As told to Katie Sanders
College is about exploration—about experiencing new things, meeting and dating new people. It’s sometimes about stepping away from the familiar—about taking the last 18 years of your life and balancing your old ideas, be it your Catholic roots or your untamed obsession with mediocre boy bands, with the experience and the relationships and the challenges to come. For some, religion and faith grow stronger on campus, and for others, breaking away from that parent who tells you, “If he’s not [insert your religion], don’t bother” feels liberating. A recent UCLA study found that students’ regular attendance to religious service dropped significantly over the course of their first few years of college (from 52 percent going before college down to 29 percent still going regularly by their junior year) but that their values and religious and cultural ideals largely remained.
What follows isn’t a look at the specifics of certain religions or practices but at the human experience. It’s a look at the exploration, obstacles and learning that takes place when feelings and faith meet head on.
Getting Serious About Him And His Jewish Faith
Lily*, a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in international relations, has been dating her boyfriend, Landon*, for 15 months. He’s a practicing Reform Jew, she a less religious Christian, and the relationship has taught her a lot—everything from the importance of family values to how matzoh ball soup is a great calorie-saver.
We’re together every moment minus when we have class. It’s sort of crazy. Every night, and we eat dinner together almost every night … breakfast, the gym, homework. Last semester there were only two times where we didn’t sleep together. We’re best friends.
I’m half German and half British. I grew up in Los Angeles, but both my parents are from Europe. We’re Protestant and Lutheran, but I’ve never been forced to practice a certain religion. In elementary school, one of my peers asked me what religion I was and I had no clue. I’ve been to church probably ten times—I was baptized as a baby and went occasionally for Christmas but it was mainly for the singing of carols and not for the religious aspect. At the same time, though, I was brought up to pray every night before bed and believe in Jesus and God. I’d say I was brought up in a moralistic religious family with the idea of respect and treating others fairly, but I’m definitely Christian. My parents lean toward the side of wanting me to marry a Christian, but I never felt as if they would disown me or approve if he wasn’t Christian.
I’ve dated two Christians and three Jews. Religion isn’t an important factor in my love life, but if the person is completely incompatible with my religious views, I don’t think I could be with him.
Landon and I met for the first time in the fall of sophomore year, and we started dating in February. We had a mutual friend and a class together, and it has been a whirlwind of a relationship. We spent every night together the first week, hanging out and watching movies. I practically moved in by the third week—he scanned me into his fingerprint lock and I brought my groceries to his place.
I knew before I had met him that he was Jewish—the friend who introduced us had told me about him and I think mentioned it. My first Jewish boyfriend was over the summer and I was close with his family and grandparents. Judaism was never an issue or really brought up. It’s more just a coincidence that I’ve dated a few Jews. I’ve definitely dated guys for who they were, not their religion. It’s funny—since German and Yiddish are similar, I’ve always said “oy.”
The first time I met his parents was on Rosh Hashanah, which was nerve-racking because I had no clue what the day meant and had to meet his parents and grandparents and family friends. Talk about pressure. We went up to New York and—Oh, actually it was Yom Kippur. I’m still bad with the holidays.
Landon goes to temple on the holidays, but his mom is more religious and she lights the candles on Shabbat. He’s gone to temple when he’s in trouble with his mom, but he doesn’t really go at Penn. He’s partially kosher and doesn’t eat pork, but he doesn’t make sure the meat is cut in a certain way or avoid shellfish. On our second date, which he considered the “clincher,” we went to an Italian place and I had a dish with sausage and totally didn’t think it was made of pork, so I asked him if he wanted to try. He said yes and he ate it, no issue. So a month and a half later, we were about to go to his parents’ for the holidays and I’m eating meatballs and ask him if he wants some. He says, “No, it has pork.” So I’m eating my meatballs and suddenly I say “But you ate at the sausage” and he looks at me sheepishly and says, “I didn’t want you to think badly about me.” But now he generally won’t eat pork. He’ll make exceptions on certain occasions, like we were at dinner with my mom and a dish had bacon in it, and he quickly shushed me when I asked if he didn’t want to order it. But if we make bacon, we make sure it’s turkey, and I don’t share my pork sausage with him.
