Graduation time has come and gone, and for many of the high school set, that means a summer of transition as they prepare for life away from home and the ever-watchful eyes of parents.
Obviously, this is a time fraught with both joy and fear — more so, perhaps, for parents than children. They may delight in their children’s achievements, but 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, and so on.
All too often, except perhaps in Orthodox homes, there is one category that gets very little planning and, at times, too little thought — that category called "Jewish." 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. Hillels, however, are not the end all and be all of Jewish life; parents cannot view them as such and students should not use them 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 located nearby and what are their affiliations? A few clicks on the computer will bring a Web surfer to the home page of each of the major congregational organizations and just a few clicks more will take you to information about the congregations nearest the college in question.
At the congregational sites, there usually is the name of the rabbi and the synagogue president, and ways to make contact with both.
Do not ask your child for permission; just pick up the phone and do it. Call these people, explain why you are calling, and ask when it would be most convenient for them to tell you about their community and their synagogue. When you finally have that conversation, ask especially about what programs and services the synagogue offers for Jewish students who find themselves far away from home. You will be surprised at how accommodating these people are likely to be. If there are no programs, the fact that you asked may even be enough to spark some ideas at their end. Before ringing off, ask them to put your child on their mailing list (assuming that your child has a dorm assignment; if not, tell them you will call back with that information when it is available).
In the course of these conversations, you probably will learn 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 on 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 youth 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 against it, but ignore that, too. These newspapers have information about singles events, entertainment venues, various communal services, help-lines, and the like, and will be consulted when the need arises or the mood strikes, protestations notwithstanding.
All of the above, of course, is the easy part. Now comes the hard part — having "the talk" with your college-bound child.
No, not "that" talk; they know more about that than you do, anyway. This talk is about the need to maintain a Jewish life away from home. However one lives that life at home, it is far easier than doing so in a strange environment away from family and friends. In any case, for children — so many of whom do their utmost to avoid such activities as going to a synagogue on Shabbat or, at the least, on the High Holy Days — the idea that these activities are now their responsibility to maintain probably is a non-starter. All too often, in fact, the Jewish aspects of life are among the things they are hoping 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. Somehow, you need to convey to them that being Jewish is something that needs to be worked on every day and not taken for granted or, worse, 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 such course each semester. Encourage them 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.
If your child has tefillin and/or a tallit, even if those have been stuffed in a closet for five years, urge him or her to take them to college, as well. 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.
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, if you live in a town that has its own college, find out what your synagogue and JCC or Y do for the Jewish students attending it. Their parents have the same concerns as you, and maybe it is time that we all focused on the problem instead of hoping it will resolve itself.