Parents of various faiths send children off to college

At Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, honorees stand under a ceremonial shroud and receive blessings. ED HILLE / Staff
At Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, honorees stand under a ceremonial shroud and receive blessings. ED HILLE / Staff
Posted: August 14, 2014

Julia Pace of Lower Gwynedd will be leaving for college on Thursday. She's excited, but her parents are nervous.

Jane Pace worries that her 18-year-old daughter is going to school 2,000 miles away in Arizona when she could have gone to Pennsylvania State University (cheaper, closer, Jane's alma mater).

Dad Vince Pace wonders how it'll be with all the kids out of the house. (Julia is the youngest of three.)

The Paces are coping with a rite of passage that confronts countless families every summer just before the start of fall semesters. Letting go - and leaving home - isn't easy, and families often turn to their religious traditions for guidance.

In the Paces' case, the family rabbi has found a way to help.

Rabbi Elliot Holin, of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, has developed a special Shabbat service just for families like the Paces. The Friday night ritual acknowledges the years parents spend teaching their children to go out in the world, and the emotional turmoil that can surface when the moment arrives.

"Take a deep breath," Holin said to the parents Friday evening during an outdoor service on the synagogue's expansive front lawn.

"Marvel at the people they've become," Holin said, referring to their children.

In Judaism, no rituals mark a son's or daughter's departure for college, but there are blessings for children, Holin said.

During the service, the rabbi incorporated those blessings and delivered a sermon about transitions. Coincidentally, the Torah portion for the evening was about Moses handing off leadership duties to Joshua.

Judaism charges parents with raising their children in a peaceful home, providing for an education, and preparing them to carry out the principal of Tikkun Olam, helping to repair the world, Holin said.

Other faith traditions also guide families through child-rearing and the transition into adulthood, leaving many parents at the same place - hoping their children hold on to the faith-based principals during their first taste of independence.

Biblical verses repeatedly refer to guiding children. For example, Proverbs: 22:6 exhorts:

"Train up a child in the way he should go,

And when he is old he will not depart from it."

"We believe our children are gifts from the Lord, and we as their parents are their stewards to provide care for them," said Todd J. Williams, president of Cairn University, the former Philadelphia Biblical University, in Langhorne. "But they belong to the Lord, and not to us, and we learn to hold all things dearly, but not too tightly."

The pursuit of education is highly valued in Muslim families, said Imam Shadeed Muhammad, formerly of the United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia. The first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad is to "read," the imam said.

Yet a Muslim family's strict adherence to the religion's principals and traditions force a balancing act when it comes to the college years. Girls and boys are separated in much of their upbringing, yet a child may want to attend a coed college. Boys are raised to go off on their own, but girls hold a "protected" position in the faith and are viewed as "fragile vessels" and are not as encouraged to "do their own thing," the imam said.

Airama Bryant, who is 18 and a Muslim, is preparing to start school at Penn State's main campus. She leaves next week, and her parents are trusting that she will remember the lessons of family and faith.

"We gave her a strong foundation," said Maria Bryant, Airama's mother. "She will never learn that self-control if we don't give her a chance to do it on her own."

In Buddhism, the guiding principal of being mindful of one's thoughts, actions, and the interconnectedness of all life lends itself to lessons about family, said Tony Stultz, director of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg.

Acknowledge the pain of the separation and talk about it with each other, Stultz said. Accept the constantly changing nature of life and refrain from trying to stop it, and maintain the family connection, Stultz said.

"Don't worry about being a pain. Stay in contact, always respecting the fact that they are adults," Stultz advised parents.

At Kol Ami, about 41 students will be entering college over the next four years, 11 this fall. On Friday, Holin called the families to gather in front of the Ark. Then, the group stood beneath an outstretched prayer shawl for a special blessing.

Parents Jeff Cohen and Ellen Friedman stood with their daughter Leah, 18, a sophomore at George Washington University in Washington.

When Leah Cohen went away for the first time as a freshman, her father felt the loss even in the seemingly little things, like the 10-minute father-daughter breakfasts the two shared every morning.

Each year, it gets easier.

"We had more disagreements about how to raise the girls when they were home," Jeff Cohen said of his wife and him. "Now that they're on their own, it makes it easier to just love each other and not get hung up on it."


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