The call came on a Sunday afternoon.
Adi needed help with her daughter who had been encouraged to attend a small college in Massachusetts. Adi and her daughter, Michal, trusted the advice of their Orthodox day school’s non-Jewish college counselors. They assumed the universities introduced to them would be ones that had other Jewish students, a group of peers with whom Michal could relate, maybe share a cab to BU’s Hillel for the holidays. They didn’t think they needed to ask or to do the research themselves – these colleges were condoned by their Orthodox high school.
Within a month of attending Suffolk University, Michal knew she had made a terrible mistake. She described to me how much she missed her family and the South Florida weather. Ultimately, she missed what was familiar: attending synagogue, friends that understood the challenges of kashrut, teachers that extended due dates because of the holidays.
Michal had told her college counselor that she did not totally keep kosher or Shabbat, and that her Jewish identity played a minor role in her college search. Excited to introduce new colleges to their school profile, her counselor proposed Suffolk. Michal and Adi took a campus tour and indeed it was quaint and friendly, and as a prospective student, Michal was admissible. They didn’t delve any deeper.
In my numerous conversations with Michal and Adi, and after reviewing Michal’s transfer college essays, I understood what happened on a deeper level.
Heads of school feel the pressure to entice prospective families with an impressive list of college admissions on their school profile. Orthodox schools pride themselves in hiring college guidance counselors from outside their communities. They are brought in with much fanfare and the expectation that they will get more students into top tier colleges. These highly talented professionals are given minimal parameters to help students create their college lists.
But let’s stop for a minute and process this: Families may want their children admitted to an impressive list of colleges, but do they want those very colleges to cause their children to seriously question the very religious education upon which they were raised?
As a college counselor with experience in five Orthodox high schools, I can attest to being on the front lines many times. We need to put the Mission back in Admissions. College counselors must be mission-aligned – they must infuse the goals of their high school into the college plan. College guidance counselors must consider whether a university will not only offer an excellent education, but also appropriately accommodate a student’s religious interests, including spiritual maturity.
There are plenty of students who come into my office saying they want to be in a diverse population, expand their horizons, and attend a huge school.
I say ‘Fantastic! Great. Let’s do it!’
And then I begin with the tough questions: “Do you keep kosher, and to what extent? How would you feel if your Jewish fraternity tailgated to the homecoming game on Yom Kippur? Do you hope to date other Jewish students?”
I don’t have a problem with students who aren’t interested in celebrating Shabbat every week, but you better believe I will make sure they attend a school that offers a viable Shabbat experience for when they want it, because I know that sometimes they will. They will get homesick and they will miss what is familiar. As the college counselor, I will make sure they have their fundamental needs met when they need a break from testing the boundaries. Chabad, Hillel or JLIC will be vibrant components of the schools I recommend. I will work to make sure they get the whole package, including the Jewish support and familiarity they need to be successful.
Parents have invested so much in their children’s Jewish education.
It’s our job to make sure that investment endures along the first major journey of independence. Our children’s future – their sustainability as members of the modern Orthodox community – depends on it.
Noa Bejar has served as a college counselor in Orthodox yeshiva high schools for close to ten years.