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Staying Jewish at Penn State

Staying Jewish at Penn State

Did I do enough? Reflections of a mother of a college freshman.


A few weeks ago, my husband and I took our son, Ian, to Penn State University where he will begin his freshman year.

By the time we drove away from Penn State, the van was a hundred pounds lighter (well, maybe 260 pounds lighter if you include Ian.) My fabulous, funny, kind-hearted son stood there waving at us in his J Crew khaki shorts and polo shirt, as prepared for college as he was for elementary school when he went off freshly scrubbed, front teeth missing and a new LL Bean book bag slung across his back.

Did I instill a sense of Judaism in Ian so strong that it will remain a concrete part of him?

Ian has left the town of Sharon with its large number of Jews for a huge university which has approximately ten percent Jewish undergraduates. Will Ian feel isolated among so many non-Jewish students or will this increase his pride in his Jewish faith?

Did I instill a sense of Judaism in Ian so strong that it will remain a concrete part of him during these hectic, amazing college years?

Did I do enough?

We tried to give Ian solid Jewish roots and a connection to his heritage, and certain things we got right. Our holidays were filled with family, friends and love. Ian attended a Jewish camp and took a six week trip to Israel. I shared many stories of our family’s history and their particular Jewish experiences. During our car rides together, I spun tales from the Torah, bringing them to life as best as I could. (One of his religious school teachers actually called to tell me that Ian was the only second grader who could explain the story of Esther with pain-staking and colorful detail.)

Other things, we could have done better. We should have had more family Shabbat dinners and attended Temple more often. Although Ian was bar mitzvahed, he did not go on to Hebrew High. Should I have done more to push him in these “Jewish” directions? And if I didn’t do enough, is it too late for Ian to develop a deeper sense of Judaism which will sustain him during the college years and thereafter?

You may have heard a strange, screeching sound toward the end of August. That was the collective wail of all the Jewish mothers across the country with freshmen children: “Join the Hillel! At least check it out!”

I admit, I joined in that chorus.

I hope that Ian joins the Penn State Hillel and takes advantage of the many Jewish clubs and more than 80 Jewish courses offered at Penn State. (Of course, what I ultimately wish for my son is that he grows up to marry a Jewish girl from a lovely family who makes matzoh balls so light they dance around the table like fireflies. But first things first.) Now that Ian is at college, I can suggest and advise, but I can’t force him. I am now a parent/consultant and not a parent/nag. His wish for Jewish involvement and desire to maintain his Jewish identity need to come from him for ultimately, each of us must take ownership of our relationship with God.

The Torah says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

It is this “forever-ness” that I hope my son maintains at college. I want Ian to respect others, respect himself and respect his Jewish self by remembering the importance of compassion, charity, honesty and a sense of community. He will figure out how to navigate college as a student who not only is Jewish but feels Jewish. Through the clubs he was involved in at High School and the volunteer work he did in Israel, Ian knows full well the importance of tzedek (working toward social justice) and tikkun olam (trying to repair the world.) There is plenty of opportunity for Ian to get involved with Penn State activities that aren’t necessarily “Jewish” but which affirm the precepts of our faith. As he learns, I will learn along with him.

During the Jewish holidays, Ian called to tell me how much he missed being with the family – sitting around the table talking and laughing, lighting the candles, saying the blessings. He especially missed the brisket. I felt his absence keenly but was glad that he pined for our celebration. Am I shallow to grasp at these straws or should I be grateful for every little sign that Ian values his Jewishness?

So as my son adjusts to the chaotic and sometimes overwhelming nature of freshman year, I continue to wonder: Did I do enough to build the proper foundation when I had the chance? Will Ian stay true to his faith and values? Will he develop a close personal relationship with God?

I certainly hope so. At least I know that he misses the brisket.

October 6, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 34

(21) Anonymous, October 17, 2013 5:26 PM

There's an aish rabbi at Penn State

Ricki Vigon, from Aish Hatorah (same as this site), is now at Penn State! He has shabbat dinners and learns with students and is a really nice, approachable guy.

(20) K.Friedman, October 13, 2013 3:12 PM

As a mother of 2 college aged children I know exactly how you feel sending them off. I really enjoyed your article!

(19) Marilyn, October 10, 2013 11:14 PM

Kudos to you Mrs. Deutsch – you’ve raised your son with set of values and beliefs deeply rooted in the Torah. You have given him a sound Jewish identity with a strong sense of respect for both family and community inclusivity and responsibility. With these foundations in place Ian can feel confident in himself and in being a Jew. Rejoice that he will make a connection with his Judaism via the aroma in the kitchen on the first night of Rosh Hashana, for it is these traditions that will always lead him back to his Jewish faith.

(18) Richard, October 9, 2013 11:34 AM


While it might be personally challenging especially at college with its various influences to stay connected with Judaism and not question everything have" no fear". Penn State may have only a 10% Jewish student population but there only about 14-17 million Jews scattered worldwide in a population of seven billion. It might eventually sink in that from Abraham on down the Hebrews/Jews are God's chosen people NO MATTER WHAT THE REST OF THE WORLD OR EVEN SOME VACILATING AND/OR WORLDLY JEWS MIGHT THINK in this age of atheism,secularism, humanism.

(17) Margarita, October 9, 2013 7:06 AM

great letter

I think you have done enough - as long as our children miss not just brisket, but talks and candles and laughs. thank you for sharing

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