As a Jewish professional who has spent the majority of his professional life working with college students on campus, I have witnessed hundreds, even thousands, of students making the transition from high school to college. I watched these young people grow in maturity understanding, and responsibility over the years. The changes they experienced, that I witnessed, were dramatic and profound.
I suppose that I should have known it almost instinctively. My own speeches to Jewish communities all across Florida and to lay leaders include the statistics revealed by the Council of Jewish Federations' 1990 Jewish Population Study that over 85 percent of Jewish 18–24-year-olds attend college. I knew this, no doubt as well as you. Often I begin a speech by asking a Jewish audience, "How many of you went to college?" The reaction is always humorous, in that they smile, mumble under their breath, and finally nearly all raise their hands.
That fact alone, that over 85 percent of our youth go to college, is a startling fact. Not only does it underscore the importance of education that we as a people have and continue to hold dear (even as we let go of other particularly Jewish customs), but college, then, becomes an almost universal experience of the Jewish people.
Some years ago I read a letter written by a colleague, Rabbi Robert Alpert, about his "saying good-bye time" to his son and daughter as they left home to enter college. I cried with him as he surely did in writing his letter and observing his kids move, literally and figuratively, out of his life. He challenged the reader to create a Jewish custom for this particular passage in a family's life.
The current Jewish (and non-Jewish) custom to move your child to campus is to pack up your child, travel to the university, move your boy or girl into the dormitory (all the while holding back the tears--both for you and for him/her), get in the car, drive down the highway (in silence) for five minutes, pull over the side of the road, and then cry your eyes out!
I wanted something better.
We have customs, observances, and rituals that help us mark nearly all our days. From brit or brit ha-banot, to consecration, bar/bat mitzvah, and confirmation, our youth is peppered with significant rites of passage in Jewish education from one point to the next. A custom is needed for our community to mark this passage from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independence, as our children grow.
Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL taught me the importance of making passages in our American lives important in a Jewish context. Without doing so, Judaism fails to speak to the heart of what it means to be a Jew and an American at the end of the millennium. He challenged me, saying that if Judaism addressed the truly personal experiences of our lives, giving those encounters Jewish context and meaning, then Judaism would not only be more relevant in our lives, but would connect us to a reservoir of meaning and tradition from which we could, as Jews, draw strength and succor, comfort and support.
During my oldest son's senior year in high school, I planned to write a service, based upon text (both Jewish and contemporary), that could be used in the synagogue, in a public setting in my congregation. We would join together with friends and their children who were entering college now (our kids went to day school together, became bar/bat mitzvah, were confirmed, etc.). I suppose it was part procrastination, part wishing to push aside the time when Josh was actually going to make the move out of our home, that led me to write the following prayer/blessing that I read1 while sitting around the Shabbat dinner table with close friends and family ten days prior to "D-Day."
In hindsight, it was very appropriate. To read something so personal, so touching, so meaningful in the place where each Friday night of his life, he sat, together with us. It was also comforting not to cry in a public setting, but rather to share everyone's "loss" around the Shabbat table, which that night, particularly, felt like an altar to God. In this more private setting, we said our first "good-bye" to his youth, to his being so intimately attached to the rest of us (my wife and our two other children). That evening, together, we acknowledged that our family dynamic was forever altered, that we were about to lose the stasis and equilibrium of our family life as Josh moved on in the expansion of his own life.
I invite you to do the same. To capture on paper, in some small way, the feelings and emotions of this moment. And above all, remember to cherish the time you have together when your children are around you.
This liturgy is only one example of its kind and should be adapted to local as well as personal needs and family inclination. Of course, one may substitute "Josh" for the appropriate name of a child in the text of the liturgy, taking care to match the particular family configuration (we have two younger children, a boy and a girl). However, it may be better to borrow some of the appropriate paragraphs and then craft additional text which speaks directly to the more personal or particular sibling and family relationships in one's own family.
Our family configuration now changes. There is a new family dynamic as a child moves up and out in his status as resident of our home.
Josh, your seat will be empty and you will be missed. But we all await the results of your search to become the person you will be. Know that we love you, and that we will always be here for you, to help you, and to guide you.
What feelings must a mother have who carried, cared for, this first child, to see the child at this next passage in life. Or a father whose own dreams invested in this once tiny infant-now-grown-man who leaves the comfort of home to yet undiscovered wonders of a new life on campus.
And of a brother who looked up with admiration and sometimes awe to his older brother as a mentor, as a friend, and as a confidant, a buddy-brother whose relationship will never be broken, forged over many years of shared experiences. A little sister, in whose eyes her big brother's presence looms large and loving.
We are sad, there will be tears, and yet, we have an overriding sense of joy for what yet lies before you.
