A Guide for the New Jewish College Student
By Rabbi David Levy, Associate University Chaplain and Director of Jewish Life, Colgate University (with unbounded gratitude from KOACH)
Congratulations! The next few months will be among the most exciting in your life. Pursuing a college education is one of the more challenging and rewarding decisions you will make and if you are reading this, then you have already begun to travel that road. Your undergraduate years will be filled with learning and self-discovery -- and, of course, a lot of fun.
In order to get the most from your experience, you'll definitely need to study, but you should also be sure to develop a rich and fulfilling life on campus. From the moment you set foot on campus you will be bombarded with invitations to get involved with various of activities. The choices you make for how to spend your time between classes can be as important as the choices you make about what to study. In addition to all that you will learn about the world of ideas, the subject that you will likely learn the most about is yourself.
With all of this in mind this guide is designed to encourage you to be sure to make your "Jewish Journey" an important part of the next few years. Jewish learning doesn't end in high school it is a lifelong pursuit. College is one of the best times to learn more about and challenge your pre-existing notions of Jewish life. The campus is a unique marketplace of ideas which will afford you opportunities to learn and share in a environment which fosters personal growth.
The pages which follow contain practical suggestions on how to stay connected Jewishly and how to be sure that you are learning and growing as a Jew. This is one of the most exciting times in recent history to be a Jewish student on campus. We hope you will take the time and make the effort to get all you can out of the Jewish resources available to you, on campus, in the local community and beyond.
One of the first things you should do is learn all you can about the Jewish community on your campus. Is there a Hillel? A Jewish Chaplain's office? Is there a Kosher meal plan? Does KOACH have a presence? Many of these questions can be answered by looking up your school on Hillel's website (www.hillel.org) and visiting www.koach.org.
Once you locate the Jewish community announce your arrival. Give the Jewish student organization a call, let them know who you are and where you are coming from so that you can be kept informed of campus happenings. You may not be sure how involved you want to be, but you'll want to keep your options open!
Don't Give Up Too Quickly
It's sometimes hard to feel like the new person where people appear to know one another. You may not feel totally connected the first time you participate in a Jewish event on campus. You may get the feeling that "everyone" knows everyone else and that people are not looking to make new friends. It's normal to feel that way in a new environment, but know that for the most part, this is perception more than reality. Don't make the mistake of deciding, after only one event where you had only a "so-so" time, that Jewish activities are not for you. If you think about it, in a four year college setting, at least 25% of people are new every year. That means everyone is looking around wondering what kind of interesting people they might meet. Give Jewish life on campus a try (and a second try if necessary).
Another set of resources for Jewish stimulation on campus are the opportunities provided by the educational institution itself. Does your school offer Judaic Studies courses? These classes can help broaden your perspective by introducing you to the exciting world of Jewish scholarship. Also, it is likely that there are Jewish faculty members on your campus. These individuals can provide a connection for you to the local Jewish community and may be able to help you find Jewish resources of which you were not aware.
Our Mission Statement...
KOACH provides college-age students the opportunity to maintain and develop connections to Conservative Judaism.
KOACH nurtures a love of Torah, the Jewish people, Israel and God through a variety of activities, including social, religious, educational, cultural and social action programs.
We seek to create a passionate Jew who is committed to the future of the Jewish people and the improvement of the world.
KOACH is a great way to either craft or build your connection with Conservative Judaism. Offering educational resources, travel and study opportunities, a dynamic website and professionals who'll enrich your journey, KOACH will not only strengthen your understanding of Conservative Judaism, but also help you connect with others with similar passions from all over the world.
On a college campus, Shabbat is often the centerpiece of Jewish programming. Usually focused on a Friday night service and/or dinner, Shabbat presents students with an opportunity to slow down and take a break from the hectic pace of the week. Attending Shabbat activities on your campus is a great way to connect with other Jewish students in a relaxed atmosphere. Most days you won't have time to sit back for a leisurely meal and conversation. Your community will provide Shabbat experiences which encourage the spirit of rest and celebration at the core of the Jewish tradition of Shabbat. Even if you aren't sure about how you want to observe Shabbat personally, you'll find yourself in a low pressure atmosphere with opportunities to partake in various aspects of Shabbat. If you're on a campus with fewer Jewish resources, take advantage of the offerings of the local Jewish community, establishing it as your home away from home.
When you arrive on campus, the Jewish community will not be the only group interested your participation. A myriad of organizations will court your involvement. Perhaps you will become a College Republican or Democrat. You may join an organization committed to protecting the environment. Many students choose to get involved in Greek life. All of these and many other choices will provide you with great experiences and will help you build meaningful relationships.
It is important to offer one word of caution. For all of the great campus organizations out there, some are not what they appear. It is a sad reality that cult and missionary activities are a reality on many campuses and you need to be vigilant at the early stages of your involvement in any organization. If you are participating in a group that is secretive, doesn't value you for who you are and asks you to change in ways that are not comfortable for you or encourages you to cut ties with home, it is possible that you are getting involved with a dangerous group. If you feel that you may be at risk, seek out a campus professional who can help.
