The Life-Cycle of an Interfaith Relationship: Sending Kids to College

By S. Courtney Nathan


It’s time to send your child off to college. If you are an interfaith couple, you probably think once your child is grown and you’re ready to send her/him off to college, you have got nothing else to worry about, right? All of those painful, emotional discussions about weddings, holidays, raising kids and dealing with families will be over and done with. What could religion possibly have to do with college? If this is you, think again because religion can have a lot to do with college.

Religious Identity Exploration

To begin with, religious identity exploration takes on a whole new complexity when a kid goes to college. Suddenly experiencing so much freedom to think, act and believe whatever she/he wants can be very seductive. Most college kids are still deep into their search for a sense of true self. They are eager to hear what their friends have to say about everything from politics to sex to religion. And they are interested in trying out new ways of being, even if the old ways were perfectly good. This is a normal part of the evolution of a teen into an adult, but it can be frightening for parents.

Parents must let their children make their own decisions once they reach adulthood. One family sat by while their child took a semester in Israel and began practicing Orthodox Judaism. While the parents were concerned for their child’s safety and also felt some distance from him because he had become so traditional, they allowed him to explore his faith in the way that he needed to.

Once they have sent their children off to school, parents must accept that they now have almost no control over what their children do. When their children were young, they were able to “give” them religion because religion is an adult thing. However, now that the children are adults, they can choose whether or not to keep what they were given. This is a time when parents must let go and hope that the work they have done over the past eighteen years will pay off.

Those parents who have never addressed religion may feel guilt or regret at having avoided the issue. Those who have made difficult choices and sacrifices over the years may feel anxiety over whether their choices were the right ones.  What if their child rejects the chosen faith and chooses another religion? How will they handle that? Does it mean that they failed this test of parenting?

One interfaith couple felt shock when their Catholic son rejected his faith while in college and began identifying as Jewish. His strong identification with his Jewish grandfather led him to feel more connected to that faith. The parents felt wonderment at his choice because they had raised him with a solid Catholic upbringing. As with any other aspect of being a parent, there is always something you can find about yourself to criticize. And no one ever gets it absolutely right because no one is perfect.

Religious Considerations When Choosing a College

For some families, religious issues may surface before your child ever goes away, when the college search actually begins. There are many religious considerations when choosing a college. For Jewish kids, there is the question of the Jewish population on any given campus. What is the community like in terms of religious life? Will a Jewish student feel comfortable in a town without a synagogue? Does a child of intermarriage see the opportunity to explore a part of his or her heritage by choosing a strongly religiously affiliated school or geographic area? Does either parent want their child to attend their alma mater? If so, did they attend a parochial school? Have they discussed their wishes with their spouse?

What about fraternities and sororities? Are there Jewish houses on campus? Will a child of intermarriage raised in neither faith be eligible for a Jewish sorority? How should interfaith students identify themselves if religion is still a question mark? Was either parent involved in Greek life and will religion become an issue if the child wants to be a legacy? Parents should look into the options available to their kids and try to stay involved in their decisions by talking openly with their children about their wishes.

Interdating in College

And what about interdating? Once kids go to college, not only does dating become more probable than it may have been in high school, it also often becomes more serious. If they have not already done so, parents should open a dialogue regarding their own feelings and wishes about intermarriage and learn what the thoughts of their child are on the subject.

It is okay to let your child know that religion is important to you, regardless of the choices you have made. It is even okay to express regret or wonder about choices you made when you were younger. For example, a parent who has raised her child out of her faith may be struck by new feelings of loneliness as she sees her child grow up and have a religious identity that is very different from her own.

One parent whose children were grown expressed regret that he had not made more serious decisions when his children were young because he had assumed it would all work itself out over time. Years later, he felt that he had missed an opportunity to give his children some valuable experiences. Remember, no one is perfect and children actually benefit from learning from their parents that it’s okay to just be human.

For interfaith couples, this is a time when religious feelings may again surface. As their children explore their own religious identities, old feelings and losses are likely to come up for parents. This is particularly true if the child is the last to leave, creating an “empty nest” just ripe for some strong emotions to grow and develop.

Couples should be sensitive to the emotional challenge of sending a child off to school. Though the freedom and opportunity may be enticing, the loss of routines and activity plus the awareness of aging may be painful. This tends to be a very hard time for couples that have avoided important relationship issues in the wake of raising children.


About S. Courtney Nathan

S. Courtney Nathan LCSW, is a clinical social worker and co-author of the book, When a Parent Is Seriously Ill, Practical Tips for Helping Parents and Children. Formerly coordinator of the Outreach to Intermarrieds program at Jewish Family Service, she is currently taking time off to raise her children.