(JTA) — Last week we did it: My wife and I dropped our eldest son off for his first year of college. As you can imagine, it is a heady, emotional moment. There is pride and joy mixed with anxiety and the bittersweet sense that this primary chapter of parenting is coming to a close. As parents, we’ve asked each other so many questions in the weeks leading up to the big day. Will he eat? Will he meet new people? Will he take advantage of all the school has to offer? What will his Jewish experience be like? What about all the reports we hear of the challenging climates on many U.S. campuses for kids who support Israel? Will he be forced to defend Israel’s right to exist in the face of those who would delegitimize Israel?
We tried to breathe and remind ourselves of two important points. First, this was our son’s challenge, not ours. Ultimately, he will need to navigate these challenges — and so many we haven’t even imagined. Had we prepared him to do that? This question led to the second point: Everything he needs to face these challenges he learned at synagogue.
Obviously, there is some hyperbole in this kind of sweeping statement. We are grateful for many valuable experiences, including a wonderful Jewish day school, excellent summer camp experiences and Israel travel. We are also in awe of the dedicated Hillel professionals on many campuses who support our students. Still, I would argue that our family’s commitment to attending synagogue regularly taught our sons a world of lessons. I don’t just say this because both of their parents are rabbis (I imagine that created a host of challenges that they will one day write about). I believe this is true of all the active “shul kids” in our community.
So, what were those lessons?
How to speak to people of all ages. Synagogues are unique places for intergenerational interactions. Our kids would seek out their friends each week, but after services, we always found them at tables interacting with adults and seniors in the community. Whether talking about their favorite sports teams or the latest headlines, we always appreciate that the children learned how to articulate their thoughts and listen to others. This kind of interaction is a real-world skill that we know will serve our students well in college. Countless faculty, advisors, staff and friendly adults are available to support our students wherever they go. Their ability to comfortably navigate and make the most of those interactions will take them a long way.
How to sit with people you disagree with. This is an essential lesson for all of us. Synagogues comprise people who share their Jewish beliefs but not necessarily their politics. Over these last few contentious years, we have seen that people have a lot of difficulty sharing space with those with whom they disagree. We are proud that our children learned that, despite our differences, people in our community shared a common faith, which was a place to start. We could wish those across the aisle (pun intended) a “Shabbat shalom,” and save the arguing for the way home. These lessons are crucial; our students won’t share the same beliefs as all their teachers or classmates, but they know that we need to find the common humanity in those we disagree with so we can encounter each other with patience, care and understanding.
The importance of standing up for Judaism and Israel. With the rise of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments, it is as important as ever for our students to know how to advocate for the Jewish community and to have a sense of pride in who they are. Our synagogue had swastikas spray painted on our doors a few years back. Our congregation’s children were encouraged to attend the solidarity service that night. Every seat was filled with our members and our caring neighbors. Our children learned a few valuable lessons that night. First, antisemitism is unacceptable and should never be tolerated or brushed off. Second, we have allies who care about us and will stand with us. Third, and perhaps most important to our students, is showing up when your community needs you. It was not lost on anyone at that service that everyone — synagogue members, Jewish community members, leaders from the greater community — was at that service. Our students must show up for each other on campus when hatred rears its ugly head. This imperative to show up is true for Israel, the Jewish community and anyone else who is targeted.
How to work a buffet. Kiddush is an amazing educator. First, the experience of eating together with so many people leads me to believe that our students will be ready for the dining halls, receptions and parties they will attend. They have learned from kiddush about manners and food safety and how to gently chide the person who puts the tuna spoon in the egg salad. They have also learned the art of small talk. The ability to chit-chat with people you don’t know opens doors to friendships, making seemingly big places a little smaller. As a parent, it doesn’t hurt to know my boys can make a plate and clean up after themselves. Most of the time.
Caring for others. Children who grow up in synagogue learn how a community cares for its people. Each week, they hear a “Mi Sheberach” list, where the names of those who are ill are shared, and remember that there are people who need visiting or friendly calls. They know from shiva that we take time and sit with those suffering from loss. Our students going off to live in a community of their peers will be ready by knowing both that we need to and how to care for others.
There are countless other lessons: “attend the guest lecture,” “welcome strangers,” “dress neatly on special occasions,” “don’t sit in so and so’s seat.” There are certainly others that we haven’t realized yet. What we recognize, though, is that despite reports to the contrary, the synagogue remains an essential building block of the Jewish community and the formation of thoughtful, caring young adults.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.