With blessings, joy, and happiness we welcomed this child into our lives eighteen and a half years ago. At the bris, we voiced the words from Kahlil Gibran which at that time we understood in only a limited way: "Your children are not your children, they are life's longing for....They are arrows which are shot from the bow, to which they can always return."
We sensed this as you, Josh grew. The first day we dropped you off at preschool, there to spend time with other adults and to be guided by them. And when we took you to kindergarten, we photographed that moment, capturing a new milestone in your growing independent life.
There were many achievements, milestones, and discoveries that followed your progress in becoming you, in "letting out" or "getting out" the person who was to become you.
So many achievements. You reached so many milestones, you achieved so much. We are so proud of you. You made so many discoveries. You grew through Beth Am Day School, making lifetime friends and acquiring a love for knowledge and for Judaism. You started a rock band, forging even stronger ties to boys-now-men who also begin their trek on the path toward discovering their life-time goals.
So today, we celebrate. Not without tears (or at the very least, watery eyes), and we recall with more than a little sadness-mixed-with-excitement the changes that you and we, your family who loves you, are witnessing and in which we participate as well. Your future! What magic it holds! How we are anticipating, cheering, and watching from the sidelines, your adult life as it will unfold.
How exciting! To be finally ready to make the step from home and high school to independence and college. Though you (and we) are a little nervous as you approach this new direction, a new vocation, a new environment that will challenge and summon powerful resources and character from within, to bring out the very essence of who you are. How much will you learn! How much will you grow! How much will you experience!
We are excited for you, and a little bit jealous. Mom and I, for the wonder of college--a whole world of knowledge and learning and scholarship awaits you like an open menu at the best restaurant in town. Like a smorgasbord with everything good you can imagine.
There will be challenges. Sharing your living space, day after day, with someone who is not a blood relative or a chosen friend. Launching yourself toward that now unknown goal of what you will become and choose to do in your life. At times you will be lonely but not alone, solitary but not isolated, private but not apart, detached but not distant. Those are times when you will mine the resources you have developed—your character—and find strength, power, and the capacity you never dreamed to persevere, to carry on. And to succeed!
You have many decisions before you. Exciting, wonderful decisions which will allow you to shape your life.
But remember, even though we, your loving family, are not down the hall, or across the street, we are there. Each stage of life brings new steps. We smile as you take these first faltering steps toward the future you will build for yourself. We cheer each time a small or large step draws out the wonder that is you.
We will always be there. To lean on, to count on, to rely upon.
Your siblings as well as your parents all experience a loss today. The loss of a wonderful son as a permanent resident in our home; the loss of a big brother with whom you shared so many interests, and so much wonderful time together; and the loss for a little one who admires, looks up to, and cherishes so many wondrous times together.
These will not end! They will be scattered in time. But relationships built on trust, on friendship, and on companionship will never disappear. They will be intermittent, except for large phone bills, e-mail, and periodic visits. We won't get in the way.
During the next four years, you will narrow your search for your future, and we will enjoy your successes as we have enjoyed them to this very day.
We are proud of you and we love you. And we thank God for the gift of your life in our lives.
Dear God, as we move as a family into a new stage, we thank you for all the blessings you have bestowed upon us these many years. For laughter and tears, for memories that will never fade, and for the power of being a respectful, loving, and caring family. Help us to understand in the progress of life, and its inevitable movement forward, our need for one another. May we continue to treat each other with kindness, encouragement, and soft words. Let us treasure not what we are losing, for we are not losing a son or a brother, but let us treasure each other for what we are, and for what we each and our family are becoming.
Teach us to be thankful for everything we have had as a family unit until now, and may we share life deeply as it will come. May Josh continue to grow in wisdom and sensitivity, as he proceeds to the next stage of his education. And may we always enjoy his successes and victories as he attains even higher goals.
We thank you for the gift of his life, and for the opportunity to share in his move toward the future.
A New Traveler's Prayer
Holy One of Blessing, Master of All things, may this young man enter this new stage of his life with blessing, with strength, with joy, and with a thirst of knowledge. Even as we were freed from responsibility for his Jewish life at his bar mitzvah, today, he more fully takes charge.
May it be Your will, O God, and God of our ancestors, to direct his steps and guide his life with peace, and lead him to ever-fuller life. Deliver him from every enemy, pitfall, harm on his way, and from all misfortune and trouble that he may find on his own journey in life. Send a blessing to empower the work of his hands. May he continue to attain kindness, a loving attitude, compassion, and tolerance for all with whom he comes in contact. You are the God who listens to prayer. Praised are You, God, who hears our prayers.
Praised are You, God, Master of the Universe, who makes the young responsible for their own lives. AMEN.