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.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I agree with your assessment of the situations; almost all of my friends who left college less observant than they were in high school were already on their way towards that decision.

And i can think of many more friends who became more religious/observant in college.

Anonymous said...

That was really well articulated. Ditto with Steg. While we are not Orthodox, the kids we know from the local college we have contact with are suddenly presented with options, options, options, and often not enough coping or decision making skills. For the truly committed Jews, testing the playing field is a temporary detour from the path. For those who were already on another path, college only accelerates this process for them. The kids whom we welcome into our home on shabbat and the chagim that end up keeping in touch with us on a regular basis are the ones that end up graduating into a serious Jewish life, whatever their 'in the moment' choices in college.

micha said...

This fits well with a half-baked idea I started forming yesterday. I was listening to R' Dr A Twersky speak about the rise of psychological problems, addiction, abuse, divorce, etc... in our community, and he said something that jarred. Even kids who grow up in homes with no TV or internet still go to the supermarket and see what's for sale at the checkout line.

But has anyone shown that any of these barriers actually succeeded in lowering the rates for any of these problems? Do chareidim have a smaller dropout rate than MO? Less divorce? Less abuse? Fewer addicts? My impression is that none of us are fairing better than the others Among my classmates in a Chassidish-run / Yeshivish-attended day school, I think the retention was lower than my classmates in R' Riskin's High School, if anything. But close enough to be roughly the same.

And so I do not expect college to be much of a deciding factor... I would be very surprised to learn that leaving the bubble of Jewish education changes the statistics. For some, being in a situation where they stand out for standing for Judaism is actually an affirming experience.

Our problem is that we're producing a weak community. Hiding in fortresses is the actions of the weak.

We need a Jewish education after which these experiences don't influence, rather than relying on trying to eliminate the experiences. After all, they can not be isolated no matter what you do, AND you pay a price in those who leave something that feels stifling.

You mention return rate. I wonder the same thing about kids at risk in general... How many become non-Orthodox, or even worse -- non-productive pot-head adults rather than returning?

To some up my rambling (sorry): I think that (1) the solution is only to make people who can grow up and survive in the world as they will find it, not making cacoons; and (2) we do not have accurate statistics because we do not have anyone measuring only those who do not return and comparing them to those who leave a more insular environment permanently.


Anonymous said...

I think it's ridiculous the amount of stock we put in our kids, not to mention our adults, adhering to an outwardly religious mode of life, even if there is nothing but a hollow shell on the inside. Most folks would rather their kids/neighbors be outwardly religious even if they have little to no serious identification with Judaism.

On the other hand, we shouldn't overlook and devalue the simple Jew; there is a lot of merit for simply doing Judaism right without a necessarily deep understanding, but a fervernt commitment to the basic ideals.