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Focus on Family Plane Tickets and a Tanach: Mom Copes As a Son Goes to College

August 12, 2002
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This year, back-to-school shopping for my son Zack includes the requisite binders, notebooks and new pair of sneakers. It also includes two sets of extra-long sheets, a Tanach and a plane ticket to the East Coast.

For this year, on Aug. 26, Zack is traveling from Southern California to the northwest corner of Massachusetts to spend the next four years at Williams College. My husband, Larry, and son Jeremy, 13, are accompanying him to school, helping him move into the dorm. “You mean we’re leaving him there?” Jeremy asks, incredulous.

Yes, we’ve all been so enmeshed in the process — choosing potential colleges; taking SAT I , SAT II and AP tests; waiting for the acceptance letters; making a final decision — that none of us has processed its significance.

The fact that Zack will never return home as a permanent resident; that our family will be altered in ways we cannot fathom; and that, despite his insistence that he’s not going to Williams to get away from us, Zack may elect to remain on the East Coast.

After 18 years of child-rearing — from changing diapers to enforcing curfews, from making thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to carpooling thousands of miles — I expected to be rejoicing at this partial glimpse of an empty nest. The fact that I sobbed through Zack’s entire high school graduation is a good indication I was mistaken.

The hard reality is that Zack, who seemingly just entered kindergarten, is an adult. He can legally vote, be drafted, serve on a jury and buy a lottery ticket. He can even marry. The hard reality is that, for the most part, his personality, values and habits are set. There is little more that Larry and I can do.

But I don’t worry about what kind of kid I’m sending out into the world. I’m confident that Zack, even though he doesn’t know the purpose of a clothes hamper or the concept of gracious capitulation, is affable and adaptable, motivated and moral. But, and maybe this is a post-Sept. 11 phenomenon, I do worry about what kind of world I’m sending him into.

And while I hope that Zack takes advantage of the many diverse cultural, political and social opportunities that Williams College and life on the East Coast offer, I also hope that he will continue to actively participate in Jewish life, to anchor him in these disturbing times and provide him with a caring and familiar community. Williams, for a rural liberal-arts college, has “a thriving Jewish life,” according to the college’s president, Morton Schapiro.

With the Jewish population remaining steady at slightly more than 10 percent, Williams supports a large Jewish Religious Center, built in 1990, and an active Jewish Association, which sponsors Shabbat dinners and services, lectures, and cultural and social events. It also sponsors the popular hamentashen/latke debate, held every Purim and attended by non-Jewish as well as Jewish students and staff. “The Jews now are much more committed than the Jews who used to come to Williams,” Schapiro says.

But what happens to those committed Jews during their four years at college? Will Zack take a vacation from Judaism, I wonder. Will he explore Buddhism? Or Wicca? “I don’t think so,” he says emphatically. “America’s Jewish Freshman,” a recently released UCLA study sponsored by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is the largest research project ever to examine the religious, political and personal beliefs of college-aged Jews.

Among other findings, the study found that Jewish college freshmen attend fewer religious services and feel less spiritual than their non-Jewish peers.

But it profiles those 18-year-olds who are entering their first year of college, and, according to Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel, there are no broad-based, longitudinal studies that address what happens during those four years at college. But, as Rubin reassuringly says, “The most important indicator of Jewish identity is whether or not the parents take Judaism seriously. If they do, eventually the children do as well.”

And 13 years of Jewish day school, other studies show, certainly can’t hurt. Nevertheless, I’m taking no chances. I’m sending Zack back to school with his tallit and a new Tanach. “And a compass,” Zack reminds me. The compass is his idea, evolving from a “Leaving Home” ceremony he created for his Jewish studies class this past year at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. A ritual that, sadly, Judaism does not yet provide at his critical juncture.

In Zack’s ceremony, the young adult renews the brit, or covenant between the Jewish people and God.

The parents then present the young adult with a special compass that always points East, toward Jerusalem, and recite the following blessing, which he composed: “As you go out into the world, remember that you are a Jew. You have special obligations, mitzvot, that others cannot always understand. There is a lot of evil out there; there are things that will make you ask very challenging questions. At times you may find yourself lost. When that happens, reach for you compass. It is always pointing towards the East, symbolic of the path to Jerusalem.”

Unfortunately, such a compass has not yet been invented. But Larry and I have improvised, presenting Zack with a normal compass that will always indicate which direction is East. It will also show him which direction is West, where his family and close friends live. And where, at the end of four years, we hope he will return.

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