When Lee Bernstein, a Manhattan dentist, was in his late 30's, he bought an engagement ring for his 26-year-old girlfriend, who had just graduated from dental school. Next he took it and showed it to her parents. Her mother, he recalls, compared its size to that of her own ring, which made him uncomfortable. Her father warned him he had better not back out like the last guy who proposed to his daughter.
"I went to work and I began having an anxiety attack," recalls Bernstein (name has been changed) now 46 and single. "I was talking to my patients about getting ready to propose" – though he typically made it a point to stay strictly professional at work.
Later in the day he met his girlfriend at the home of a mutual friend in her 30s who had been encouraging him to pop the question.
As he sat holding the box containing the ring, he decided not to go through with it.
"My gut told me not to do it," he said.
Looking back, though he regrets the hurt he caused his then-girlfriend, he doesn't regret the decision. First, he thinks his ex-girlfriend's "volatile" personality would not have been a good match for his in the long term. And he thinks external pressures accounted for too much of his motivation to be married at that time, and as a result, he was not attuned to what he really needed in a partner.
"I was getting pressure from certain friends," recalled Bernstein. "My guy friends were saying, 'You're not getting any younger; other guys will want to go out with her.' The fear of loss is a motivator and that was pushing me. The other friend who was pushing me, a woman, was single herself and I think really wanted us to be happy.
"But being married is not the end all. Being married in a healthy relationship is the end all."
Today Bernstein says he typically finds High Holiday services in his hometown of Baltimore a challenge because of the contrast between his life and the lives of his childhood friends, many of whom are raising children.
The High Holidays are "a stark reminder we are not fitting in in the way we were taught to fit in," he said. "I know I'm missing the joys of raising a family at this point, though I haven't given up." (He is dating a "wonderful" woman who is divorced and has children and hopes to play a role in their lives, and possibly have a biological child).
He added, "When you're single for a number of years you tend to beat yourself up about it. You have to find a way to let it go and forgive."
Results of a new Pew study indicate the number of never-married adults 25 and older in the U.S. is now one in five. Anecdotally, it would seem the number is considerably higher in the Jewish community (In this columnist's observation, most highly educated, urban Jewish singles wait until their 30s or older to marry). With the U.S. divorce rate hovering around 50 percent and starter marriages accounting for a large portion of it, young divorcees are also a growing population.
As such, it would seem logical for the Jewish community to find new ways to incorporate singles. But much of the language used to describe singles is negative, with religious leaders coining terms like "Shidduch crisis" and "Shidduch emergency" to describe the trend.
Such language doesn't help, say some.
"I feel a bit scared when I hear about this 'crisis,'" said Chani Adler (name has been changed), 39, a single, modern Orthodox editor who lives in Murray Hill. "But I also know I must do what's right for me, with God's help."
Other never married 40-somethings said it can be difficult to forgive oneself for being single, and society can sometimes exacerbate feelings of self-blame.
"When people hear you've never been married and they ask your age, it's like you're suddenly put in that category that there's something wrong with you," said Sara Berger (name has been changed), 43, a Williamsburg social worker.
"It's not necessarily that you are crazy or have shtick because everybody has shtick including married people, but if enough people in society start to label you, you can't help but start to doubt yourself and wonder what is wrong."
She added, "It's hard at the High Holidays not to feel like you didn't do things the right way; hard not to blame yourself for putting yourself in the position you are in… hard to forgive yourself for not being where you want to be."
While some Jewish leaders view growing numbers of singles as wholly negative, others, including rabbis, take a more nuanced view.
At the High Holy Days, Jewish singles should atone for any immoral behavior, but we can lose the guilt, say some.
"It's even bad preparation for marriage to punish ourselves, to think of ourselves poorly for not being married, let alone the fact that it's a denial of a divine plan, as if there's no bashert waiting for us, as if there's no hope for love and romance," said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of "Kosher Lust."
"The High Holy Days are all about forgiveness, but there is no reason for single folks to have to forgive themselves for not having found their heart, soul, and mind mate, as they are honoring their truth," said Susan Mitrani Knapp, northern Westchester independent rabbi and spiritual counselor for Jewish singles and others.
She added, "No amount of social pressure can force individuals to move forward in their lives in a way that is not authentic to them."