Setting college students on the right path
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Setting college students on the right path

Synagogue send-off: Keeping them connected

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The job of keeping college students connected to the congregation begins even before they leave the community, says Rabbi Ben Shull, religious leader of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. Shull recently held his fourth annual “Tefilat HaDerech” service for graduating high school seniors.

The service – which includes a group aliyah for the students as well as “public affirmations” by both parents and students – has gotten a positive response from the congregation, said Shull.

“They feel good about it,” he said. “It’s one of the few times I’ve seen real tears on the bimah.”

According to the rabbi, some 40 to 50 students from the congregation leave for college each year. “Not all of them attend the service,” he said, noting that it’s challenging to find a good day for the ceremony.

“Kids go off to college at different times,” he said. “If you make it later in the summer to accommodate students who work, for example, as camp counselors, you may miss those who have already left. Maybe we should do it twice,” he added.

As part of the service, the rabbi addresses the congregation, announcing that “we have among us several parents whose children in this season are going forth, like Abraham and Sarah, in search of the promise that is to be theirs.” Parents are invited to stand next to their children on the bimah and to participate in a reading thanking God “for the gift of our child’s life, and for the opportunity to share in our child’s move toward the future.” Much of the wording, Shull said, is drawn from the Website of the Union for Reform Judaism.

In turn, the new college students respond, “As I leave our house, I pray that you will be happy rather than sad about my departure, and my new independence.” As part of the affirmation, they state that each will do his or her best “to remember and practice the Jewish teachings you made certain I learned.”

The rabbi noted that he “struggled with that part of the affirmation.”

“It’s meant to be truthful, and I don’t know if the kids will live up to it,” he said, “but it is something they should strive for. By making a public affirmation, it makes it more likely – sort of a commitment.”

Shull agreed that it is important for a rabbi, and a congregation, to remain in touch with college students. He said he is gratified that his offer of assistance to those pursuing Jewish studies has been taken up, with a dozen or so students e-mailing him throughout the year with questions about their course material.

In addition, he said, congregants who leave for college receive monthly newsletters as well as group e-mails four or five times a year; and the synagogue sends Chanukah gifts to its college students each year.

The rabbi further noted that a program for high school juniors and their parents was held earlier this year, including presentations on different aspects of the college experience. Sessions were devoted to Hillel and Birthright Israel, and current college students presented firsthand reports on Jewish life on campus.

“I’d like to connect more with the Birthright experience,” he said, “to make high school students more aware of it and have those who have already gone share their passion for Judaism and Israel.” He noted that he would also like to have returning college students serve as role models and “spiritual mentors” for those who have not yet left the community.

KOACH, the college outreach project of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, agrees that since going to college is a “rite of passage,” it is important to mark the event with a special ceremony in the synagogue. The group provides its own service, “Leh Lekha – A Ceremony of Going Forth,” in which parents recite the words, “We have given you roots and wings. Take them, with our love, and use them well.”

The group’s Website, www.koach.org, has a section specifically geared for synagogues, listing ways congregations can stay in touch with college students.

Among other things, the organization suggests creating social events for Thanksgiving vacation or winter break, sending students the shul’s monthly bulletin, preparing “We’re thinking of you” mailings to coincide with the holidays, arranging for the rabbi to visit students, organizing phone calls to college students by synagogue staff members, and looking toward the synagogue’s own college students to fill jobs in the congregation (youth adviser, Torah readers, etc.).

Reaching out to college students “makes a difference in their lives,” said Shull. “It’s important because college students are in the searching mode; their identity is evolving and they’re open to different ideas. This provides a touchstone for them to connect with the rabbi and the congregation.”

College students, he said, “are searching for some kind of rootedness and connection,” and given the large size and impersonality of many campuses, “it helps students to know there’s someone there helping to guide them.”

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Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley holds a special service each year acknowledging high school graduates who are leaving for college. Flanked by Miriam Gray, former education director, and Cantor Mark Biddelman are, from left, entering college students Alex Kryger, Upper Saddle River; Andy Bromberg, River Vale; Lauren Rosenblatt, Woodcliff Lake; Josh Saidel, Hillsdale; and Alex Herrick, Ho-Ho-Kus.
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