Skip college — embrace Judaism and learn a trade

The conventional profile of American Jews is that they tend to be highly educated and work in professions like medicine, finance, law and the academy.

Jews, of course, “value education,” as the trope about the “People of the Book” goes. And American Jews, since they started arriving in the United States, have pushed for their kids to get the best education as a means of guaranteeing a successful life.

It isn’t a Jewish value to be a doctor, lawyer or neuroscientist, however. Professional achievement isn’t the measure of Jewish success. And the higher education prescribed by Jewish tradition is not of the variant offered at American colleges. In fact, what Judaism has to say on matters of education and profession are quite different than the current American Jewish norm.

Given the realities of the job market — 12.2 percent unemployment for young workers and slowing economic growth — Judaism’s 2,700-year-old position may be extraordinarily relevant for young Jews today.

The most famous rabbinic declaration on education can be found in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a). The passage enjoins Jewish parents to teach their children Torah and a trade, along with getting first-born sons circumcised, finding them a spouse and teaching them to swim.

Of course, this is not all our sages had to say on the matter of parenting: There are discussions about corporal punishment (if you have to do it at all use only a shoelace) and the importance of modeling good behavior (because other forms of advice are likely to be rejected). But this accounting of what parents owe their children is the backbone of Jewish wisdom on parental responsibility.

Lifelong Torah study — and not, say, the pursuit of an M.D. or a J.D. — represents the higher education to which all Jews are meant to commit. But why is a trade so important? The rabbinic commentaries emphasize the idea that a trade, like swimming, builds independence and self-sufficiency.

Later in that same Talmudic passage, there is a warning to parents who fail to provide their children with such tools: “Anyone who does not teach his son a skill or profession may be regarded as if he is teaching him to rob.” This is an amazing degree of seriousness — the rabbis are essentially saying that without independence there is ruin.

Centuries later, in 1912, the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky took up the same cause, beating the drum for commerce and the trades, in large part because he believed the desire among young Russian Jews to move into the professions was contrary to Jewish tradition.

“For generations doing business was the pillar of Jewish life – why abandon it now?” says the main speaker in an article by Jabotinsky called “A Conversation.” “Back to the shop counter! Back to the stores, the banks, the stock exchange – not only to buying and selling, but to industry, to manufacture, to everything ‘practical.’”

In 2015, is such a message really relevant? After all, we hear a lot about how college has become indispensable. President Obama argues that everyone must have access to college, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have competing proposals for making public universities tuition-free.

Yet, a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report offers a surprising retort. The government says that currently there are 6 million more people with bachelor’s degrees than jobs available for them. So college today clearly isn’t the inexorable path to a good job that it once was.

Even those with jobs don’t have the type of employment that a college education once practically guaranteed. The Economic Policy Institute reports that among college graduates, the underemployment rate is 16.8 percent. (Underemployment means the “highly skilled…working in low paying [and low-skilled] jobs… and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time.”)

Difficulty finding a job isn’t the only reason to consider skipping college in favor of the trades: The vast majority of graduates are leaving school with huge loans and no clear path to repaying the debt. As reported by USA Today earlier this year, there are “40 million people across the United States who have monumental student debt” for a total outstanding debt burden of $1.2 trillion. CNN reports that between 2008 and 2014 — the recession years — student loans increased by 84 percent, “and are the only type of consumer debt not decreasing,” according to a study from Experian over the same time period.

These are staggering numbers and the impact is not merely in the area of employment. College debt and a challenging environment in which to get hired have led to a whole generation of young Americans who are delaying adulthood. Couples are renting instead of buying their first house, getting married older and many women are delaying having children until they have established themselves in the workforce, which is taking a decade or longer.

Of course, training to be a welder, a carpenter, electrician, plumber, HVAC specialist or franchise owner is not everyone’s professional fantasy. But here’s something to consider: It takes two fewer years to complete a trade school degree than it does an undergraduate college degree. So while the college student is racking up debt, the trade school grad would be earning on average $71,440 in the same amount of time, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

We are not quite at the point where Jewish mothers across the land will proudly introduce their kid as “my son, the plumber!” But going to college, incurring massive debt and spending years toiling to pay back your loans isn’t necessarily the perfect trajectory – or a Jewish value – either.

(Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based writer whose first book, “No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government out of Parenting,” will be published next year. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter and on Facebook.)

Mom: Resist

When stuck with a rebellious child, gluttonous and thieving, the Torah has a tidy solution: Kill him. Or her.

For those of you excited by this opportunity to practice a new mitzvah, be mindful that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) adds, “The case of the wayward and rebellious child never was and never will be.”

In other words, the rabbis couldn’t find a single, relevant example of a parent acting on this advice. They also concluded that, in the future, they never expected or wanted to see this sort of reaction by parents either.

In this way, the tradition both recognizes the impulse to do violence, and then brings us to our senses and to our obligations.

