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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:

  1. Encourage their high school student to seek a Jewish environment that will offer a range of options, knowing that one's needs and interests can change over time.
  2. Introduce their high school student to Jewish student websites and listserves. These sites encourage students to think about the level of Jewish involvement they might want during their college years, the types of Jewish activities and services colleges offer, issues of importance to Jewish students, and ways to evaluate the religious environment on campus.
  3. Encourage community groups such as Jewish Community Centers, USY, NFTY and Hebrew High Schools to present programs on selecting and preparing for college. These programs should offer advice on how to explore the range of Jewish experiences available to college students, ways to think about Jewish identity as a college student, and general information on how to select and apply to college.
What Families Want to Know:

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:

  1. What are the Jewish student groups on campus? Hillel? Chavurah? Jewish Students Union? Chabad? Do the groups work cooperatively? Do they support cultural and community action programs as well as religious programs?
  2. Does this school have a full scale Hillel Foundation? Is the school part of a regional Hillel? Has the national Hillel Foundation assigned a Jewish Campus Service Corps intern to this school?
  3. Is there an adequate population of Jewish students and faculty? Is the school part of a regional consortium of schools that share Jewish programming?
  4. Is there a commitment on the part of the school to support a Jewish presence? Are Jewish holidays noted on the academic calendar? Does the admissions director speak knowledgeably about Hillel's activities? Does Hillel have a permanent building and a full time professional staff? Is the Hillel director part of the college chaplaincy team?
  5. How are Jewish groups integrated into the life of the college? Do Jewish groups collaborate with other religious and cultural groups? Are there Jewish programs to which the entire school is invited? Do Jewish students bring their non-Jewish friends to sedars? Is there a campus wide Purim part? How many students attend?
  6. Is there a Jewish studies major or minor? How many courses are offered each semester? Is there a study in Israel program?
  7. What is the host community like? How many Jewish families live in the community? Do students attend services and holiday celebrations at local temples? Are students invited to holiday dinners by local families or faculty?

"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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