A few weeks ago, my husband and I took our son, Ian, to Penn State University where he is beginning his freshman year.
By the time we drove away from State College, the van was 100 pounds lighter (maybe 260 pounds lighter if you include Ian.) My fabulous, funny, kind-hearted son stood there waving at us in his J Crew khaki shorts and polo shirt, as prepared for college as he was for elementary school when he went off freshly scrubbed, front teeth missing and a new L.L. Bean book bag slung across his back.
Ian has left the town of Sharon, Mass., with its large number of Jews for a huge university that has approximately 10 percent Jewish undergraduates. Will Ian feel isolated among so many non-Jewish students or will this increase his pride in his Jewish faith?
Weeks later, this is what I keep wondering: Did I instill a sense of Judaism in Ian so strong that it will remain a concrete part of him during these hectic, amazing college years? Did I do enough?
My husband and I tried to give Ian solid Jewish roots and a connection to his heritage. Certain things we got right. Our holidays were filled with family, friends and love. Ian attended a Jewish camp and took a six-week trip to Israel. I shared stories of our family’s history and their Jewish experiences.
During our car rides together, I spun tales from the Torah, bringing them to life as best I could. (One of his religious school teachers actually called to tell me that Ian was the only second-grader who could explain the story of Esther.)
Other things, we could have done better. We should have had more family Shabbat dinners and attended temple more often. Although Ian was Bar Mitzvahed, he did not go on to Hebrew high school. Should I have done more to push him in these Jewish directions? And if I didn’t do enough, is it too late for Ian to develop a deeper sense of Judaism that will sustain him during the college years and after?
You may have heard a strange, screeching sound toward the end of August. That was the collective wail of all the Jewish mothers across the country with freshmen children: “Join the Hillel! For the love of God! At least check it out!”
I admit, I joined in that chorus. Our eldest, Alexis, was always much more involved in Jewish activities and talked about joining Hillel even before she started college.
I hope that Ian joins Penn State Hillel and takes advantage of the many Jewish clubs and more than 80 Jewish courses offered by the university. (Of course, what I ultimately wish for my son is that he grows up to marry a Jewish girl from a lovely family who makes matzah balls so light they dance around the table like fireflies.)
But first things first. Now that Ian is at college, I can suggest and advise, but I can’t force him. I am now a parent/consultant and not a parent/nag. His wish for Jewish involvement and desire to maintain his Jewish identity needs to come from him, for, ultimately, each of us must take ownership of our relationship with God.
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
It is this “forever-ness” that I hope my son maintains at college. I want Ian to respect others, respect himself and respect his Jewish self by remembering the importance of compassion, charity, honesty and a sense of community. He will figure out how to navigate college as a student who not only is Jewish but feels Jewish.
Through the clubs he was involved in at high school and the volunteer work he did in Israel, Ian knows well the importance of tzedek (working toward social justice) and tikkun olam (trying to repair the world.) There is plenty of opportunity for Ian to get involved with activities that aren’t necessarily “Jewish” but affirm the precepts of our faith.
During the Jewish holidays, Ian called to tell me how much he missed being with the family — sitting around the table talking and laughing, lighting the candles, saying the blessings. He especially missed the brisket. I felt his absence keenly but was glad that he pined for our celebration. Am I shallow to grasp at these straws or should I be grateful for every little sign that Ian values his Jewishness?
So as my son adjusts to the chaotic and sometimes overwhelming nature of freshman year, I continue to wonder: Did I do enough to build the proper foundation when I had the chance? Will Ian stay true to his faith and values? I certainly hope so.
At least I know he missed the brisket.
Laura Deutsch is a writer who lives in Sharon, Mass. She can be reached at email@example.com