Still, it’s tempting sometimes, isn’t it?

I used to teach classes to parents of children in elementary school. The moms would arrive at my office like butterflies, wearing bright colors and alighting gracefully in their chairs. They talked a lot and shared stories of their week. We laughed and had fun.

When I started teaching classes for parents of preteens and teenagers, it felt as though the lighting had changed in the room. The moms wore darker clothes and darker expressions. Their mouths were tense little lines. They raised their hands to speak and didn’t speak much.

They were beaten up and humiliated, like an NBA team defeated by a high school squad — a sure sign of a mom at her wit’s end because of a sharp-tongued daughter.

“What happened to my sweet child? Someone took her in the night! This new child, the changeling, doesn’t like me and isn’t too likable herself. In fact, she acts like a bitch. She reminds me of the girls I didn’t like in middle school. Why is she so uncooperative, so rude, so dismissive?”

Sheepishly, they reported the insults hurled by their daughters.

“Mom, the reason you’re so strict is because you have a lot of personal problems. And everyone we know knows this about you. And they talk about it all the time.”

“The reason you won’t let me go to the mall with my friends is that you weren’t very popular when you were in middle school and you want me to be an outcast, too.”

Why would they talk like this?

Aside from dangling then withdrawing the carrot of a more permanent solution, the Talmud tells us: “Every parent has an obligation to teach his or her child how to swim.”

Our children don’t belong to us. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. This means that after all that SAT prep, when they finally do get into college, we want them to stay there without phoning twice a day because they are not crazy about their roommate or because they can’t get the course they want. And we don’t want them coming home after one semester with a stomachache, or because the food is better at home or the bed in the dorm isn’t Tempur-Pedic.

I talk to parents about normal child development. When children are small, they beg you to come into their room and stay there as long as possible, especially at night. When they are teenagers, they get angry if you even look in their room, or enter without permission, especially at night. When they were small, they embarrassed you by screaming in the supermarket; now you embarrass them by singing, ever, or being too friendly, to anyone. They act this way because they are making space to grow away from you, to form their own identity.

As they should.

Don’t look to teenage girls to remind you of your worthiness, dignity or charm: Both their hormones and their spirit tell them that this is the time to begin to separate from parents.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “straits,” or “narrow places.” For mothers of girls, the preteen and early teen years are your Mitzrayim. Eventually, when they turn 16 or 17, you’ll get to the Promised Land: Your old friend will be waiting, but now she’ll be a fine young woman. She’ll be nice to you again and you’ll be proud of her and she’ll be proud of you.

But until then, what to do? In my classes, I say to the parents over and over in every way I can think of: Don’t take eye-rolling as an insult. Think of it this way: At least they are listening. Don’t take any of this personally. Although they may be taller than you are and are certainly more quick-witted, they aren’t doing this to hurt you. What they are doing is not only normal, but necessary.

What about the Fifth Commandment, you ask, honoring parents? When children are young, Jewish law states that we must teach them to be respectful and kind, thoughtful and compassionate.

When you’ve got teenagers, honoring mother and father means doing it yourself. Honor yourself. Treat yourself with dignity. Even if your teenager makes you feel like dirt. Don’t join the attack. The rabbis tell us that we will be called to task in the world to come for every legitimate pleasure available to us of which we did not partake. Admire, nurture and delight yourself. Don’t look to the eye roller to do it.

How to celebrate Mother’s Day in Egypt?

For part of the answer, it’s appropriate to look to your partners in parenting.

Dads and significant others, you are on call today. Say to this beleaguered mom: “You look beautiful.”

Calling this normal-looking person beautiful helps counteract the propaganda of a culture that tells your daughters they need to look perfect.

Then tell her again, in private, and be specific. She works round-the-clock and she’s tired and cranky and hard on herself. Mother’s Day is the right time to remind her in detail how amazing you think she is.

And Moms, you should talk to other moms. Remember Mommy and Me? When you got to check in with fellow travelers about the proper color and consistency of baby poop, and how to manage sleep deprivation and no sex. Remember how you calmed each other down and laughed and commiserated? There aren’t many support groups for mothers of teenagers so mothers are alone, scared and ashamed — and unaware that it is just as bad next door. This Mother’s Day, find a private spot and call a friend who has a teenage daughter. Kvetch, laugh, remind each other that everything with children is just a stage. Take the long view. And have a pleasant Mother’s Day.

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles. She is the author of the best-selling parenting book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Penguin, 2001). She is currently writing a book for parents of adolescents, “The Blessing of a B Minus.”


Enrichment Briefs

Art and Yoga for Youngsters

The University of Judaism is hosting ArtYoga for youngsters this summer, a two-week program in July that combines art and physical discipline in way that helps kids learn self-awareness, self-control, empathy and empathy skills. Camp will culminate in an exhibit and demonstration.

