Hillel has built some stunning buildings. Will your teen walk in the door?
What is the college campus like today?
How does it differ from when you attended and what new challenges will your Jewish teen face once there?
We know from several research studies that affiliation rates are on the decline, particularly among young Jewish adults. In addition, Jewish teens and young adults are feeling less of a need in college to differentiate themselves from their peers.
For sure, some students gain even greater connections to Judaism and Jewish practice once in college, but that is not the norm, even with the kick-start of a Birthright trip.
The Jewish community is rightfully concerned.
Here are some things to think about:
1. Having a Hillel on campus is not a guarantee of a Jewish connection. Hillel has made great strides in the way they reach out to students, but making sure that your teen wants that connection is the concern. Through a strategy focused on relationship building, Hillel-sponsored interns reach out to their peers and engage them in participating and taking ownership of their Jewish journey. It has greater potential than anything I’ve heard in a while, but of course holds no guarantees.
2. Chabad also reaches out to students through a variety of programming, mostly focused on Shabbat experiences and learning sessions. But often that connection needs to be student-initiated.
3. On campus, just because an activity is “Jewish” doesn’t mean that participation by your teen will be a given. Jewish college students I’ve interacted with sometimes labeled those who were highly involved with Hillel as people they wouldn’t ‘hang out with’. Others described students who aggressively pursued Jewish social activities as “superJews”.
4. Many groups compete for your teen’s attention, and some of those groups represent other faiths. Peer pressure is stronger on campus than you’d imagine, students tend to ‘go with the flow’, especially in the early years of college. If the activity is perceived as ‘cool’, students are more likely to attend functions sponsored by other faith groups.
5. Colleges are becoming less ‘religion-friendly’, not more. It’s a challenge for Jewish students to take time off for holiday observances, and colleges that used to have days off to accommodate are stopping that practice in favor of being more fair to all religions. This is especially difficult in the fall, when most Jewish holidays occur, and students are just beginning classes. During other holidays, when students are less likely to travel home, finding a Jewish community experience may be just as hard.
So, what is one message you might take from this?
Don’t wait until your teen gets on the college campus in order to ‘do’ Jewish.
From what we know, chances are not great that a Jewish connection will suddenly flower.
Instead, make sure that Jewish education continues after Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the typical drop-off point.
Make sure they’re involved in Jewish learning during the high school years, the precise time when questions about identity, God, and belief tend to occur, so they’re ready for some of the challenges ahead.