12/25/2006

Myths and Facts about Kids Going ‘Off the Derech’ in College

I thought that questions raised in this comment warrant a separate post. It’s part of an ongoing discussion on LookJED about ‘spiritually conducive’ environments on college campuses. I wrote about it here as well. I wanted to address specifically the issue of kids either a) abandoning observance or b) diminishing observance on campus. I believe several points are in order when approaching the issue:

Firstly, from my experience, very few students gradually abandon observance. If they abandon it, they abandon it almost immediately upon arrival on campus. It’s very difficult to speak of these students as ‘losing frumkeit’. Generally, they were not frum – neither in theory nor in practice – before arriving on campus. The difference is that they no longer need to adhere to communal norms or worry about embarrassing parents. They will often continue to play the part of ‘nice frum boy/girl’ when they go home. They question here is whether there’s something to be gained by keeping these kids – and at this point they have gone through 12 or 13 years of Jewish education and also see themselves as adults capable of making their own decisions – in an environment where the social pressure to remain outwardly observant will promote greater adherence to Jewish observance, or whether it’s worth letting go. I hope to demonstrate why I deem the latter to be the best course of action. The upshot of this first point is that it’s not the environment of the secular university per se which kills observance, rather, the fact that this is the first time in their lives that these kids are not in an Orthodox milieu.

Secondly, from my experience, college students abandoning frumkeit is very often a temporary phenomenon. Most ‘come back’ by the time they are ready to enter communal life – get married, settle down, have kids, etc. In this sense, it is similar to the practice in certain Anabaptist communities (like the Amish) of having to make the ‘adult’ decision of remaining within the community. There is no halakhic sanction for temporarily jettisoning observance, obviously, but there is precedent in the Rabbinic imagination. I refer to story of Purim, where, without the Presence of Temple and Prophet, the Jews became drinking buddies with the Emperor. But when push came to shove, they re-accepted that which they had started to lose. For more on this, go here. Point is, Chazal acknowledged that there such a thing as making a free, adult decision as opposed to a compelled, childish set of behaviors. And if these students are returning to the frum community just for convenience and comfort, then see point 1 – they generally end up no less frum than they were to begin with.

Finally, there is the phenomenon of diminished observance and the potential for bad decisions by students who are otherwise frum. This is the area of greatest concern, and would give me personally the greatest pause before sending my own child to such a campus. And here is where it really depends on the person and the community. For many students, this adversity instigates greater growth. It’s the grain of sand that causes the oyster to produce a pearl. I’ve had students tell me that they are ‘more religious’ after 4 years at UMD than they were after their year in Yeshiva. I doubt they did more learning at UMD than they did in Yeshiva, but you can also be sure that the 1 hour per week they set aside to learn at UMD meant a whole lot more than the learning by osmosis that took place during their Israel years. This, too, is rooted in the concept of ‘adult decision-making’, and here’s the point: most people, at some point, stop being a passive recipients of religiosity and take responsibility for their own. For some, it happens in college. For some, in high school. For others still, it’s after college. It’s the moment of truth where, all pressures stripped away, we get to see what really sank in during all those years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of Jewish education, summer camps, and Israel years. For many, the ability to take ownership of and responsibility for their own Judaism is a watershed. In many cases, the sooner the better – keeping them in a religious environment creates greater animosity toward a system that is trying to control them. By buying a few extra years of pressured conformity, you lose in the long run (again, depending on the kid). Again, it’s not college that ‘causes’ diminished observance, but the existence of many new opportunities couple with a lack of restraints. The opportunities for error that college presents may be too overwhelming, but, like before, this is a personal question that students must answer truthfully. It’s important to realize that it’s a cost-benefit analysis, though. Net mitzvah observance must be weighed in the short and long term, and with the whole person taken into account.

JLI's primary audience is the students in this latter group, and the goal is to facilitate, as counselors, resources, and role-models, the process of becoming Jewish adults. At least that's my summary of it.

In any event, the incidence of students arriving in college truly frum and leaving truly frei is, in my estimation very, very, low.

Next post, I will discuss several paradigms for successful religious growth on campus that I have observed.

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