Holiday care packages provide college students a reminder of their traditions

Rebecca Handler, sophomore, Lafayette High School

While college is a time for students to venture out into a new stage of their lives and begin making decisions for themselves, that doesn’t mean they must leave their past behind.

Congregation B’nai Amoona helps to remind Jewish college students of their roots four times a year.

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B’nai Amoona member Susan Drapekin was the first to make care packages for college students during Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover. Drapekin first began creating and sending the care packages in an effort to remind students of the four most celebrated Jewish holidays.

“I tried really hard to find things that brought up memories, either of their growing up at B’nai Amoona, or just if you’re gone for the holidays and your mom’s not providing you with the specific holiday food, I tried to have something that they’d open up to remind them,” Drapekin said.

As the mother of three children in college, Drapekin already had an idea of what college students would want in a care package. But she also reached out to other groups to determine how best to provide Jewish students with comforting reminders of home.

“I’ve tried to branch out into the synagogue to get input from groups that would help these college kids bring up some remembrance,” Drapekin said.

Zach Dalin, a senior at Bradley University and member of B’nai Amoona, believes that the care packages do remind students of their synagogue and their back home.

“They’re still watching out for us even though we’re not in St. Louis anymore,” Dalin said. “Even though we’re not physically there, they make sure we keep those things going in our lives.”

Funded by the community at B’nai Amoona, Drapekin organized 50 to 60 boxes on her own time. These boxes, which travel all over the country to students who have belonged to B’nai Amoona, include items specific to each holiday. For example, on Hanukkah, a gift card may be included, and on Rosh Hashanah, apples and honey to remind the students of the tradition. Most of the packages include food for each holiday that may be difficult for students to find on their own in college. They also include Drapekin’s touches of thoughtfulness and care.

“I have in my head that this could be the box that goes to my child, so I just really tried to take care of each one,” Drapekin said.

In addition to reminding the students of their synagogue and faith, the packages are designed to offer reassurance that people back home care about them.  

Drapekin wants students to know that just because they’re gone, people are still thinking about them, she said.

This project helped Drapekin understand the importance of college kids staying linked to the congregation and their Judaism even after they leave home.

“It reaffirmed how important it is for a synagogue not to stop their contact with students once they head out of the system,” Drapekin said. “You know you get in college and you’re bombarded with a lot of different forces that you haven’t had in the past.

You’re kind of out there on your own. Your parents give you a base, but it’s up to you at that point, so it reaffirmed how really important it is to maintain contact with college students.”

After five years on the project, Drapekin will pass the job on this coming Rosh Hashanah to close friend and fellow B’nai Amoona congregant Susan Friedman. She looks forward to carrying on the tradition and understands its importance.

Friedman also has children in college, so she can relate to the students. In fact, it was her experiences with her own children that led her to agree to take on the job.

“I have two boys in college, so I feel like it’s an important thing. I’m friends with Susan and she had done them for so many years,” Friedman said.

As Drapekin nears her final care package, she hopes that her efforts have eased students’ transition to college by reminding them of their Jewish roots and calling back memories of their family and childhood.

“Even if one person, in all the years I did it, in all the packages, was reminded at a time when they needed somebody, needed their Judaism, or needed the people they grew up with in that part of their lives, that they remember they’re there,” Drapekin said. “That was what was in my head.”