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.

Book Tells African Girl’s Story of Survival and Her Triumph in Her Struggle to Get an Education

A Long Way to School tells the fascinating life story of Seconde Nimenya, who grew up in Burundi, Africa in the 1970s.

Nimenya is the author of three other books, including Evolving Through Adversity, her award-winning memoir. A Long Way to School is her young readers edition of that book, rewritten to inspire middle and high school age readers to overcome the challenges in their own lives. Western students will discover not only how good they have it compared to people in the developing countries, but they will discover anything is possible when you are determined to succeed.

Seconde Nimenya’s story is one of relentless determination in the face of challenges and a constant desire to learn and rise above her circumstances, no matter the odds.

From her early life, Nimenya refused to give up. As an infant, she crawled into a fire when her mother left the room for just a minute. Her parents had to carry her to the nearest hospital, an hour away by car, but since they didn’t have a car, they did the trip on foot.

Whether it was dealing with poverty and not being able to afford the mere necessities, fighting to get an education, walking everywhere she went, or dealing with the bullies in school and in life, Nimenya never gave up. Her resilience through much adversity is what made her who she is and informed her mission in life.

A Long Way to School is the story of fulfilling a purpose to become educated despite the difficulties. Nimenya never even touched a book until she was in sixth grade.

I doubt any reader in North America has experienced the hardships Nimenya did in getting to school, but she was determined to succeed, and she did. Eventually, she married and moved to Canada and then to the United States. She went to college, and perhaps most amazing of all, the girl who didn’t even know what a book was as a child, grew up to be a writer. She is now the author of four books and plans to write many more.

A Long Way to School will open the eyes of anyone to the privileges we take for granted in public education in the United States. Nimenya states, “I believe education is the only solution that truly empowers communities and has the potential to end the cycle of poverty and violence.” Her commitment to education, the obstacles she overcame, and what she had been able to accomplish will be eye-opening and inspiring to young readers.

Nimenya’s message is one of hope and encouragement. She believes that with determination, people can always achieve their dreams. No matter how difficult the journey, she tells us to “Always be persistent, like I was, even though it was a long way to school because I knew when I got there, it would be worth it.”

A Long Way to School is a wonderful book for young readers everywhere. It would be a perfect reading assignment for history, social studies, and English classes. In addition to sharing her story, Nimenya shares some leadership insights, the “Ten Leadership Habits for Your Teen Years and Beyond,” for readers to develop. She also provides a set of “Reflection Questions” at the end so readers can apply the concepts and ideas they’ve learned to their own lives, helping them figure out their own purposes and the futures they want to create for themselves.

Seconde Nimenya’s writing style is easy to read, and suitable for young readers from middle school grade level to older readers. The cover suits the book well because it shows a little girl struggling to walk to school, when school was so far away from home-a literal and figurative image of what Nimenya’s life has been. Read what this young girl has endured, and you will understand how you can also make the best out of any situation through perseverance.

I highly recommend A Long Way to School.

Katniss Becomes the Mockingjay

One of the great reads for young as well as older adults is a trilogy of novels known as the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The series of stories deal with oppression, conquest, struggle for survival, hunters and those preyed upon, deprivation, courage, and a strong love triangle. There are many exciting twists and turns in the series, particularly over whom Katniss will choose as her final love interest: Peetah or Gale, both “citizens” of her district; and rumors of a mysterious D13 and its ultimate role in the story’s resolution. The three books are narrated by Katniss, which lends a deeply personal tone and excitement to the saga. In the first book, following the arena contest, Katniss waits in a basement room for her televised appearance. By her actions in the arena at the end, she has aroused the hatred of President Snow, which explains her fears in the following excerpt from the first novel:

The damp, moldy smell beneath the stage threatens to choke me. A cold, clammy sweat breaks out on my skin and I can’t rid myself of the feeling that the boards above my head are about to collapse, to bury me alive under the rubble. When I left the arena, when the trumpet played, I was supposed to be safe. From then on. For the rest of my life. But if what Haymitch (her drunkard mentor and a former arena victor) says is true, and he’s got no reason to lie, I’ve never been in such a dangerous place in my life.

The first book in the saga, entitled The Hunger Games, introduces a graphic background about a war that has left the United States divided into 12 districts, each ruled by the victors from a city called The Capitol. Each district provides a different need of the rulers: for example, D12 supplies coal; another district provides training for the peacekeeper troops.

For the last 75 years the Capitol has held arena events. Every year two youths, one female and one male, are selected from each district to perform in a fight-to-the-death contest. There are 24 total. The survivor’s district gets extra benefits and the survivor wins numerous accolades. After the event, all surviving youths are sent on a victors tour of each district.

In the second book, Catching Fire, the drama continues with yet another Arena Event, in which the vengeful Capitol president, Snow, has the selection rigged so that former winners have to compete again. Snow’s real strategy is to get the female victor of Dl2 into another fight in hopes she will be killed. The teenager, Katniss Aberdeen, is gradually becoming the “Mockingjay”, a rallying symbol of a growing rebellion against the Capitol’s heartless oppression.

Mockingjay is the title of the concluding book in this absorbing saga, in which Katniss becomes a Mockingjay, the prime leader rallying figure of all districts, including District 13 that in the last novel in the trilogy has become the ultimate fortress for the masses against the power and force of the Capitol. D13 has been able to develop a standoff with President Snow and his followers because D13 has command of considerable nuclear force. In this third dramatic saga, Katniss goes through strenuous training while her relationship with the president of D13 grows increasingly taut. Her close friend Peetah is in the hands of President Snow and has become unstable mentally. Katniss is unsure of how to reignite their relationship when he finally rejoins them.

With time running out, D13 orders an offensive in one of the other districts to begin its campaign to overthrow Snow’s regime. Katniss and some of her followers make their way subsequently underground into the Capitol, where eventually they are followed by a massive force from D13 that Katniss thinks is ill-advised at that point. A tragic incident results in a shocking, surprising twist at the end, in which the heroine Mockingjay makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that will have far reaching implications. As a reader, I felt that the final book’s narrative becomes pale in that the author should have had Katniss leading the anti-Capitol forces into the city instead of D13’s overly ambitious president.

The Hunger Games books became so popular that four films were authorized, with the first one released in March 2012. Jennifer Lawrence, Academy Award nominee for Best Actress in Winter’s Bone and Best Actress winner for Silver Linings Playbook, won the lead role of Katniss. She won over such well-known actresses as Abigail Breslin (Zombieland, Little Miss Sunshine) Academy Award nominee Hailey Seinfeld (True Grit) and Shailene Woodley (Tris in Divergent and Hazel Grace in The Fault in Our Stars).

Other actors named for coveted roles include Donald Sutherland, as the sinister President Snow; Lenny Kravitz, as Katniss’ caring, brilliant stylist Cinna (who died in the second movie Catching Fire; Woody Harrelson, as her overbearing, unpredictable mentor Haymitch; and Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as her two aspiring lovers Peetah and Gale. Willow Shields was chosen to portray Katniss’ younger sister Prim, whose place Katniss took in the first Arena Event. Another character whom Katniss allies herself with in the first arena contest is diminutive, tragic Rue, a tribute from another district, whose only survival talent seemed to be her speed, Chosen for this role was Amandla Stenberg.