Setting students up for successful Jewish life on campus

Ida Crown Grads image
Academy students join an impromptu kumzitz (musical gathering) after a morning of celebration and dancing on Yom HaAtzmaut. Israel programming at school is one of the most essential aspects of instilling in the students a lifelong connection to Israel.

 Four years away from home! For some, it's a dream come true. For others, a frightening rite of passage. But for every young adult, it is transformative.  Because there is something about that first time a young adult is away from home, at just the right age, in a diverse environment of the highest level of thinking that makes the college years unlike any other. Perhaps this is because there is no other period of time when one is immersed in so many new ideas, experiences, and opinions. And once those thoughts take root, they rarely change. For the path toward who we are, who we marry, who we vote for, and what we are passionate about so often begins in college.

For the Jewish community and for the sake of our Jewish future, this means that we have a short window of opportunity to ensure that our college students one day take their place in our collective Jewish story. To us as educators and Jewish leaders, the challenge of ensuring that our Jewish future is bright has perhaps never been greater. On many of our nation's most prestigious campuses, our young people face hostility against Israel, divestment campaigns, and Israel as an apartheid debates, yet they are rarely equipped with answers. These are ideas that so many of our Jewish youth, raised in the comfort of their suburban communities, have never even considered. And yet, they are forced to answer on behalf of the Jewish State, remain silent, or worse, oppose her. 

But even more, Jews on campus are also often left for the very first time to decide for themselves whether or not they will observe the holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are often in the first week of classes!), whether they will keep kosher, observe Shabbat, or connect with a minyan (quorum of 10). 

In my own Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, where I serve as dean, we strive for four years (plus at least one additional intensive year of study in Israel) to provide our students with the strongest possible background of Torah knowledge. We dedicate each day to strengthening our students' love for Judaism, commitment to community, and dedication to Israel. Our seniors spend a full semester course learning to advocate for Israel on campus. And we organize Israel programming, Shabbatonim, and experiential Jewish learning to light a fire for Judaism in the hearts and souls of our students. 

And finally, when our upperclassmen begin the college application process, we encourage them to take four steps to prepare themselves for four years of Jewish growth and commitment on campus. If all of our young Jewish people considered these four steps, perhaps the challenges facing Jewish students on campus would not be quite as great.  

 1. Choose a college with a thriving Jewish campus life. For us, that means a campus with kosher food, daily services, opportunities for Torah learning, and housing which encourage Sabbath and holiday observance. To assist our students, we even rate schools not only by their academic standing, but according to the quality of Jewish life on campus. But for any Jewish student, it is important to choose a school with a significant percentage of Jews on campus, Jewish activities, and holiday services. Even if this isn't a priority at the time of applying, leave the opportunity for Jewish connection open.

 2. Find a Jewish mentor. Following the advice of our sages, who taught "assay l'cha rav u'knay l'cha chaver" (establish for yourself a rabbi and engage a friend), make sure that once on campus you seek out a Jewish professional, professor, campus rabbi, or even an older student who can advise you on Jewish matters. You'll stay more connected if someone is looking out for you and have a sounding board for any matters that may arise regarding Israel and Jewish life on campus. Or as this year's Israel Prize recipient (and former ICJA student) Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein once told our parents-that the only way he felt prepared to attend Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in English literature, was the fact that he was able to study on a regular basis with his mentor, Rabbi Joseph
B. Soloveitchik.

 3. Get involved in Jewish cultural opportunities. Every campus with a thriving Jewish life has Jewish music, art, clubs, and trips galore-all accessible to Jewish students. No doubt you'll experience hundreds of social and cultural experiences in four years of college. Make sure to seek Jewish opportunities. Not only to stay connected with Jewish students on campus, but to create the life-long Jewish friendships that will define your life (and maybe even to meet your b'shert!).

4. Make sure to find the Hillel, the Chabad, or whatever Jewish student organization is on campus. Because it's important to "do Jewish" rather than just "be Jewish." So get involved and help. Get involved and make a difference. Get involved and build community. 

 Rabbi Dr. Leonard A. Matanky is dean of Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, rabbi of Congregation KINS, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and co-chair of JUF's Rabbinic Action Committee.



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