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Is There (Jewish) Life After High School?Article appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, September 2000
Parents who guided their child through bar mitzvah and confirmation and happily paid their USY or NFTY membership generally hope that when their child goes off to college he or she will maintain a connection to Judaism.
Sam Mendales, Executive Director of Hillel Council of New England, notes that selecting a college that meets a student's academic, social and extracurricular needs is difficult and stressful. It is not surprising, then, that even the most conscientious families sometimes overlook their child's religious needs or misjudge a college's religious environment.
Mendales frequently receives calls from students at colleges that have a small or inactive Jewish population. Feeling a religious or spiritual void, these students are seeking ways to connect with other Jews. Mendales is able to assist some of these students. Some decide that the school which once seemed right for them no longer meets their needs and they transfer to a school with a stronger Jewish community.
Mendales cautions parents that college students will seek a level of Jewish involvement that fits their needs at the moment. Some previously involved students take a 'year off' from involvement with Judaism or Jewish friends as they explore other the opportunities that college offers. Some of these students eventually seek out traditional Jewish opportunities. Others find a way of being involved with their religion that is different from the way in which they were involved in high school. And some choose to be unaffiliated and assimilated.
No matter what the previous level of involvement with Jewish activities, there is no guarantee that a student will seek or create Jewish opportunities on campus. There are, however, things that parents can do to increase the likelihood that their college student will grow Jewishly as well as academically and socially.
What Parents Can Do:
Parents of high school students can create an environment that encourages their child to explore the quality of a school's Jewish life when they think about their college options. They should:
With so much to learn about a college and so much to see on a campus visit, families sometimes miss important indicators of Jewish life on campus. Families benefit from considering the following questions:
"I Really Like This School, But There Is Not A Strong Jewish Presence."
Rabi Lev Baesh of Temple Israel in Dover, New Hampshire, serves a Jewish chaplain and Hillel director at the University of New Hampshire. He believes that Jewish students who are most comfortable in schools with a minimal Jewish presence are those who have internalized their Judaism and have the strength and confidence to create their own experiences. Some students find a satisfying spiritual, if not religious, connection in interfaith activities.
Baesh advises students who are interested in attending a school with a small Jewish population, but for whom Jewish identity is important, to speak with a local rabbi and lay leader in order to assess the Jewish presence in the host community. The Dover synagogues, for example, offer free membership to University of New Hampshire students and hire some of them to teach in their religious schools. For students who are comfortably with younger or older people, this arrangement offers a way to be involved in the Jewish community beyond the campus.
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