Rabbi Esther Reed is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program and the Associate Director for Jewish Campus Life at Rutgers Hillel.  She wrote the chapter on Conservative Judaism in the second edition of Jewish U: A Contemporary Guide for the Jewish College Student (2010).  Esther can be reached at rabbireed@rutgershillel.org .

Lately several different congregations in my area have asked me to speak to juniors and seniors in high school about Jewish life on campus.  This is not surprising, since I am in my 10th year as the Associate Director at Rutgers Hillel.  I serve a large, diverse community of Jewish students.  Many people do not realize that Rutgers has the 4th largest Jewish population of any college campus in the United States.

The choice of where to go to college will have a big impact on the lives of these students, and on their future identities as Jews and as human beings.  Many will have a deep sense of connection with their college or university for the rest of their lives, whether they are to be “Scarlet Knights” or “Terps” or “Wolverines.”   When I speak with these high school students, I try to engage them in a deep conversation about values clarification.  I believe this values clarification should include a Jewish element.

There are times when I receive a phone call from a frustrated parent, who sent their child to another college in my area, complaining to me that there’s no Hillel, no Jewish life on their child’s campus.  While I can empathize with the family, at that point there is nothing I can do to change the nature of Jewish life on their campus.  In reality, the best time for a family to look for Jewish life on a particular campus is BEFORE they choose to send their child to that school.

This may seem obvious to some of you, but it is not as obvious to families and prospective students.  Of course, there are people who know that they need a kosher meal plan and an active Shabbat experience, and are careful to look for that when touring colleges.  However, other families might inquire as to whether there is a Jewish club on campus, without pursuing the matter any further.  When they get to campus, they might be surprised to discover that the “Jewish club” is a handful of students, but no Hillel facility, staff, etc.  Clarifying your values and determining your needs is paramount before you can even ask the right questions when looking at colleges. 

In addition to visiting a college or university, I always encourage prospective students to make arrangements to stay overnight on campus.  This way, they can see what a real residence hall looks like, they can talk to genuine students (who aren’t paid ambassadors/tour guides), and they can find out what students truly like – and dislike -about their campus.  Students will be honest, and there is no better way for the prospective student to see what life is really like on campus.

The other advantage of an overnight stay is that students who come on a Friday night can see what Shabbat looks like on campus.  Some students want a minimal Shabbat experience, followed by other campus activities.  Others want a totally immersive traditional Shabbat.  A third group wants something in between.  Regardless of which kind of student, the most important thing for prospective students is to find a Jewish campus environment that speaks to them; a place where they feel at home.

Although I am a Conservative rabbi, when talking about this issue, I often refer to an excellent curriculum that the Union for Reform Judaism produced.  It is called “Packing for College” and has a wonderful framework for helping students prioritize their values.  (http://urj.org/packingforcollege/)

In one of their suggested workshops, they include this text: 

Moses said to them: “Pay attention to all these words which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah.  For this is not a trifling thing for you: It is your very life.” Deuteronomy 32:46-47

When picking a college or university, a student is choosing their future life.  May they all make wise Jewish choices.