Friday, October 07, 2022

Editor's Note: In Wallace Greene's article "How to Safeguard Children Jewishly While They Are Away at College," published May 7, 2015, several paragraphs appeared in the article without attribution that should have been credited to Rabbi Hershey Novack. These paragraphs were carried by JTA and appeared in the Jewish Journal on August 24, 2011 and eJewishPhilanthropy on September 4, 2011. The Jewish Link deeply regrets the error. The paragraphs have been removed.


By now, high school seniors have made their college decisions. For many the year after high school will be spent in Israel. (This will merit its own article.) Many of our yeshiva high school graduates will end up on a secular college campus, even after a year in Israel. Most college campuses, from the Ivy League to state schools, share one thing in common with our general open society. There is very little in the college experience itself that supports a Jewish value system. In fact, the challenges to a Jewish lifestyle and value system are often hard for many to resist. Hillel, Chabad, JLIC, and other groups do yeoman work, but the pull of binge drinking, promiscuity, interfaith dating, drugs, activities on Shabbat, sports, coed dorms, fraternities, “fitting in,” campus activities, etc. is very strong.

Fortunately our day schools are doing a great job, especially for those who continue on through high school. Today there is more formal and informal Jewish education taking place than at any other time in our history. According to the recent Pew survey, even though 10 percent of Jewry identifies as Orthodox, only 14 to 17 percent of Jewry surveyed say they were raised Orthodox. That suggests a rather large attrition rate. However, among those ages 50–64 who were raised Orthodox, 41 percent are still Orthodox. In stark contrast, 83 percent of Jewish adults under 30 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox.

Studies show consistently that those with a Jewish day school education—in particular through high school, which is still a very small minority of American Jews—are more Jewishly involved on virtually every criterion we can measure. The NJPS identifies day-school alumni as being more likely to be inmarried, more ritually observant, more likely to be synagogue members, more attached to Israel, and more likely to rate “being Jewish” as very important in their lives than non-day-school attendees. Other studies have similar findings. It should be noted that informal education—Jewish camping, youth group participation, and trips to Israel—also shows a strong impact on later adult Jewish identity. Yet we ought not to feel too triumphant.

We are correct to emphasize academic success. We need Jewishly informed and committed professors, doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, engineers, teachers, social workers, businessmen/women, artists, writers, etc. College is a formative time for students, especially at an out-of-town campus. They are on their own, exposed to new ideas, new people from many different backgrounds, and free from all parental control. There are no rebbi figures, madrichot, or other role models to counterbalance the values that permeate so much of the free time that they have. College is also a formative time for students’ Jewish identities.

A wise person once said that a child’s Jewish education begins 20 years before it is born. Parents’ religious outlook and consistent behavior patterns that have been shaped and molded while they were growing up are fairly reliable determinants of their children’s religious outlook and behavior, especially if they marry a spouse with a similar perspective.

Before children head off to college, parents often engage their children in various coming-of-age discussions. It is critical for parents to have a similar conversation about their Jewish values and observances. A discussion in which they articulate their expectations and hopes, which are too often left implicit. Without a doubt, this conversation carries more weight when parents “walk the talk,” by role modeling a Jewish life.

Universities have evolved to become more inclusive in the services they offer to students—whether from a psychological or career counselor, resident advisor, or even a campus rabbi. Instead of only supervising a university’s kosher food or facilitating prayer services, campus Jewish groups have broadened their reach to serve as much of the Jewish student community as possible. Far from being a place of refuge for a committed few Jewish students, these organizations have developed programs to reach out to all those seeking meaning in their Judaism.

Despite all of the good things going on Jewishly on many campuses, and despite the desire of high school graduates to be on their own (especially after a year in Israel) there is danger and temptation at out-of-town colleges, and parents still need to be parents. A long as mom and dad are still paying the bills they have a say in where their tuition money is spent. There are many, many excellent colleges and universities in the NY/NJ metropolitan area allowing students to be home for Shabbat and holidays. This may be an unpopular point of view, and not all who go to an out-of-town college are corrupted, but we ought not to put a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14).

Seventeen and eighteen-year-olds are old enough to marry, go to war, drive, and vote. They will be out of the house soon enough. However, the investment in 12 years of Jewish schooling and upbringing needs to be protected, fortified, and preserved. The real test of our Jewishness is how Jewish our grandchildren will be, and the seeds for that germinate in the college years.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He has taught children, teens, and adults. He was a college professor, day-school principal, and director of two central agencies for Jewish education, including our own community’s Jewish Educational Services for over a decade. He is the founder of the Sinai School, and has received many prestigious awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lifshitz College of Education in Jerusalem and The World Council on Torah Judaism. He is currently a consultant to schools, non-profit organizations, and The International March of The Living. He can be reached at [email protected]

By Wallace Greene

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