Suddenly, it seems, the increasing numbers of Jewish singles are gaining attention, from demographers warning of our shrinking numbers, to entrepreneurs pushing JDate and a host of other dating Web sites and matchmaking services, to psychologists worrying that today’s young people are being unrealistically demanding in choosing a mate.
While there are as many reasons for people being single as there are single people, the subtext of the communal concern is that the Jewish world simply will not survive if Jews don’t marry and have children. Nowhere is the issue more pointed than in Israel, where demographics has such a direct impact on political policy and where leaders worry that Jews will become a minority in their own country.
What astounds even government officials there, though, is the fact that one out of every three adult Israelis is single — about 1 million people, comprising 45 percent of the Jewish men and 37 percent of the women between the ages of 20 and 44, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Approximately 400,000 of those people are 25 or older.
“I was amazed,” acknowledges Ephraim Lapid, director of public affairs for the Jewish Agency for Israel. He says the issue of singles should be a top priority of the Jewish agenda, but “no one cares enough.”
A rare exception, he notes, is Liaura Zacharie, who in 1995 created a Jerusalem-based not-for-profit organization called Eden 2000 (www.eden2000.org.il), which seeks to deal with singles on a national as well as personal level, not only helping people meet through social events, but promoting marriage as a means of revitalizing aliyah, strengthening the society and improving the country’s economic condition.
That’s a tall order, but “she has great vision and commitment,” Lapid says of Zacharie, a native of France who was educated at Stern College in New York before settling in Israel nearly 20 years ago.
Zacharie, in her charming French accent, says that “Jewish communities around the world make a mistake by addressing Jewish continuity only through education. It should be based on romance and on having babies.”
Romance, she adds, requires social skills, asserting that while society trains citizens in science, health and technology, not enough is done in the art of establishing higher quality relationships so that people can find happiness.
“People today want intimacy and growth and don’t know how to acquire them,” Zacharie says.
Her goal is to have Israel emulate Singapore, establishing a government-run singles program to promote marriage, family and social relationships on a national scale. Zacharie has been to Singapore to see firsthand how the government has worked for more than a decade to advocate for marriage and family in a culture where remaining single was perceived as a preference for many.
Public relations campaigns stressed that married people tend to be healthier, wealthier, less prone to violence and more productive workers, she said. As part of the national effort, large companies set up internal matchmaking companies, and billboards and educational materials urged people to “make an informed choice,” according to Zacharie.
Israel already is one of the most family-oriented societies in the world, but finding ways for singles to meet is not as easy as one might think. Zacharie first realized that when she saw how many young, single people who were inspired to come on aliyah, like she was, went back home within a few years.
“The main reason they were leaving,” she says, “is they were lonely,” a condition compounded by being in a family-oriented culture where people tend to celebrate holidays with close relatives.
While Israel appears to be a close-knit society, Zacharie points out that there are so many divisions and factions — religious-secular, Ashkenazi-Sephardi, sabra-immigrant, urban-kibbutz, and left-right politically — that make it difficult to find a suitable partner.
She started holding parties for friends and their friends, which became bigger and more successful, with people traveling long distances to attend. Realizing that the need was great, she formed Eden 2000, which has drawn close to 20,000 young professionals to some 400 events in the last nine years.
Craig Cole, a Bronx native who made aliyah in 1988, says he met his wife, Yael, a Yemenite Israeli, six years ago at a rooftop party in Old Jaffa sponsored by Eden 2000. What appealed to him, he said, was that the social events the group sponsored, like coffeehouse discussions about aspects of single life, attracted “quality people” and were done “in a tasteful way.” And Zacharie seemed to know everyone there, he said.
The programs “opened the door” for Cole, he said, helping him meet people beyond the small group of Anglos in Jerusalem that he knew.
The Coles became engaged after three months, married six months later, and now live with their three children in Elazar, a community in Gush Etzion.
While continuing to sponsor singles events, Zacharie acknowledges that they are hit or miss, and only address a part of the problem. She has expanded her efforts, launching Romancing Israel, a project to advance the singles issue on a national and then international scale.
Zacharie has received support from the Jewish Agency, which recognizes the benefits to aliyah and to the economy from promoting marriage and family. But until now the support has been more in praise than finances, and she is looking for other organizations to work with, insisting that the goal is “to make a difference, not just put Band-Aids here and there.”
Among her goals are to “elevate the singles issue into the Israeli public consciousness”; encourage universities to establish a discipline that would deal with love, dating and marriage; and work with psychologists and matchmakers in promoting better understanding between the sexes.
Yaakov Ne’eman, chairman of the executive committee of Bar-Ilan University and a former Israeli cabinet minister, says Israel should indeed emulate Singapore and create a government program to focus on singles.
“We must do it,” he says, for the same reason that he supports Zacharie — because “nothing is more important to the state than aliyah.”
Ne’eman sees her work with singles as part of the aliyah picture, since “many who come to Israel leave because they don’t find a partner.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is another advocate of Zacharie’s efforts, which he describes as “remarkable.” He, too, would like to see the Israeli government and Jewish Agency investing in this issue on a large scale.
In the past, the Knesset has debated encouraging families to have more children by providing funds, and Ephraim Lapid of the Jewish Agency would like to see a movement to promote the idea of Israelis having at least four children.
But Steven Bayme, national director for contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee, points out that historically such campaigns are unsuccessful, in any society, because the number of children a couple has is based on personal, not national, priorities.
Bayme adds that despite Israel’s demographic struggles, the Jewish state is “the only society in the world experiencing a positive birth rate.” (Germany and Brazil are the only other Jewish communities that are growing, through immigration.)
Clearly, as aliyah from the former Soviet Union and other area decreases, “internal aliyah” — Liaura Zacharie’s phrase for an increase in the number of Israelis through more marriages and children — is an issue waiting to be tapped. The concept is there, and the organization is in place. Zacharie just needs the financing and support that could, on a wide scale, raise social consciousness — and perhaps result in the raising of many more Jewish children, as well.