“Dear Rabbi Goldmintz:
A trend I’m seeing or hearing in my college-age children and “all their friends”, (according to them) is a “freedom” from some basic religious limitations while they’re in college and yet, a confidence that they will go back to being “religious” when they get older, have spouses, families, etc. More particularly, while they still keep kosher and go to Friday night dinners, the college kids I see feel comfortable using their phones on Shabbat, fearful of losing touch with their friends both physically (if they are going to a party after Shabbat dinner) and emotionally. While I relish the liberation from all things electronic on Shabbat (a reason if I ever needed one to be shomer Shabbat), our kids can’t quite break the habit. Yet, they are confident that this will come to an end and they will resume their usual religious practices in the future. Is this a stage of religious development?”
There was a time many moons ago when people thought that once high school was over, kids were well on their way to another stage of life. That’s still true… sort of. That new stage, once called adulthood, was marked by the assumption of responsibilities, the gaining of more independence and autonomy. Kids moved on to college and then to get jobs, get married and have kids of their own. In 1960, this described about 70% of all thirty year olds. But in 2000, it described only about 40%. What happened in the interim is something that we all know or can intuit — the changing job market and the economic and political climate, the postponement of marriage by both genders, the uncertainty of life’s traditional structures. Rather than moving away, many kids moved back home after college. So widespread has this phenomenon become that it achieved its own status as a separate stage of life. One social scientist, Jeffrey Arnett, refers to it as “emerging adulthood.” Others refer to it by the more ennobling title of “the odyssey years.”
If everything else is in flux during this period from 18 to their late twenties or beyond, so too is religious practice. There was probably a lessening of observance for many in any event on the college campus. College in this country was always about opening oneself up to new ideas, to experimentation (and not just with ideas), and socializing with new people (and that was before social media). Very often college kids were just too busy to involve themselves with traditional religious institutions and life (even with a great OU-JLIC couple or Hillel on campus). And so kids drifted away, and using cell phones on Shabbat was and is the least of it. (And, if you will permit me to put in an advertisement – that is why the post high school year in a religious institution in Israel has always been such a powerful force to inoculate against such drifting away; for it enables kids to reorient and re-center their lives so that observance is not easily relegated to the background.) After college, some came back and some did not. Some came back to the religious lives they had lived as adolescents, some came back to a variation thereof either in practice or in beliefs. Only a small number of others eventually established a life that was even more rooted in tradition than their parents had been.
There is, however, some more encouraging news. In a longitudinal study of over 2500 emerging adults across the country (almost all non-Jews), one researcher discovered what most others have found in less comprehensive studies. Whether they were strongly committed or weakly committed, “most youth tends as emerging adults to remain generally the kind of religious people they were as teenagers. [Yet,] in the midst of this continuity, we do observe a stronger “downwardly”-shifting tendency among many youth when it comes to religion.” (C. Smith, P. Snell. Souls in Transition:The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
In other words, there is often a decline in observance in adolescence, as we have already discussed. Then, in college, separated from parental reinforcement, there can be yet a further decline in observance and/or belief. Nowadays, that period is extended even further into the odyssey years. But eventually, hopefully, when they finally get married and have kids, many will return to some form of the religious values of the homes in which they were raised. In short, in the best case scenario, (and we all know many exceptions) it all comes back to the way that they were raised as kids. At the risk of sounding dramatic, if you have young children now, know that your excitement or lack thereof about religious life can have an impact for decades to come.
And thus we come full circle. From the enthusiasm and idealism of our young childhood, where the coming of mashiach or the presence of God could be palpable, to the challenges and confusion or healthy resolution of adolescence, to the ambivalence of emerging adulthood or the odyssey years, to being the adults who have traveled a long way to get to where we are today, some of us happy with where we are, others of us who still feel that something was lost or missing along the way.
Hopefully our faith has become more sophisticated in certain ways than it was when we were younger but it behooves us to remember that our kids are on their own developmental journey and need our help to negotiate its twists and turns. Sometimes they need to be left on their own, unaware that we are watching closely from afar, at other times they need us to be a guide who can direct them or forcefully take them by the hand at different forks in the road. No different than our attitudes to homework or social lives or development of some interest outside of school, religious development is in need of our proactive parenting. The outcome can never be guaranteed, of course, but neither should it be left to chance or to schools or to God. Hopefully, in partnership with schools and shuls and with God’s help, we can lay the foundations for our kids that they will build upon and keep coming back to, conscious of the fact that, as Picasso once said, it takes a long time to grow young.
Please share your comments, questions or stories at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than thirty five years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.