Connecting With Young People Away at College

A few weeks ago, we visited our 18-year-old daughter at American University as a part of Parents Weekend. Universities today spend a great deal of effort and money marketing to parents. Not just for Parents Weekend, but every week! There were numerous seminars on a host of topics including the recent presidential election, college life today as well as a couple of concerts. The president and his wife invited parents to a reception.

And Hillel invited us to Shabbat Dinner. I was very impressed. Of course due to work commitments, we weren’t able to arrive in Washington until late on Friday evening.

All of this caused me to think about how synagogue communities relate to young people away at college. This is a time for personal exploration and reflection for young people.  There is so much going on in terms of being away from home, roommates, new friends, lots of assigned reading and writing, newfound freedom during the middle of the day. How does being a part of a Sacred Community fit in?

I asked my daughter if she had gone to any programming at Hillel. She had attended a couple of welcome events during orientation week. But she didn’t really have a desire to go there on a regular basis. She has many friends from Camp Harlam attending universities throughout the Washington, DC area or who are living and working in Greater Washington. They have gathered as a community on a couple of Shabbats.

I am not really concerned about her Jewish connections. But she really wants to be connected with her synagogue that means a great deal to her.

Helping these young people be engaged Jewishly also has other dividends – mainly that their parents are happy that they are connected Jewishly. And this will in turn reinforce their connection to their synagogue community.

So how can synagogues connect with young people at college? When I was in college, my rabbi’s assistant called me on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving to ask me if I would chant the Kiddush at the College Students Shabbat Worship that evening. Needless to say, I am not sure that a special worship service is the best approach.

But inviting college students to a lunch with the rabbi or other staff on the Friday after Thanksgiving is a good idea. Being with old friends to share common experiences is a good thing. They will connect this opportunity with the synagogue and this is also very positive.

Technology is also another way to connect with college students in an on-going way. On going emails from clergy and staff to college students is one option. A bit “old school” in their eyes, but it does work. The use of blogs and tweets is also encouraged.

But there really is nothing that is as effective as personal contact. My friend, Rabbi Cliff Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ logs a lot of miles in his car each year to connect with college students from his synagogue, wherever they are. Check out this article that captures the essence of Cliff’s work with students.

But such interaction doesn’t have to be limited to clergy. Any outgoing adult will do. Synagogue board members and other congregants who travel for their work can easily help connect with college students.  Just be willing to take them out for a good meal in a decent restaurant. There is nothing college students appreciate more than a good meal and not having to eat at the cafeteria.

And a connection to home.

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