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Life Lessons 016: When Your Congregant Goes to College

by Andy Koren

As a former rabbi for the Hillel at the University of Florida in Gainesville, I know firsthand that Jewish students are always touched by e-mails, bulletins, seasonal packages, and personal contact from their home congregations. If your synagogue is situated near a university, you can do even more to help students feel connected to their community and heritage. Here are 5 tips:

1 Encourage Jewish students at the nearby campus to attend Shabbat and High Holiday services at your temple free of charge. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, takes out ads in campus publications to let students know they're invited to High Holiday services. In addition, at least once a year the local college students design and lead a Shabbat service which follows a special dinner prepared by the congregation. The students always remark that they appreciate being contacted and knowing that someone nearby cares.

2 Offer training to students and pay them to serve as synagogue teachers and youth advisers. College students make amazing role models for our students. At our religious school, Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, Jason Pressberg of Elon University teaches a class for one hour every Sunday and then shadows one of our master teachers for the remainder of the morning; in turn, we acknowledge his contributions by sponsoring his attendance at Hillel conferences. If you don't have any teaching openings, consider inviting college students to speak about Jewish life on campus or school-break mitzvah projects.

3 Treat students as independent Jewish adults who are fully welcome in your community. "Congregations near campuses are model communities, bridges between students' home communities and the communities they will encounter after they graduate," says Iris Petroff, the educator at Temple Society of Concord, New York (located a block from the Syracuse University Hillel). "Without mentioning membership, we invite students we meet at campus gatherings or at our temple to 'hang out' with us. We say, 'Here is what you can choose to do. Now that you are independent adults, you can teach, pray, volunteer, or study.' Students have responded in all of these areas, and many have become regular participants in our Shabbat morning Torah study."

4 Spend an occasional Shabbat with students on campus. Rabbi Fred Guttman and I each spend one Friday night a year with students from our congregation and others at North Carolina Hillel in Chapel Hill. By being present on campus, we are doing the critical work of meeting students where they are.

5 Visit students on campus at other times during the year--whenever possible. Across the state of Florida, congregational rabbis made annual midweek tours of major universities. Dr. Ira Schweitzer, educator of Temple Sinai in Toronto, visits campuses in his area throughout the year, reuniting with students from the congregation at campus hangouts and thereby maintaining ongoing connections.

Tomorrow's Jewish community leaders and participants are having formative experiences on campuses throughout North America. We can and must be part of their lives.

--Rabbi Andy Koren, rabbi-educator for Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina and former rabbi for North Carolina Hillel and the Hillel at the University of Florida


Union for Reform Judaism.