It is a Jewish adulthood story familiar to most parents of college-age children, if not all of them: your school-age child comes home after school or after a traumatic event such as separation and declares that he is no longer Jewish. Even if he doesn’t say it in many words, your child explains that he no longer has any interest in religion. He does not want to attend services, does not fast on Yom Kippur or plans with friends instead of coming to the Passover meal or Rosh Hashana. If your Jewish identity is important to you, you may be wondering where you fell and how you can fix it.
Of course, you cannot force your former Jewish youth to adhere to Judaism. Doing so will just push it away. Besides, Judaism requires participants to reach it entirely at their own will; if your child’s heart is not in Judaism, there is no indication that he continues to perform empty rituals. G-d does not want this kind of presentation, and certainly does not want the arguments and conflicts associated with trying to impose your religious beliefs on them. So what can you do?
The first thing to realize is that the conflict is not about Judaism, and it is not about your skills as a parent. Young Jews, like their non-Jewish peers, often struggle to find their place in a world where they are not fully prepared to live independently and are expected to contribute to it. If your child rejects Judaism, the odds occur in his life that prompted this decision. Perhaps he was simply exploring at his first opportunity to really make his decision, and in this case not to worry too much; he would probably return to Judaism when he did the experiment if he left him alone. However, something serious has happened in his life which has led him to question everything. It is common for Jewish youth to wonder about their religion after a bad break-up of the romantic relationship or after discovering some truth about themselves or about life that makes them wonder about their other established beliefs. The only way to find out why your child is surprised by Judaism is asking him.
If it is important to have this conversation, it is important to redouble the handling of the problem in a non-judicial manner. If your child feels it is unacceptable for you to have anything other than Jewish, you won’t trust you enough to talk about what is really happening. Remember that as her father, you are worried about your child, not her posters. Your goal is to find out if something is bothering your child and provide help with this problem if you can, and not force her to follow a lifestyle that is more appropriate for you than for her.
The bottom line is that our Jewish youth 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 that the previous generation may not have discussed before. Today, Jewish youth face questions about themselves, relationships about their sexual identities and choices, and the question of “Who am I?” It is deeper and more widespread than ever. In the past, young people turned to religion and G-D to help them answer this question – today, the question of what kind of God one believes is part of the identity crisis faced by many young Jews.
If young Jews turn their backs on Judaism, it is because religion – or at least the synagogues familiar to them – offers them no hope that things will become less confusing or that there are no answers to their dilemmas. College-age Jewish children look elsewhere for answers, sometimes finding the right answers and sometimes going off course. The question you should ask yourself is not “How can I bring my child back to Judaism?” But “How can I help my child trust that he will find his place in the world?” The only thing a child can try to diagnose himself and the outside world is to give him the love he needs. Through a lot of talking to your child about his beliefs and experiences, you may be able to help them return to their Jewish roots. or not. In either case, you will discover who your child is really at the same time as he discovers it for himself.
Leaving Judaism, either temporarily or permanently, is a ritual coming to the Jews as is the case with the Bar or Mitzvah. 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 better prepared to help him navigate in any way he chooses and hopefully you end up in the right one.