I’m pretty sure he knew I wasn’t Jewish all along. My mom is German, so with the Nazis and the Holocaust, that’s something that’s a little difficult. He went to Germany for the summer and went to a lot of Holocaust museums and saw his grandmother’s name on a plaque for people who were killed, and it also came up during a CSI: New York episode about this guy who killed Jews. It’s a sensitive subject for me because I feel really awkward about what happened. I explained to him that I felt uncomfortable talking about it and watching the episode, and when he told me about the plaque, I just tried to be there to support him and tell him how sorry I was that it happened.
When I go home with him, I really relate to the Jewish religion and the idea of bringing family together. After two months of dating and before we’d gone home to meet his parents for Passover, he’d said that he wanted to marry me (yes, we move fast). I asked him what Passover was, what it entailed—I really only knew of it from the calendar. My best friend is Jewish so I know about some stuff but not the ins and outs of the religion. I had to say something from the book at Passover dinner—about frogs or something. A girl friend of his was there too, which was a little awkward because I was the only non-Jew and I sort of felt like his mom wanted him to be with a Jewish girl. But I loved that entire family feeling. It was like Thanksgiving mixed with story time. That night, I told him that I would consider converting for him. I just told him straight up that I was interested and thinking about it, and he was super excited.
He was living at home for the fall semester, so I would go visit on a lot of weeks and experience Shabbat and the lighting of the candles more. I went for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and I’ve been to temple, sung in Hebrew and been to his grandparents’ for Passover, but we don’t really outright discuss religion. Another thing I’ve noticed, which might be about religion or maybe just how his family is, is that they never call me his girlfriend—just his friend. And yeah, I haven’t been born Jewish or been to Hebrew school, but I listen in temple and sing the songs and read the books at the high holidays and fast, so I’m practically as good a Jew as them and don’t think they consider me going against their religion.
He came home with me for Christmas. He came carol singing at church with us, which was a mess because he was so against it. That night we almost broke up. It wasn’t religious caroling in my mind. It’s more about the feeling of holidays and family, but to him it seemed like more, talking about baby Jesus and silent night. He refused to say it and kept shaking his head. I still don’t fully understand it. I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up without much religion, but I’ve been to his holidays and sat through hours of temple and fasted with him, so I didn’t and still don’t fully understand why he couldn’t sing a few songs in church. I felt disrespected that he couldn’t be there for me when I was there for him. I don’t expect him to change his point of view or beliefs, but I would hope that he would be open enough and supportive enough to sing, especially since my mom put up a menorah for him and was willing to light the candles, though Hannukah was over by the time he arrived.
My parents seem open minded, but I also think they realize it’s awhile until marriage. It’s tradition for us to have pork fondue on Christmas Eve, and when Landon was planning to visit, we were willing to have lamb instead. When he came for the holidays, my family and grandparents got him presents, and he did the same for them. I’d convert as long as I could keep the feeling that’s really important to me. It’s all about family and being together and eating and being merry. So I like that about Judaism—and also just having something to believe in.
If we do get married and have children, I’ll get my Hannukah bush and blue and white lights outside, and they’ll grow up going to Hebrew school and not Sunday school. But they’ll grow up with the morals I’ve learned from Christianity, and I feel like the religions in that respect aren’t different at all.
Pursuing Christianity … And Their Female Followers
Tim is a rising junior at Iowa State University. He’s pre-med, and while he was never particularly religious growing up a Christian in Davenport, Iowa, he recently started attending church in college, where he has discovered a great group of friends—and girls.
I hadn’t really been exposed to church much growing up. I was Lutheran, but we stopped going to church when I was eight. We were never really religious, but the morality was definitely there.
I don’t really drink much and I’m in a frat with kids from lots of different religious backgrounds. I was looking for another social group this past year, and about three months ago, a guy I’d met at school convinced me to go to church with him. It was the first time since I was eight, and it actually felt like a nice relief. Now I go weekly, on Thursday nights. It’s a really good social outlet.
