If Rabbi Scott Aaron had a copy of his own book, “Jewish U,” when he was in college, he would have avoided some uncomfortable situations.
The book, just released by New York’s URJ Press in its second edition, calls itself “A contemporary guide for the Jewish college student,” and serves to explain common concerns of Jews new to school, with chapters like “How to Handle Your First High Holy Days Away from Your Family” and “Jewish Sexual Decision Making.”
“When I was in college, I couldn’t understand why my parents couldn’t talk to me about [dating issues] in a constructive way. There was no way into the conversation,” said Aaron. “I didn’t know how to talk to them about it. When I brought home a Jewish girl, we still didn’t know how to talk about it.”
His book, said Aaron, is a conversation starter, inspired by the many conversations he had with students as a Hillel rabbi at Ohio University and New York University.
“I didn’t have a research model, I had an experience model,” said Aaron, remembering his efforts to create the first edition, which came out about 10 years ago. “Students came in with very similar questions and experiences. It was very clear that the shift from being an adolescent to an adult was something we were not actively talking about in the Jewish community.”
Today, Aaron is the community scholar for the Agency for Jewish Learning — his work with young Jewish adults continues. But he decided to revisit “Jewish U” after noticing how many new issues had risen since it was first published. Aaron noted advances in technology and social networking, campus safety concerns (in light of college shootings) and the “shift in the ability to think about who’s a secular Jew,” as the qualifiers for the second edition.
The current college-aged generation is particularly in need of some Jewish grounding, said Aaron, as student participation is Jewish organizations may not be doing so. “This generation doesn’t join things,” said Aaron. “Forget about a synagogue — they don’t join gyms. And if they do, they want the short-term relationship. Everything’s been reduced to, like, my cell phone contract.”
The book was written to be forward thinking, said Aaron, as its target audience is high school juniors and seniors and their parents, allowing teens to approach college issues before they arise. The book is also meant to “sit on the bookshelf freshman year,” said Aaron, to help students as they are confronted with unforseen issues like, for example, Judaism’s stance on sex (for that, a section called “You gotta love a religion that makes sex a commandment!” sits squarely in Chapter 8).
“You want to avoid the ‘deer in the headlights’ when they get to college and don’t know how to deal with issues,” said Aaron.
The overarching questions that “Jewish U” answers, though, are largely the same, said Aaron. The most common? “Students would say, ‘I just sat in a Judaic studies class and they told me the Bible wasn’t written by God.’ And that ripples out to ‘What does it mean for what I believe in, and how I was raised. Is this what I believe of what my parents instilled in me?’ ”
And, of course, added Aaron, “The ‘I met someone my parents wouldn’t approve of’ question.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)