How Applying to College Is Helping My Son Figure Out His Jewish Identity


“Di-lemmmmmmma! Dilemma!” my 17-year-old son goes around the house, singing to the tune of “Tradition!” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Try it, it tracks.)

So what might his (non-musical) dilemma be? My son is a senior in high school. And you know what that means—college application time! All the experts advise visiting a college before applying. Not only does it present an opportunity to display that much in demand “demonstrated interest,” but it also allows teens to assess whether the school in question would be a “good fit.”

Personally, I don’t see the point of checking out a school before you’re accepted. Considering how competitive the process is these days, why get attached to a place you’ll likely be rejected from? I suggested that my son apply first, then worry about visits and “fit” once he gets in. He gave me that “Parents Just Don’t Understand”—hat-tip Will Smith—look.

Fine, my opinion isn’t relevant here. But here is a fact: We cannot afford to fly him around the country to visit every school he thinks he might be interested in. My husband and son took some bus trips to colleges within a day’s traveling distance (we can’t afford to spend the night in local motels, either), but that’s it.

As a result, my son has been applying to fly-in programs, where the colleges pay for your trip and your accommodations once you get there. As an added bonus, you get to sit in on classes and chat with students already in the program to get a sense of whether or not you might want to go there.

My son got into several such competitive programs.

So far, so good.

But here is the not-so-good part.

One of them was the Monday and Tuesday of Rosh Hashanah. Another is the Monday before Yom Kippur, with a return home on Tuesday—post-sundown.

After mumbling about micro-aggressions and are these places certain they know what the word “diversity” actually means, my son asked me what he should do.

And I gave him the answer all teens claim they want: “It’s up to you.”

It did not appear to be the answer he wanted under the circumstances. I’m pretty sure he wanted me to tell him what to do, so that he could be held completely blameless for the subsequent consequences, both in his mind and, officially, before the Jewish community.

I declined to offer him that out.

My son has been tackling the majority of the college application process himself. He did the research about individual schools—including which ones offered merit scholarships for students who fit his profile. He is filling out the online forms and writing the supplemental essays—at least the initial drafts—on his own, with me promising to read them and offer editorial advice only once he has something on paper he’s happy with (which, for this perfectionist kid, means hours and hours of angsty revisions). He’s soliciting letters of recommendations from teachers and internship supervisors. All I do is periodically write a check for an SAT or AP test, or an application fee (he’s also requesting fee waivers when he qualifies).

I believe that if you can’t apply to college by yourself, then how can you go to college by yourself?

One of the key elements to surviving those first years on your own is the ability to make independent (and hopefully good) choices. And that includes deciding for yourself whether you’ll be visiting colleges over the High Holidays.

My son’s mumbling over micro-aggressions eventually turned into sotto voice complaints about parents who refuse to make life easy for you.

And then, as the deadlines for accepting or declining loomed closer, my son emailed one college and asked if he might be able to attend Rosh Hashanah services while on campus. The program’s coordinator promptly connected my son with the Hillel rabbi.

Empowered, my son went a step further. He asked the program coordinator at the next school if, instead of taking the train home on Tuesday, October 11 like everyone else was scheduled to, they could, instead, fly him back to New York City in time for Kol Nidre.

They agreed. (And I was, honestly, stunned. I never expect anyone to be accommodating for any reason, and just assume I have to be the one to suck it up. My husband tells me I should really work on that.)

Do I agree with my son’s decision? It doesn’t really matter. Ever since he got back from his Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel and informed me that I had done an inadequate job of educating him about Judaism, he has been struggling to decide how he wants to live as a Jew, and what exactly that even means.

This decision was one of many he’ll be making for the rest of his life (even if he ultimately decides to reject everything about Judaism, that’s still a decision). I’m just happy that, unlike me, he decided to be proactive about his di-lemmmmmma (dilemma!). He didn’t see it in binary terms—yes, go or no, don’t go—he actually came up with a solution that was workable for him (others may not agree, but their opinion matters even less than mine does).

As Tevya would say, “And you are also right….”

Read More:

Bracing Myself Against My Son’s Severe Mental Illness

Mayim Bialik: Why I Support This Mental Health Organization & You Should Too

Why This Rabbi Uses Martial Arts to Help Kids with Cancer

Alina Adams

Alina Adams is a mother of three, and the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, romance novels, and figure-skating mysteries. Her latest is "Getting Into NYC Kindergarten," the book of tips and inside secrets for those who can't afford a private consultant to guide them through the Draconian processes of finding an acceptable school, but still care deeply about their children's education. She has a Master's degree in Media Analysis and can tell you the subtext and/or ruin your enjoyment of most movies, plays and TV shows. Learn more at: www.AlinaAdams.com.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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