I was never one to be in relationships, and midway through this semester, I looked back at if I might actually want one. I started going to church and realizing, ‘Hey, there are a lot of girls with really nice morals here.’ I wanted to pursue someone who’s a little more religious who isn’t going to just go out and party. I don’t really drink and would never bring a drunk girl back, and I found I was attracted to religion and girls with that same idea. I brought a girl from church to a frat formal, and we got along great. I made a move that night and kissed her, but she could tell from that that I move fast and said we were too different. When we talked a week later, we discussed that we weren’t going to work at all because I was new at going to church and “wasn’t really up to her level yet.”
I went after another girl who was also religious, and I was way more sexually experienced. The views on pre-marital sex aren’t something I agree with, and she couldn’t really tell the signs as well as we were going through the bases. I would definitely date someone of another religion, but how far someone is willing to go and what their beliefs are and all is definitely a factor. I started to see that religion played much more of a role than I would have thought, and I ended up not seeing the girl because we were going to hit a whole bunch of road bumps because of religion.
Rediscovering Religion and Going Wiccan
Killian Kirkpatrick is going into his junior year of college, studying Network Administration. Born a Christian in Billings, Montana, he has since become a Wiccan.
My family is Christian and would take me to church on Sundays, up to when I was seven and we stopped going for a few years. Then when I was 11, my mom started to go again, taking me with her Wednesday nights. My mom has always been open to new religions, so when I turned 15 and told her I wanted to look at others, she was fine with it and with what I chose.
I found this religion when I was looking at all different types because it has both a male and female god, which I felt that my previous religion was missing. There’s also a focus on the present and how having a positive energy will draw positive feelings and that you shouldn’t do harm to others or it will come back to you three times worse. They also believe that nature is part of god, which I really like since I have more of a spiritual moment when I hike than when I went to church.
Being a Wiccan is part of my every day life—we pray and celebrate Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox—but it’s not as important that your partner has the same beliefs as it is that you share the same morals and accept my beliefs. I’ve dated people that are fine with it or not overly religious, although it kept me from dating in high school, where most of the kids were very religious and wouldn’t date someone outside of theirs.
Religious Roadblocks: When Being Mormon Took Him Over
Kathryn graduated from University of Michigan this spring and is headed to veterinary school in the fall. She recently caught up with the guy she was seeing at the end of high school, a Mormon, only to find out that he’s taking a very different path as a Mormon priest.
My family is pretty open and non-denominational. We’re Methodist, but my parents actually took me out of church. We do Christmas and Easter and Greek Easter with my grandma but that’s about it.
Jon and I dated pretty casually the summer before my freshman year in college. We were really good friends at first and got along great. He was a Mormon priest in high school and I was really interested in his religion, but there were so many other things that made us really get along too.
He went to church at 5 a.m. three days a week. I remember one time I was walking through the parking lot in high school and I looked through the window and thought he was napping or something but he was reading the Bible before class. He was really religious and didn’t swear or drink or have coffee or tea (they can’t have caffeine) but he was very open and very much OK with hanging out with people who did drink and swear and do things he was against. He was very accepting of other people’s religions.
I still kind of felt like I was always breaking the rules with him. We would dance at clubs or hook up and I’d feel a little guilty, like I knew he wasn’t supposed to be doing this.
He went to college for a year and a half and left in December of 2007 for a two-year mission trip, and he came back much more religious and a little less open. We exchanged some letters every few months and he kept me updated. We stayed good friends, but this past December, we had lunch, and I was kind of pissed off at the things he was saying. He apologized for the things that’d we’d done that were physical and said he felt really bad about it. On his mission trip, he hadn’t been allowed to use the Internet, could only call home twice a year, could only read certain books, couldn’t touch women and was detached from modern society, and he kind of came back a different person. I felt like he was preaching to me, and that’s what really bothered me.
