On September 1, my husband, Larry, and I will move our son Gabriel into his dormitory room at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he will begin his freshman year.
How do we formally honor this important rite of passage that, more than a Bar Mitzvah and more than his high school graduation, marks Gabe’s entrance into adulthood, with all the concomitant responsibilities?
Let me say that another way.
How do we kiss Gabe goodbye without dissolving into pitiful, sobbing fools who will undoubtedly embarrass both our son and ourselves?
Judaism gives us plenty of advice on child rearing. Proverbs 22:6, for example, says, “Train a child in the way he should go, so when he is old he will not depart from it.”
But what Judaism doesn’t give us, when a child is old enough to depart from us, is a ritual to mark the sanctity of the occasion and, no matter how much we anticipate the eventual prospect of an empty nest, to contain our overwhelming emotions.
“By its very nature, this is something that can’t be contained,” Gabe insists. “I just have to go out and live it.”
But how do we live it?
We know from experience — our oldest, Zack, is beginning his senior year of college — how gut wrenching the actual leave-taking is.
We know from experience how permanently our family configuration will — once again — seismically shift.
What can we do beyond opening a new checking account and beyond ordering, among other things, two sets of extra long sheets and a hamper, and beyond playing Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” over and over in the car and hysterically crying, a form of implosion therapy recommended by my psychologist friend Jody, whose oldest child leaves for college this month?
Surprisingly, Judaism offers a number of leaving-home ceremonies. The oldest I discovered, dating back to the 1970s and found in “The Second Jewish Catalogue” (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976), is called “On Leaving Home: A New Rite of Passage.” It recommends several home rituals, since Judaism places so much emphasis on the family, that range from hosting Havdalah, the quintessential Jewish separation ceremony, to invoking the traditional Jewish blessing over the children.
Others can be found on ritualwell.org, a website that collects and makes available a variety of innovative Jewish ceremonies and traditions. One includes a father’s prayer to be read at the Shabbat table while another provides a ceremony for affixing, if permissible, a mezuzah on the child’s dorm doorpost.
And the Union for Reform Judaism publishes “T’filot HaDerech — Rituals for the Road to College” (available at urj.org). Part of the Packing for College Initiative, proposed by former URJ president Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the Union’s 67th biennial, the booklet includes rituals and readings for congregations, families and individuals to celebrate this modern life passage.
Additionally, a few congregations have moved confirmation to the end of 12th grade, enabling the students, according to Rabbi Fred Guttman writing in the spring 2005 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, “to intertwine what it means to come of age both as Jews and as young adults — the emotional touchstones of graduation and leaving home for college.”
But why haven’t these leaving-home ceremonies taken off? Why aren’t we gathering together as families, as day school classes and as congregations before sending our 18 year olds off to college? After all, we Jews are adept at marking life transitions that challenge and overwhelm us — birth, adolescence, marriage and death — with ceremonies that comfort, contain and sustain us.
“Perhaps it’s because we tend to focus on b’nai mitzvah, confirmation and graduation,” Rabbi Michael Mellen, director of youth programs at Union for Reform Judaism, says. “As a whole, we see [leaving home] as a natural progression that just sort of happens and doesn’t need something to bring it home spiritually.”
But he recognizes the need, along with the beauty and the power, of a ceremony to bring parents and young adults together at this moment.
And so on the Shabbat prior to Gabe’s departure, Larry and I will integrate a small ceremony into our Shabbat dinner, something to give voice to our excitement and our pain, our pride and our fears.
“What do you plan to do?” Gabe asks suspiciously.
“We will each say something nice about you and talk about what we will miss most,” I answer.
“This is serious, isn’t it?” he says.
And Larry and I will bestow the traditional blessing: “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face give light to you and show you favor. May God bestow favor upon you and give you peace.”
Carleton College has given us parents a graph depicting Gullahorn and Gullahorn’s W-curve Theory of Adjustment to show just how bumpy a student’s adjustment to college can be — from honeymoon to culture shock to initial adjustment to mental isolation to acceptance and integration.
We parents have an equally bumpy road ahead, with a goal, however appropriate, that seems unattainable.
And so, on September 2, when Larry and I say our final goodbye to Gabe, no matter how meaningful our last Shabbat dinner and no matter how many times we have cried to “Forever Young,” we will undoubtedly fall apart.
Then, as Gabe says, we will just have to go out and live it.