us who want the satisfaction or nachas of providing our kids with a Jewish education. It is and, increasingly, will be the main agent for launching a new generation of Jewishly-identified young adults who not only feel confident about their Jewish tradition, but who are also supremely qualified for entry into the nation’s finest colleges and who are also primed for success when they get to college. Though both of these traits are essential, the former of these can not be overstated in its importance. As we will see in the next chapter (to be printed December in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice), college is an eye opening experience, but our kids will need help in navigating their way through the torrent of anti-Israeli rhetoric they will encounter at many of the nation’s finest universities. Will your kids be ready to respond? Perhaps, and, hopefully, the answer will be yes. But, if they have attended a Jewish day school, there will be no “perhaps” in the equation.

Riding close in importance on the heels of Jewish day schools is the Jewish summer camp phenomena. Long in existence, summer camps like the Ramah camps enable Jewish kids to learn about their heritage and make lasting friends in an unhurried environment and one not pressured by the demands of schools. I, and countless other parents, can attest to the life-long friendships that are established at these institutions. Fellow campers are often treated like family-Jewish family-and the families of fellow campers are often greeted as relatives. At such places, Shabbat and morning prayer can be both a joyous and Jewishly reinforcing agent. Kids can learn more about themselves and their heritage in more of a relaxed environment than practically any place else. And, equally pertinent to the subject of this book, the number of Jewish camp kids who go on to college also approaches 100%. Further, the counselors are excellent Jewish role models and excellent sources of information about Jewish as well as academic and athletic life on campus.

I started this chapter with some dire statistics on the future of Judaism in this country and the toll of assimilation and the absence of Jewish observance. But where do matters really stand as our young adolescents approach their college years. The picture is considerably more mixed than the original statistics might suggest. For one thing, there has been a remarkable resurgence of participatory interest by young adult Jews in all of the streams of Jewish life in America. On Shabbat morning, minions are teeming with young, professional Jewish worshipers who are attached to the rich fabric and intellectual appeal of the Jewish religion. Further, these young people now meet with greater and increasing frequency in study groups and havurot intended to solidify their knowledge and awareness of Judaism and to provide social outlets that extend beyond the synagogue.

Equally interesting is the phenomenon of online dating agencies such as J-date which have enabled young Jewish adults and college students to meet like-minded companions in an environment of anonymity, security and compatibility. I have known many a young Jewish adult who has met a long-term companion or spouse through J-date. For young postcollege, Jewish professionals who tend to find themselves in time and energy-consuming positions, J-date can be a real avenue to social success and Jewish continuity.

In sum, while the returns are mixed-with the percentage of Jews in the United States having declined from its all time high of over 3% after World War II to less than 2% today-I am very hopeful for the continuity of Jewish life in America. Consider the role models-owners of sports teams, politicians, university professors and members of the scientific community. But, even more interesting to me, is the position enjoyed by members of the rabbinate who still seem to be solidly locked within Jewish America and within the esteem of young Jewish adolescents and adults. From my vantage point, the young rabbi, both the traditional pulpit rabbi and the increasingly present collegiate or Hillel rabbi, not only plays a pivotal role in traditional Jewish life and continuity, but, as will be discussed next month, often plays an essential role in providing young, college-age Jewish adults with direction and support.

Jewish parents and their college-bound children can exchange information about colleges of interest and related subjects on Jerry Ostrov’s website.


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