Ask the Expert: Visiting Colleges

How do I know what questions to ask?

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Question: This fall I am taking my daughter, who's 17, to visit college campuses. We're a moderately observant family, and I want to take her to visit the Hillels on campus, but I'm not sure what questions we should ask or what exactly we should be looking for when we visit. Can you give a sense of what it would be wise to ask, look for, and avoid?
--Paige, New Jersey

the expertAnswer:
Visiting colleges with your child is a fun but often daunting task. It's hard to know if you're ever really getting the feel of a place, hard to know if you're getting honest answers, and nearly impossible to anticipate what the challenges with a given school will be. When it comes to finding a university that's a good fit for your daughter religiously, there are added challenges. To help figure out what's the best way to tackle this problem, I got in touch with Rabbi Ben Berger, Senior Jewish Educator at the Ohio State University Hillel. Here's some of what he had to say: 

"Being able to ask frank questions of both Hillel professionals and Jewish students is key to knowing if this is the right campus for your daughter. Before you can ask those questions though you must ask yourself and your daughter some questions too. Do you want to be on a campus with a large Jewish population? How large? Does your daughter want to be a pioneer and be a builder of community, or join an already established Jewish community with many points of entry? Does your daughter want to stay on campus for High Holidays or be within proximity to come home? What types of religious options do you want? Vibrant Reform life? An Orthodox community? Is access to kosher food year-round and on Passover essential? What are your daughter’s interests (arts, learning, social action, sports, Greek life, travel, Israel, music, etc.)?

Many Jewish organizations on campus provide access to all of these options but others with smaller populations and fewer resources will have more limited options. So knowing in advance what your daughter is looking for in a Jewish community and what you hope for from your daughter’s college experience in relation to Jewish life is essential to determining the right campus for her.

Here’s a list of questions that I would probably ask (Hillel professionals) in addition to some of the above. Some of your questions will certainly be unique to your daughter.
o    What types of opportunities are available for my daughter to get involved?
o    If she has a particular interest that is not currently being addressed by Hillel is there room for innovation and creation of new programming? Will she be supported in these efforts?
o    What does Shabbat look like? Are there services and meals? How much do they cost? Can I pre-pay, if they are not free? How about holidays?
o    Will my daughter feel safe walking home from Hillel at night? Are there walking groups?
o    How is Israel supported on campus? Will my daughter’s views be welcomed and celebrated? Will she feel safe supporting Israel?
o    What are the kosher food options? Are they healthy and nutritious?
o    Are there travel opportunities like Birthright Israel or alternative spring break options available?
o    Will my daughter have a place where she can feel at home and comfortable being herself? Will her Jewish identity be fostered and strengthened?
o    What types of learning opportunities are there?
o    Are there Jewish fraternities and sororities? How big are they? What is their connection to the other Jewish organizations on campus?
o    Will someone be thinking about her if they don’t see her for a while?

Finally, here are two additional points that I think are essential to successfully getting a sense of Jewish life on campus. First, make sure your daughter gets to ask questions too. Ultimately, she will decide on her level of engagement with the Jewish community. Empowering her now will lead to her being empowered once she is on campus. Second, speak to students about their campus experience. Ask Hillel to set you up with students. Better yet, if your daughter is really serious about the campus see if the Hillel can set her up to stay for a Shabbat visit."

Clearly, Rabbi Berger knows what he's talking about and has some great ideas. I would emphasize finding out if your daughter can spend some time with a current student who's active in Hillel, even spend the night. This would give her an inside peek at campus life and Jewish life at the same time.

Good luck and enjoy your travels!

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