Q: It is with fear and trepidation that I send my son off to college. He is prepared socially and academically. He has always been at Jewish day schools, and has not had a great deal of exposure to mainstream America. I am uncertain he will be able to resist the secular temptations, particularly around keeping kosher. How do we make keeping Kosher relevant to college students when they are entering a world which encourages inclusion?
A: This is one of the many sixty-four thousand dollar questions of the observant Jewish community. According to Allan Mazur of Syracuse University, (in his 2007 study “A Statistical Portrait of American Jews into the Twenty-First Century”) only 21 percent of American Jews keep kosher in the home. If less than a quarter of the Jewish population is keeping kosher, then it is clearly difficult to keep this tradition alive. If your child had not been keeping kosher his whole life, it would be unlikely that he would start now. Since your child has always kept kosher, it is more likely that he will continue to, particularly if he is surrounded by a community of others doing the same. If you have kept kosher at home, your child should know your expectations. He has the skills to keep kosher, hopefully he will have the will. In sum, being surrounded by others who keep kosher and being on a campus where keeping kosher is easy will enhance the chances of your child continuing this practice. You have laid the foundation, but as you know, he will begin to make decisions for himself, now.
Presumably, if maintaining Judaism at college is a priority for your son, he has done some research into the colleges and universities that are most accommodating. For example, Hillel International operates a website where you can search schools by name to find out information on their accommodations of Jewish life. This website includes information, if known, on keeping kosher, Jewish studies, holidays, and other events. Best colleges website not only maintains a ranking of schools, but also keeps a separate ranking of their Jewish life. Other websites rate Jewish life in less prestigious schools. If your son has already committed to a certain school, these resources may find you too late. I include this information here because it is important for parents whose kids are just applying to university.
Depending on where he is going to school, keeping kosher may be difficult or it may be easy. Many colleges have kosher kitchens, or the dining services are willing to accommodate religious needs during holidays where the student stays on-campus. You should encourage your student to join Hillel or its equivalent in order to find a cohort of others who keep kosher.
Some students deal with keeping kosher by becoming vegetarian or vegan at school. For the most religious, this is an unacceptable compromise, as the food has been cooked in a kitchen which also prepares non kosher meats, mixes milk and meat, and the food has not been prepared under the supervision of a rabbi. For others, becoming a vegetarian is a daily reminder of their heritage without calling attention to their religious practices. In fact, many college students become vegetarian at school, regardless of religious affiliation, simply because they don’t trust the quality of the meat served in the dining halls. This is in keeping with a nationwide trend of non-Jews opting for Kosher food because they believe it is healthier, tastier, and safer for strict vegetarians; and even for non-vegetarians, Kosher food is becoming a trend. For example, if you are a vegan, parve desserts may be perfect for you. Another group of students may forgo any meats that are not Kosher because they believe the animals are slaughtered more humanely under rabbinic supervision. All these reasons can help your students maintain century old laws, while still keeping up with the twenty first century trends.
Encourage your child to invite two friends to Shabbat dinner and ask each of them to invite another friend the following week. The dinner could be at a table in the cafeteria at a local restaurant; yeah, it doesn’t matter what matters is the camaraderie. Your child will find that building a community around them, who do a few ecumenical things like have a concert of Jewish and gospel music, will strengthen their opportunities to practice and engage meaningfully with their faith on campus, and for their adult lives. Even if your child’s friends are not Jewish, your child has the opportunity to exchange custom and culture with them. He may find that he interests more secular Jews in Judaism.
However, even if you child does not keep kosher in college, or as many children say, they are taking a “vacation” from Jewish practice, this does not mean when they actually set up their own home or think of having children, that they will not bring back the traditions they were brought up with. While we all wish that being Jewish would be a constant in our children’s lives and identities, in reality, many Jews go through periods of connection and disconnection. We may be disappointed with our children’s choices in college, however, they are not necessarily permanent. By maintaining good contact with your child as they move away from your home, you may reinforce, by practice rather than lecturing, what you taught them when they were growing up.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org