Alongside the usual concerns about academic success, laundry and the massive cost, Jewish families also contend with issues of assimilation, anti-Zionism and even anti-Semitism.
After decades of normalization, Jews have, in recent years, become magnets for campus controversy. Sometimes the disagreements are inter-tribal, so to speak; for instance, the rift between Hillel and Open Hillel. Other times the controversy can be very isolating for Jewish students, such as when anti-Israel sentiment spills over into anti-Semitism.
There’s a lot at stake in college. It’s where a young person forms lasting friendships, grapples with a worldview and can potentially rack up bills totaling a quarter of a million dollars. Thus it’s a crucial time for young people, as well as an anxiety creator for their parents — especially given the Jewish emphasis on education as a path to success.
The Forward spoke to parents with college-age children and with children approaching college age to get some insight into their concerns.
Of course the first thing to note is that Jewish parents worry about the same stuff as everyone else. “My primary concern is that she get a quality education,” said Rob Stolzman, a Providence, Rhode Island, lawyer whose daughter, Nora Stolzman will be attending Boston University next year. “I want her to find it academically and socially stimulating.”
When the Stolzmans were looking at colleges, safety was also an issue.
“We weren’t overly focused on it, but we were cognizant of campus safety policies — housing safety, safety in the communities around the school, Internet safety. We found that campus safety was proactively discussed at Boston University.”
Stolzman, who describes his family as “active and moderately observant,” does not see Judaism as a particular concern.
“Nora isn’t focused on organized Jewish activities like Hillel,” Stolzman said. “She’s really interested in diversity, in seeing socioeconomic, ethnic and religious diversity on campus. And maybe I’m naive, but I’m not concerned about anti-Semitism in college.”
Stolzman’s confidence was echoed by many parents. But some parents were surprised by how Judaism can become one of a number of complicating factors.
Melinda Koss of New City, New York, is the daughter of a Reform rabbi. Her daughter Mara Koss is a freshman at McGill University, in Quebec. Mara, who is interested in French studies, chose McGill for both its academic rigor and its location in a francophone province.
“We had almost no worries with Mara, no fears or concerns,” Koss said. “You miss them, of course. But I knew that she had picked her school well. The bulk of her friends are not Jewish, but they are very respectful of her Judaism.” However, being American and Jewish at a Canadian university does create some hassles.
“Their vacation schedules are different. She’s not coming home for Thanksgiving. Our Columbus Day is their Thanksgiving. She can’t come home for Jewish holidays, especially when they occur five minutes after the semester starts.”
Koss has particular concerns for her middle daughter, Sabrina, a junior in high school.
“We’re looking at schools for her, and she’s a gay, Jewish vegetarian,” Koss said. “These are three big things that we have to take into account. There are certain schools where she just wouldn’t be comfortable because of any of those factors. And I want her in an environment where she can be comfortable.”
One issue that came up for many parents was the strong anti-Israel sentiment prevalent on American campuses. But some parents were less concerned about it spilling over into anti-Semitism than they were about the emotional tenor of such debates leading their children away from an informed opinion.
Rob Stolzman stressed that he wanted his daughter “to come to her own conclusions. When you hear words like ‘apartheid,’ that’s very disturbing to me. I do have the concern that she might be influenced by information that might be unbalanced.”
Racelle Rosett, a Los Angeles-based writer, expressed similar thoughts about her son, David Schaefer, who is a high school senior waiting to hear from colleges.
“There is a strong anti-Israeli sentiment on campuses,” Rosett said. “But more than anything, I hope we have raised our son to be a critical thinker, to develop context for this moment in history and his place in it. I have introduced him to what I consider the cultural ambassadors for Israel, Etgar Keret, David Grossman, writers and filmmakers so that Israeli culture is not defined for him by American media. These are complex questions for adults to wrestle with, so it has made me step up my game in terms of my own education so that I’m ready when he comes home to argue over dinner at winter break.”
Rosett then expressed the worries of any mother: “That he find his community and be engaged and happy. That he remember to eat enough!”
Another complicating issue for Jewish parents is geography: Given the connections between Israel and North America, sometimes the distance between parent and child can be vast.
Renee Ghert-Zand is a journalist for The Times of Israel (and a Forward contributor) who made aliyah last June. Her eldest son, Amitai, is currently a junior at the University of Toronto.
“It’s hard to be so far away,” Ghert-Zand said. “But we have relatives in Toronto, and technology makes it easier. I used to come to Israel every summer by myself. I called home once every three weeks. Now my kids can be in North America and I can be in Israel, and we can Skype whenever we want.”
Ghert-Zand was more concerned about her son getting “lost in the crowd. University of Toronto is the largest public university in North America. Amitai is an independent, resourceful young person. But not every kid can handle that.”
Israel can be a flashpoint on Canadian campuses as well. Ghert-Zand noted that “there were a lot of anti-Israel protests” during the Gaza conflict. She takes pride in the fact that Amitai is tackling such difficult issues by training to be a facilitator in Hillel International’s “Ask Big Questions” initiative.
So this does seem to be a particularly trying time for Jewish parents and their children. Jewish students are forced, in some way, to confront the raging campus debates about Israel, no matter what their politics, or whether they want to or not.
It was encouraging, however, that while every parent mentioned wanting his or her children to remain involved in Judaism, this was expressed more in terms of hope than in concern.
Melinda Koss said that “as a Jewish parent, I’d absolutely like my daughter to be involved Jewishly in college. But the upbringing was more important. If you bring a kid up with a sense of who they are, it’s not going to magically go away.”
Similarly, Ghert-Zand said, “If you raise your kids to have a strong Jewish identity, they’ll have enough of a basis to build their own Jewish life on campus. If you’re only starting to worry about their Jewish identity when they’re applying to college, it’s too late.”
Gordon Haber is a regular contributor to the Forward. His first novel, With Perfect Faith: a Novel of the End Times, will be published by Fig Tree Books in 2015.