“Since when do you eat dairy out?” I asked my supposedly strictly kosher friend, as she took a bite of my unkosher pizza. She shushed me with a frightened look and pointed to her phone silently mouthing “parents”. I thought nothing of it, assuming she asked me to be quiet while she was on the phone. But then when she hung up the phone she said, “sorry I shushed you, I didn’t want my parents to hear”. “Hear what?” I asked clearly confused. “That I eat dairy out of course”.
Parents are well aware (I really hope this isn’t a rude awakening) that their kids are not just studying in college. In addition to studying we might be drinking, partying, dating or involved in a myriad of other activities, that to be frank, we probably aren’t telling you about. Yet it comes as a surprise to many parents that in college, students choose to connect to their Jewish identity in ways that differ from how they were raised. When they get to campus, those who grew up in observant households may choose to attend Jewish social functions and disregard religious practice. Conversely, those who grew up in secular homes may choose to become more observant.
Whether becoming more or less observant, students often have something in common: they are keeping these changes a secret from their parents. And why wouldn’t they? Our home communities (and unfortunately our communities in college) have created a culture of shame, impeding our ability to feel comfortable changing how we connect to our Jewish identity.
The proof is in the negative terms often heard on college campuses. Those who are becoming more observant are said to be “flipping out”, while students who are becoming less observant are “falling off the derech”.These aren’t attitudes that appeared overnight on the college scene. They were taught at home and brought to school. Communities use offensive terms like these because they feel threatened that the values they taught may be neglected. Some communities worry that a failure to observe all of Jewish law strictly will lead to an unhealthy level of assimilation, while other communities look at stricter observance of halacha as a holier than thou slap in the face.
Paradoxically, it is the rigidity of the values of our parents and communities that leads students to abandon Jewish life. Parents push their children away from Judaism by being unreceptive to how their children’s connection to Judaism may be different from their own. I see this at Boston University when students who are “flipping out” or “falling off the derech” suddenly disappear from Hillel. It’s not because they weren’t finding what they needed at Hillel; on the contrary, it’s because balancing the expectations of their parents with the desires of their personal identity becomes overbearing.
Instead of keeping your kids feelings about their Jewish identity in the closet, encourage an open and honest conversation before they come to college. Prepare to hear that your child may feel differently than you about Jewish practice. College is a time when we are solidifying our identities, and being able to openly and honestly discuss our Jewish identity with our parents leads to a stronger connection to Judaism, even if it’s not the type of connection our parents would have envisioned. Students, seeking to be Jewish in their own way are not turning away from their roots, whatever they were, but making a stronger commitment to Judaism by confirming their beliefs with their own practices.