Ruth Nemzoff

Question: College acceptances are rolling in, and I realize that I have about six months to “vaccinate” my child for what they will encounter at college. Hopefully, I have done a good job so far discussing sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. However, I read in the newspaper that I better start discussing controversial global and Jewish issues. We have brought our kids up with their obligation to repair the world, ​tikkun olam. ​I am now wondering: When does tikkun olam become supercilious?

Answer: To answer this question, I have turned to a Jewish student on the Brandeis campus. Admittedly, every college is somewhat unique. Life for Jewish students on campuses where they are in the minority may be quite different from those where there is a significant population of Jews, and size of the school and geographic location also matter. This does not mean that students are not all engaged in issues such as BDS, interracial dialogue, and denominational differences — as well as grappling with secular issues such as immigration and #MeToo. The makeup of Jewish students on a campus affects ​how ​these issues are discussed. 

BDS, the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, is the first thing many parents think of when anxiously preparing to send their “babies” away. While some kids have been engaging in pro-Israel programming their whole lives, and may have even gone on Israel trips sponsored by Jewish organizations, others know nothing about Israel except what they read online. I encourage you to discuss Israel openly with your kids. Sit them down and really talk about Israel: its history, its politics, its accomplishments, its failures. Let them know that you, too, have had to become educated on the complex subject, and that it is better to ask questions than to form opinions offhand.

On a college campus, there is often pressure to quickly state a radical view or agree with peers on complicated political situations, whether national or global. Teach your kids that questioning is essential and that once they admit confusion, many peers might too. In most cases, the person who claims to have “all the answers” is not entirely correct! 

No one will have all the answers about Black/Jewish relations either. On college campuses, students are often trying to figure out their place in the world relative to others. For Jewish students, these questions — are Ashkenazim white? Are we a minority? — can become quite heated, especially when peers tell them that they are unequivocally white. In today’s world of heated identity politics, the complexities surrounding race and ethnicity are often erased or simplified, and it is difficult for students to say, “I am kind of this and kind of that.” Ashkenazi Jews often think of themselves as white-passing or situationally white — while for Black and Mizrachi Jews, the question of Judaism as a race takes on an entirely new dimension. The dialogue surrounding whether or not Jews are white tends to erase nonwhite Jews, ironically; it posits Jews as an inherently light-skinned Mediterranean/European people, not a diverse nation of nations. It also erases the problem that Jews who are white within the American context face. In this country, one can be Jewish and white, and face anti-Semitism while also having white privilege in some contexts. It’s complicated, but college won’t teach you that! Identity is both a product of one’s self and how one is perceived externally; knowing context is crucial to understanding yourself. 

If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to


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