Jew­ish U: A Con­tem­po­rary Guide for the Jew­ish Col­lege Stu­dent, Revised Edition

Scott Aaron; Wayne L. Fire­stone, fwd.
  • Review
By – September 22, 2011
Wendy Mogel’s lat­est book, The Bless­ing of a B Minus argues point­ed­ly that too many of our young peo­ple are like hand­i­capped roy­al­ty,” princes and princess­es who study bril­liant­ly and are full of con­vic­tion but don’t know how clothes get clean or how to read a cred­it card bill.” In her cen­tral chap­ter, she calls upon teens to learn how to bal­ance home­work, chores, paid and unpaid jobs. If they don’t know how to per­form reg­u­lar, every­day jobs, then they will grow up lack­ing essen­tial skills, fail­ing to live up to impor­tant val­ues. For that rea­son, she writes, Tak­ing out the garbage is as holy as find­ing a cure for can­cer or jump­ing in a riv­er and sav­ing some­one from drown­ing. It’s as holy as mak­ing vale­dic­to­ri­an.”

As in her ear­li­er book about younger chil­dren, The Bless­ing of a Skinned Knee, Mogel rec­om­mends that we let ado­les­cents make mis­takes. Yes, allow them to get a lit­tle lost or a lit­tle mud­dled and let them find their own way out of a pick­le. Yes, encour­age them to vol­un­teer for some ennobling work in far-off places, but also have them get jobs scoop­ing ice cream or flip­ping burg­ers, where they report to adults who insist that the kids do their jobs cor­rect­ly. At home, to give a mun­dane exam­ple, let them learn the hard way to load the dish­wash­er effi­cient­ly; praise their novice efforts, and show them the con­se­quences when the plates aren’t rinsed effec­tive­ly. Guide them toward sleep when they stay up too late. This is not a book about dis­ci­plin­ing a child; it is a guide to help­ing our teens to grow up while they are still liv­ing at home. By the time they have to depend on their pay­check for the roof over their heads, there is less room for for­give­ness and for mis­takes. 

Mogel writes for read­ers of all eth­nic back­grounds, and her writ­ing is a spe­cial treat for a Jew­ish audi­ence that appre­ci­ates the bib­li­cal, rab­binic, and folk wis­dom pep­per­ing the book. Mogel rec­om­mends that par­ents func­tion like the pil­lar of cloud that rep­re­sents God’s pres­ence in the Book of Exo­dus: it is detached and deeply con­cerned with­out being over­bear­ing. She encour­ages fam­i­lies to cul­ti­vate and main­tain the sanc­ti­ty of Shab­bat meals when teenagers often resist fam­i­ly din­ners. 

The Bless­ing of a B Minus rec­om­mends that we treat ado­les­cents as a bless­ing in spite of their eccen­tric hair­styles and cloth­ing, and even in spite of their occa­sion­al rude­ness. We shouldn’t let them become hand­i­capped roy­al­ty.” Instead, we should cel­e­brate and cul­ti­vate their capac­i­ty for empa­thy and moral respon­si­bil­i­ty while acknowl­edg­ing that we might not always suc­ceed on the first try. 

When I shared Mogel’s book with my own ado­les­cent daugh­ter and son, they both thumbed through it, nod­ding to each oth­er and quot­ing to me from her words of wis­dom. A book about ado­les­cents could not receive a high­er rec­om­men­da­tion! Just when we think we are done par­ent­ing our ado­les­cents, we adults have to won­der if they are ready for the chal­lenges ahead in col­lege. Col­leges today offer a bewil­der­ing array of choic­es that might eas­i­ly lead stu­dents to lose sight of the val­ues that guid­ed them as young peo­ple, so it is espe­cial­ly help­ful to have two new guides for col­lege stu­dents. 

Jew­ish U guides stu­dents toward cre­at­ing a Jew­ish life away from home when big ques­tions arise: Will it be OK (or even cool) if I put up a mezuzah?” What if my room­mate is real­ly dif­fer­ent from me?” How will I cel­e­brate Rosh Hashanah away from home for the first time?” The author, Scott Aaron, helps stu­dents to antic­i­pate some of the most chal­leng­ing moral deci­sions a stu­dent will face about sex, love, and drink­ing, and he pro­vides guid­ance that can help inde­pen­dent-mind­ed young peo­ple to make thought­ful choic­es. The author encour­ages stu­dents to explore their reli­gious options, approach­ing Judaism like the lib­er­al arts, explor­ing Jew­ish val­ues and Jew­ish the­olo­gies while try­ing out a range of Jew­ish prac­tices. This is a ter­rif­ic read for high school stu­dents decid­ing where to apply, and it is use­ful in Jew­ish schools with col­lege guid­ance offices. 

Col­lege Knowl­edge includes 101 tips for a Jew­ish stu­dent at col­lege. Some of the advice is not sur­pris­ing: Ask for Help” (#7), Take Small Class­es and Sem­i­nars” (#28), and Find Your Voice and Take a Stand” (#54). The author, David Schoem, goes beyond the super­fi­cial lev­el by explain­ing how stu­dents can fol­low up and make good use of his advice. 

Encour­ag­ing read­ers to be open to new intel­lec­tu­al expe­ri­ences, Schoem also advis­es, Expand Your Com­fort Zone and Change the World” (#5), Devel­op Good Study Habits” (#6), and Become Skilled at Dif­fer­ent Ways of Know­ing” (#35). Schoem also offers advice that helps stu­dents to grow in their self-con­cept: Nav­i­gate and Learn from Your Expe­ri­ence as a Reli­gious Minor­i­ty on Cam­pus” (#65) and Make Your First Vis­it Home a Good Expe­ri­ence” (#82). This book can help to neu­tral­ize some of the inevitable anx­i­ety around the life changes tak­ing place dur­ing the col­lege years. This is the kind of book that can sit by the bed­side, read not nec­es­sar­i­ly from cov­er to cov­er, but opened instead from time to time like a com­pass that helps one to find one’s way out of the woods.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review:

Judd Kruger Lev­ingston, Ph.D. and rab­bi, serves as Direc­tor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at Jack M. Bar­rack Hebrew Acad­e­my in the Philadel­phia area. Lev­ingston is the author of Sow­ing the Seeds of Char­ac­ter: The Moral Edu­ca­tion of Ado­les­cents in Pub­lic and Pri­vate Schools (Praeger, 2009).

Discussion Questions