What to Do If Your College-Aged Child Turns His Back on Judaism

It’s a Jewish coming-of-age story familiar to most, if not all, parents of college-age children: your college-aged child comes home after a semester away at school or after a traumatic event such as a break-up and announces that he is no longer Jewish. Even if he doesn’t say so in as many words, your child makes it clear he no longer has any interest in the religion. He doesn’t want to attend services, doesn’t fast on Yom Kippor or makes plans with friends instead of coming to a Passover or Rosh Hashanah meal. If your Jewish identity is important to you, you might wonder where you went wrong, and how you can fix it.

Of course, you can’t force your formerly Jewish young adult to make a commitment to Judaism. Doing so will only push her further away. Besides, Judaism requires participants to come to it fully of their own will; if your child’s heart isn’t in Judaism, there’s little point to her continuing to perform empty rituals. G-d doesn’t want that kind of offering and you certainly don’t want the arguments and conflict that go along with trying to force your religious beliefs on her. So what can you do?

The first thing to realize is that the conflict isn’t about Judaism, and it isn’t about your skills as a parent. Jewish young adults, like their non-Jewish peers, often struggle to find their place in a world they are not quite ready to live independently in and are expected to contribute to. If your child is rejecting Judaism, chances are something is going on in his life that prompted that decision. He may simply be reveling in his first opportunity to truly make his own decision, in which case you don’t have to worry too much; he’ll probably come back to Judaism when he’s done experimenting if you leave him alone. However, something serious might have happened in his life that’s causing him to question everything. It’s common for Jewish young adults to question their religion after a bad break-up of romantic relationship or after discovering some truth about themselves or about life that makes them wonder which of their other deeply-held beliefs are false. The only way to find out the reason for your child’s sudden distaste for Judaism is to ask him.

If it’s important to have this conversation, it’s doubly important to approach the issue in a non-judgmental way. If your child feels that it’s unacceptable to you for her to be anything other than Jewish, she won’t trust you enough to talk about what’s really going on. Remember that as her parent, you are concerned about your child, not about her labels. Your goal is to find out if something’s bothering your child and offer help with that problem if you can, not to force her into a lifestyle that’s more appropriate for you than for her.

The bottom line is that our young Jewish people need hope and a vision of how to live in the world. This is more important than ever, as young people today face a rapidly-changing world full of questions and considerations the previous generation might never have considered. Jewish youth today face questions about themselves and about relationships having to do with their sexual identities and choices, and the question of “Who am I?” is deeper and more pervasive than ever. In the past, young people turned towards religion and G-d to help them answer that question — today, the question of what type of deity one believes in is part of the identity crisis many Jewish young adults face.

If young Jewish people are turning their backs on Judaism, it’s because the religion — or at least the temples they are familiar with — aren’t providing them with hope that things will become less confusing or that there are any answers to their dilemmas. College-aged Jewish kids are looking elsewhere for answers, and sometimes they find the right ones and other times they go way off course. The question you should be asking yourself is not, “How can I bring my child back to Judaism?” but “How can I help my child trust that he’ll find his place in the world?” The only thing that can be done for a child who is trying to figure himself and the world out is to give him the love he needs. Through lots of talking with your child about his beliefs and experiences, you might be able to help him come back to his Jewish roots. Or not. Either way, you’ll discover who your child really is at the same time as he discovers it for himself.

Leaving Judaism, whether temporarily or permanently, is a Jewish coming-of-age ritual as surely as bar or bat mitzvah is. If you can accept it for what it is — part of your child’s attempt to figure out how he wants to live in the world — you’ll be far better prepared to help him navigate whatever path he’s chosen and hopefully end up on the right one.