College is a time of explosive growth for your intellect. You will read more books and articles over the next few years than you ever have before – and maybe more than you ever will again! Each day you will be exposed to stimulating lectures and activities and live in a community of peers sharing the same experience. Nothing can describe how much you will learn in the next few years. While you are acquiring all of this knowledge, it is critical that you also expand your knowledge of Judaism. If you study the world around you with all of the sophistication of the academy but your Jewish knowledge is still at a grade school level, you risk missing out on the beauty and intellectual stimulation that Judaism offers when studied seriously.
When you study art, music, philosophy or history at the college level, you will see those topics in a new light. You will be introduced to critical methods of research which will increase your understanding of the material presented to you and affect the way you look at everything. The same can be said of Jewish Studies courses. Studying Judaism in an academic environment will show you aspects of Jewish history and experience which you have never considered before. What historical, political, philosophical and religious factors make Judaism what it is today? Which texts form our collective narrative? What role do we play in the telling of our story? Jewish Studies courses will open your eyes to a world of scholarships which Hebrew School never could.
Not every campus has a Jewish studies department, but just about every Jewish college student has access to the Internet. In recent years, the computer has become a powerful tool in bringing clear, accurate and accessible Jewish information to anyone looking for it. For that reason the PC (or Mac) can now be seen as the Personal Chevrutah (chevrutah is an Aramaic word used to refer to a study partner). Your computer can serve as an excellent resource for all things Jewish. Here are some great links:
In addition to these sites, there are hundreds more which you should explore. There are even many podcasts on topics of Jewish interest which you can download to your MP3 player so that you can even get Jewish inspiration on the go.
Computers are great, but there is still something about books which allows for more substantial learning. It is possible these days to create a powerful Jewish library without spending too much money. For less than $200, it should be possible for you to acquire enough Jewish books and periodicals of value to keep you busy for many months. Your collection should include:
For the rest, follow your particular interest. The KOACH website offers a Basic Jewish Library recommendation. Books are available online, through Jewish Book News, at local bookstores and through the United Synagogue Book Service. There are also a wide variety of periodicals of Jewish interest, many offering special student rates.
KOACH also recommends:
A visit to Israel should definitely be on your "to do list." Nothing can compare to seeing a Jewish democratic society in action and coming to understand what everyone describes as a feeling of coming home. If you have never been to Israel on a peer program, you probably qualify for Taglit: birthright israel, a free ten day trip to Israel. KOACH offers one of a variety of Taglit: birthright israel programs which could be just right for you.
If you've gotten a taste of Israel, consider studying there for a summer, semester or year. If you aren't looking for a classroom experience, you can tour, volunteer or even work on an archeological dig. There are many wonderful programs in Israel and the experience of living and learning in Israel will stay with you for a lifetime.
The college campus is often a hotbed of activity and activism when it comes to Israel. You may encounter all sorts of groups and activities either supporting or criticizing Israel. It's important to realize that while everyone has the right to express their opinions in a free society, no one has the right to intimidate you on campus. If you feel that the tone of demonstrations reaches a threatening level you should alert campus authorities and be in touch with the organized Jewish leadership on campus. The most important thing for you to do in these situations is to be sure that you are as knowledgeable as possible about the situation in the Middle East. Once you have learned all you can and developed your own opinion, there will be many opportunities to make your voice heard on campus. In addition to the places on campus where you can contribute, you'll also find a wide array of national organizations and forums and polls on the Internet where you can express your relationship with Israel.
If you are starting to think that the Jewish world on your campus is bigger than you thought, you're right. There's that much more out there in the world beyond the campus. As a Jewish college student the world is wide open to you. There are many conference, internship and study opportunities available during the year and over the summer. United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah are always looking for talented college students to staff their summer programs. The Jewish community near your campus may also offer opportunities to work or volunteer at local Jewish agencies. Local synagogues may have positions available for teaching Religious School or leading youth groups. Any of these organizations may also have programming that you would simply enjoy as a participant. To find out about these opportunities and others, visit www.koach.org or speak with the leadership of the organized Jewish community on your campus.
When you head off to school, it is important to remember three letters: K.I.T. (Keep In Touch). Let your local synagogue know where you are headed off to school. Many synagogues send letters to their college students, keeping them posted on what is going on in their home communities, some even send treats around the holidays! Also, take the time every now and then to shoot your rabbi, cantor or youth director an e-mail and let them know how you are. They will be thrilled to hear from you and will be happy to help foster your ongoing growth and development.
As the summer draws to a close, you'll be preparing to pack up the car and make your way to campus. It's normal to feel a mix of emotions, ranging from excitement to anxiety. Remember that college is a wonderful place, rich with opportunities that are both challenging and rewarding. One of those opportunities will be to develop a fulfilling Jewish life on your own terms. Don't miss out on that: Make your mark on the Jewish community on campus and let it make its mark on you. The next few years will be among the most memorable of your life. Enjoy them, be safe and be sure to make the most of what lies ahead.