July 11-22 at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive. For information call Jane Forelle, (310) 471-7105.

Summer: A Great Time to Get Healthy

With summer around the corner and barbecues and ice cream a daily occurrence, Kaiser Permanente is launching a “Get More Energy” campaign. Colorful, kid-directed posters — available to pediatricians, schools and camps — advise kids to get off the couch and play, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and to cut back on video games and TV time. Like Kaiser’s earlier “Broccoli” campaign, “Get More Energy” directs kids and educators to a Web site with articles and tip sheets on healthy living and eating.

For information go to

Special-Needs Camps for Adults, Kids

The Orthodox Union (OU) has openings in a range of summer programs for children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities through Yachad, the flagship program of OU’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities.

Adults 18 and older can join high school tours to Israel or Florida, and campers 9-21 can get the extra aid they need to spend the summer in mainstream Jewish camps on the East Coast.

A two-week summer vacation at a camp in Maryland still has some openings, but there’s no more space in the Summer Camp Vocational Program, where those with disabilities work in camp kitchens, canteens, offices or sports programs.

For information go to, or call (212) 613-8229.

ADL Offers Free Trip to D.C. for High School Juniors

Applications are due June 3 for high school juniors (current sophomores) who want to participate in the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Grosfeld Family National Youth Leadership Mission to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Nov. 13-16.

The program — with all-expenses paid — brings together high school students of all races, religions and socio-economic levels to the nation’s capital to learn about the Holocaust and ways to fight prejudice in schools and communities. Students will be required to participate in ADL’s Dream Dialogue program for the 2005-2006 school year, which includes a retreat, quarterly meetings and community service projects.

For information call Jenny Betz at the ADL, (310) 446-8000, ext. 233, or e-mail

Teens Get Their Shot at Israel Basketball Camp

When Aulcie Perry showed up in Israel in 1976, his goal was to work on his game in a summer league and get into the NBA, which had rejected him in the draft. Like so many who travel to Israel, the 6-foot-11 African American New Jersey native never looked back.

He led this year’s European champions, Maccabi Tel Aviv, to victory in the 1981 European Cup, the 1980 Intercontinental Cup, nine league championships and eight National Cups. Now, he runs sports institutes for kids in Tel Aviv, and this year he is adding a new one — Sal Stars, based in Givat Washington, a religious sports university near Ashdod. Perry will be joined by Jewish sports heroes Tal Brody and Tamir Goodman in the basketball, soccer and tennis clinic geared for observant teens ( but open to everyone) July 7-28.

For more information go to and

New Camp and Retreat Center Opening

Southern California’s newest camp and retreat center is opening its doors for an open house later this summer, as the San Diego Jewish Community Camp and Retreat Center dedicates Camp Mountain Chai in Angelus Oaks. The Center purchased the camp in December, and will be open throughout the year for retreats and conferences. A residential camp will be open by summer 2006.

The Sunday, Aug. 28 open house will feature full use of the heated pool, ropes course, sand volleyball court and other sports facilities and hiking trails, as well as a keynote by Foundation for Jewish Camping President Jerry Silverman.

For information go to or call (858) 535-1995.

Briefs compiled by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Blessed With Talents

Everybody’s good at something. The trick is to discover what it is. In Parshat Vayechi, Jacob blesses each of his 12 sons. They each receive a blessing that is appropriate to their skills. Judah is blessed with leadership, for from him will be born kings. Benjamin is told he is a wolf, because his descendants will be mighty warriors. Asher is blessed with richness — his descendants will grow the best olive trees.

Think about what you’re good at. Now think about a kid in your class who is good at something else. Your challenge is to find out what it is: paper airplanes? miniature golf? crossword puzzles? And then you and your classmate can get together and help each other learn a new skill.

Teaching Skills

Fifteen years ago, when he was 16, Sandra Lanza’s son Mark, received his first job through Jewish Vocational Service. It was a summer position he landed with the help of a program then called “Project Gelt.” Now his mother is following Mark’s example and seeking help at JVS as well. “My son told me many years ago, ‘Mom, if you want to find a job, you have to learn computer skills.'” For Lanza, who is past 50, the age factor is a worry, not only because we live in a youth-oriented culture, but because the march of technology so quickly makes years of experience obsolete.

“Many people our age aren’t familiar with the computer,” she said. “I have friends who are afraid of it, and that’s a big drawback when you’re going for a job today.” Lanza herself, who has a background as a telemarketing manager and was laid off after six months from a job as a technical recruiter, has fairly good computer skills, but needed even more to pursue a career in human resources. At JVS, with aid from a new grant being offered to mature workers through Hillside Memorial Park, she took JVS Skills Plus classes in PowerPoint and Excel to help her be more competitive in her new field. PowerPoint taught her to make her own slide presentation, deciding on logos, font size, clip art and even sound effects. “It’s almost as much fun as sex,” she said.