The Empty Nesters

What Happens When Jewish Moms Send Kids Away to School?

By Molly Ritvo

Published August 19, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
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What worries and expectations do Jewish parents face when sending their kids to college? Molly Ritvo polled parents and found that some valued schools with large Jewish populations and active Hillels, while others felt confident that their budding scholars’ Jewish upbringing would set the tone for their college lives. Unsurprisingly, most parents want college-bound sons and daughters to celebrate holidays, engage in Jewish campus activities, meet Jewish friends and maybe even find a Jewish spouse.

What expectations do you have for your children to live Jewishly at college?

Susan L: I expected them to honor the holidays and speak up for Judaism and Israel. Beyond that, I left it up to them.

Sharon: We hoped our son Alex would connect with Hillel at the University of Vermont for at least holiday observances and the occasional Shabbat. Equally important to me was that he develop a circle of Jewish friends and, yes, meet young women. My husband and I met at a small college during a Hillel event. We were married seven years later!

Jan: I had wishes for them to live Jewishly at school, but no expectations. Neither of our sons identify as being Jewishly engaged, [which is] something that I hope will change as they grow older and create families.

Susan R: We kept our expectations low. Our older kids took no interest in their universities’ Hillels. Not even for the High Holidays. I was extremely disappointed. I wanted them to meet Jewish students and get involved Jewishly on campus.

Did your kids choose a college with robust Jewish life? Was that important to you and to your family?

Lani: My kids will not [and] did not choose a college based on robust Jewish life. It’s important, but there are other selection criteria for college that are more important.

Sharon: The active Hillel was an added benefit when our son chose to attend the University of Vermont. He grew up with a close-knit and small Jewish community, an active USY [United Synagogue Youth], and our family observed holidays. We hoped he would continue to seek this out.

Susan R: One daughter attended High Holidays, several Shabbat dinners and a smattering of other activities at UVM’s [University of Vermont’s] Hillel. She was approached by someone on the board to run for the Hillel treasurer and filled that position for two years, and was then encouraged to run for president, which she will fulfill this fall. My husband and I are thrilled. She has met wonderful people at Hillel.

Diane: My kids had a very solid Jewish base in high school through Young Judea and had attended Jewish camps and had spent a summer in Israel, so I was not concerned whether they would maintain their Jewish identity in college. They both picked Brown University in part because it has a large Jewish population. They joined the Jewish fraternity on campus (Alpha Epsilon Pi). My older son kept kosher most of his college years.

Deb: This is a time when she is exploring many other activities, so if Jewish practice takes a back seat that is fine with me.

Joan: Olivia did not choose UVM for its Jewish life. She was attracted to the plethora of outdoor activities in Burlington, the students and the eco-friendly green campus. She later transferred to Indiana University for their journalism program. There is a much higher ratio of Jewish students at Indiana. She gravitates toward Jewish friends.

What were your worries or anxieties upon sending your kids away to college?

Sharon: Our concerns ranged from the day-to-day things such as managing regular meals, health care and laundry to the larger issues of peer pressure and academic stress.

Joan: When my daughter left for UVM from San Diego, I worried about who her roommate would be. Would she have similar values? Coming from Southern California, I worried about her being homesick and her adjustment to the cold winters in Vermont.

Diane: I worried whether my kids would be happy and find a solid group of friends. I worried whether they would drink too much or use drugs. I had high expectations that they would be more involved in Judaism than I was.

What concerns do Jewish parents face that parents of other faiths might not?

Joan: Members of other faiths challenge fundamental Jewish beliefs. Anti-Jewish activity on some campuses adds to the ambivalence many students feel about their own Judaism. Israel Independence Day celebrations are disrupted by fellow students questioning Israel’s right to exist.

Lani: I want my kids to have some relationship with Israel — their family is there and they will need to take a stand at some point in their lives, so I want them to be well-informed and have a humanistic, comprehensive view of the complicated situation there. I want them to be proud to be Jewish, and be able to stand up for that when necessary.

What types of Jewish experiences do you hope your kid will have in college and beyond?

Lani: I hope they find wonderful Jewish friends. I think if my kids look for the supportive and progressive community, the Jewish component of that will not be far away.

Deb: I hope they connect with other Jewish kids and find that they enjoy being a part of a Jewish community and that they are proud of their Jewish identity.

Jan: I hold out a bit of hope that my youngest will find someone Jewish to marry, though I care more about him creating a bit of Jewish identity in his children than who he might marry. That is the reality of our lives here in America.

Molly Ritvo is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vt.


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