At the time, religion didn’t really get in the way. My older brother used to make fun of me, but he was the only Mormon at our high school. Now he’d obviously like to marry a Mormon. To me, I think it totally depends on the person, because I’m not very religious myself. If I have my own religion and he has his, that’s totally fine. But if the other person is very adamant about their religion and strict when it comes to who he has to date, that’s when it becomes a problem.
*Names have been changed
“People Tell Me I’m One Hell of a Goy”
Editor’s note: Steve Waye graduated from the University of Pennsylvania this past May with a degree in English, a girlfriend of two years and infinitely more knowledge about Judaism (and Jewish women) than he had acquired growing up in New Mexico. Here, he chronicles the experience of dating a Jew and of the culture and comedy of a visit to his girlfriend’s home for Passover.
“You want a kippah?”
It’s dinnertime in the Gold family household, and I don’t want to sound like an idiot in front of my girlfriend Sara’s dad. And I’m hungry. So I smile and nod and answer with as much ambivalent enthusiasm as I can muster. As my stomach growls, I cross my fingers and hope that I’m being offered something edible.
As I’m fitted for a skullcap and handed a copy of something called the Haggadah, I start to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.
I came to UPenn after spending most of my youth in New Mexico, a land better known for its green chile stews than its Orthodox Jews. When I applied, the first thing my mom said was, “you know they have a lot of Jews there right?” I looked at her funny and just wrote it off as one of those racially insensitive things that old people say sometimes.
Little did I know that I would spend the next three years kvetching about my midterms and shvitzing like a haza after a tough workout at the gym. I embraced the culture with open arms. The self-deprecating humor, the endearing neuroticism, the appreciation for abnormally fruity wines: I had found my lost tribe. I spent all my meals at Hillel (I dig on kosher chicken), I joined Sammy (we list “Jewish Life Liason” as an official position), and I even got a Jewish dog (Robert Zimmerman, or “Zimi” for short.) Liberated from my Waspicious beginnings, I became steeped in Judaica.
The girls as well, I took an immediate liking to. I became the anti-shiksa, snatching nice Jewish girls away from their sukkot. Which is how I ended up in Westchester on Easter weekend, or pesach, depending on your point of view, in dire need of a jelly doughnut.
The dynamic of this Passover seder, my first, at least partially resembles any of my hectic family gatherings. Sara’s father sits perched at the head of the table, leading the ceremony and playing the part of the family patriarch. Her mom scurries back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen in a matzo-print apron. Her brother and cousin camp out at the end of the table, making irreverent remarks. “Poppy,” hard of hearing, sits peacefully in the corner, rousing himself every 15 minutes or so to impart wisdom in the form of a long-winded non sequitur. And I sit next to Sara in the corner, trying to figure out what the hell is in my gefilte fish. (Like I said…partially.)
I attempt to follow along in my Haggadah, the guide to the seder ceremony, but five minutes in, I’m hopelessly lost. Laughing, Sara points to her copy and turns the page towards what I assumed was the front of the book, forgetting that the Hebrew alphabet is written right to left.
There’s certainly a lot I didn’t see coming about my time at Penn, and a lot to be grateful for. I never saw myself in a serious relationship of any sort in college, much less one with so many religious roadblocks. Me a Christian who plays pretty fast and loose with church dogma and her a reformed Jew, there are fewer arguments than there would be between members of the more conservative strains of either faith.
People ask how we make the interfaith thing work, but it’s never been work, nor has it ever been about any greater institutions. For now, we’re two people who wake up every morning thankful for the existence of the other, content with what is but expectant of what’s still to come. I don’t know much about the mysteries of God, or even the mysteries of dating, but I know enough to know that while this may not be on par with the Passover miracles, it’s a thing that is good and rare.
After the food and guests have been cleared away, we share the universal pleasure of watching home movies, commenting on the ridiculous ways our parents used to dress us as kids, not to mention the way they dressed themselves. (Was that sailor outfit you put me in revenge for that bowl cut you used to sport back in the 90s, Mom?) Somehow, after a weekend spent sharing an unfamiliar tradition, I’ve never felt more at home, and I tell her.
Yarmulkes aside, I just may have found a kippah.