Choosing in the Wild World: Thoughts on Jewish teens’ college choice

Recently, Rabbi Felipe Goodman, in the Times of Israel blog ( ), recounted the college search that he and his son engaged in before deciding that the teen would go to Purdue University after a gap year in Israel on the Conservative Movement’s NATIV program. Rabbi Goodman shared with TOI readers advice from his own experience as a father of a pre-collegiate. Living in Israel I don’t share this experience. My oldest is completing her first year of Israeli National Service working in a pre-school for autistic children and will continue for a second year in a similar volunteer capacity. In a year, her college choices will be limited to those in Israel with all the cultural uniqueness of Israeli universities. However, I have been working with students in high school, gap year, and college for almost two decades and have some insight into their experiences. In my role at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, I, along with other faculty, visit alumni on many campuses annually and have a fair understanding of what is happening.

I appreciate Rabbi Goodman’s advice. If, however, the Jewish communal goal is not only a B.A. but a vibrant Jewish communal future, I would slightly revise his list of priorities.  American campus life and culture present difficult challenges. As religious leaders, it is critical for us to support our students not only surviving religiously, but also growing spiritually. The social dynamic in American colleges is extremely complex for students who want to leave after four years Jewishly connected. I have previously written on the topic of how high schools and the entire community can help in this endeavor:,com_docman/task,doc_view/gid,951/ While Jewish colleges such as Y.U. / Stern, List, or others (even in Israel) are probably best suited to enable religious growth, they are not for everyone and will not be the ultimate choice for most Jewish students. With that in mind, I would like to suggest the following priorities for engaged Jewish families in selecting an American undergraduate college.

First, choose colleges with vibrant Jewish communities, small or large, and with a supportive religious environment. This must include either an on campus kosher meal plan or easily accessible kosher food around campus. If kosher food is available, then the odds of a student keeping kosher and socializing with like minded students is very high. Daily minyan and obviously complete Shabbat services either as part of Hillel or close by off campus. If a student goes to morning minyan then he or she will most likely eat breakfast which we all know is the most important meal of the day – not only for physical health, but also spiritual. The only other college students eating at that time are members of crew or swim teams. If a student attends morning services and eats with the others who attended, an automatic social network forms. Even if the student is not at present religiously inclined, access to services, and this goes without saying Shabbat services is critical. Torah classes either daily or weekly are a must as well. Placing students in environments without these three things (kosher food, prayer services, and Torah) is simply disabling them from participation in critical aspects of Jewish life.

Second, choose universities with strong religious leadership. This can come as part of Hillel, the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC of the OU – disclaimer, my wife and I helped pioneer this program), Chabad, or other programs. I realize that outside of Hillel this list is weighted to Orthodox programs. Unfortunately, despite the increase of JLIC (to over 25 campuses) and Chabad everywhere, as far as I can gather from their websites, the Reform and Conservative movements lag far behind in this area. With a close connection to religious leadership, students can grow religiously in ways they had never dreamed of before college.

Third, I agree with Rabbi Goodman, that ultimately it has to be the student’s decision and parents can only play an advisory role. I have seen parents micro-manage their son or daughter’s college choice only for the student to feel uncomfortable and ultimately rebel from the choice. However, for most the period of college to be one of Jewish religious growth, in general, the number of universities needs to be limited. After a basic screening process based on some of the pieces I’ve mentioned above, students should choose on their own. Academics at most respected universities are solid and studies document that undergraduate choice has been overrated in both subsequent financial success as well as graduate school acceptance rates. What can’t be underestimated is the impact these four years can have spiritually. Many students meet their future spouse in college. Those colleges with vibrant Jewish communities and influential leadership can impact later life decisions in a critical manner.

Fourth, as Rabbi Goodman said, taking a Gap year in an appropriate religious environment preferably in Israel can impact socially in numerous ways. Not only does the gap year enable immersion in Judaism, Jewish texts, and Israeli culture, but the year also creates a social network which will stay with students for years to come. I speak with students during college and way beyond when they are working adults whose closest friendships are with those students with whom they spent the year in Israel. Love for Israel, Judaism, and fellow Jews is powerfully fostered in this brief time.

Lastly, part of parenting is learning to let go. Worrying and praying for the best are a major of parenting. But in the end, we have to give our children tools for the future, a direction, and then let them take it.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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