It’s 8:30 on a Saturday night and 29-year-old “Ilana,” dressed in a sweater set and skirt that falls just below the knees, is in the hallway of a Brooklyn synagogue, its faded cappuccino-colored walls decorated with black-and-white photos from the 1950s and ’60s.
Back in the days when the photos were taken and the now-shabby building was constructed, this synagogue might have hosted a dance where singles like Ilana could socialize. But today, such events are largely taboo in the Orthodox community.
So instead, Ilana is waiting for a symposium about singles and dating. Men and women will sit on separate sides of the room.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to meet someone and get married, but the community is not helpful,” she says, casually eyeing the crowd, an eclectic mix ranging from their 20s to their 60s. On average, the men are considerably older and not nearly as stylishly dressed as the women.
The problem as Ilana sees it? Not enough places to meet people.
“At a Jewish wedding you better get there early and hit the smorg because it’s the last time you’ll see someone of the opposite sex,” she laughs.
Welcome to the Orthodox singles crisis.
According to anecdotal reports, growing numbers of Orthodox Jews are marrying later, if at all. That’s not surprising considering that demographic studies show American Jews have lower marriage and fertility rates than non-Jews: common trends among the highly educated and affluent.
But in the traditional, family-oriented Orthodox world, an abundance of singles is not merely a demographic phenomenon, it’s a calamity.
Rabbis, organizations, individuals — and a cottage industry of singles events, matchmakers and Web sites — are clamoring to address the problem. The Orthodox Caucus, a Long Island-based group that focuses on Modern Orthodox concerns, recently made the singles crisis a top priority. The National Council of Young Israel has for three years put on comprehensive “Tackling The Shidduch Emergency” conferences. And the Orthodox Union plans to launch a major singles initiative next year.
The singles situation has also spawned new organizations and businesses. EndTheMadness, which sponsored the event Ilana attended, was launched a year and a half ago by a Yeshiva University student and has attracted hundreds of people to its Web forums and combination lecture/social events. It has also recruited leading rabbis and other community leaders as speakers.
In addition to the scores of Jewish Internet dating sites, only a handful of which have a critical mass of users, two major sites targeting Orthodox singles have sprung up recently (see sidebar). A site popular among Orthodox Jews, OnlySimchas.com, is experimenting with Internet dating.
In addition to the community’s sympathy for its lonely rank and file are concerns about Jewish continuity and fears that alienated singles will abandon Orthodoxy.
But how exactly does one go about marrying everyone off while at the same time making singles feel accepted in their own right? And what’s causing the surge of frum singletons? There’s a flurry of theories.
The Background Check
As Orthodoxy has moved to the right in the last two decades, casual dating has been replaced by shidduch-style, marriage-oriented setups for couples. And with the mingling of the sexes frowned on at social events, including weddings, fewer opportunities are available for eligible young men and women to meet naturally.
One virtually universal target of criticism is the community’s culture of pre-date background checks, specifically the tendency to seek answers to extensive lists of questions about the prospective date’s Jewish associations.
In particular, singles and matchmakers often ask about various practices — how often a man studies Torah, what type of tablecloth a family uses on Shabbat or what yeshiva one attended — as clues to determine in which of Orthodoxy’s infinite ideological subgroups the single falls.
Binyamin Rosenstock, 25, of Brooklyn, who is engaged to marry in June, said a matchmaker recently subjected him to a 15-minute grilling about an old friend, wanting to know where the friend hung out as a teen, if he went to movies and if his family owned a television set.
“Not a single question was is he a nice guy, is he funny?” Rosenstock complained, adding, “This is what people are focusing on and how we’re judging each other. And guys are doing the same thing. My fiancee and I are trying to set up friends of ours and they’re turning down dates because of rumors about the people. People have to open their eyes a little more about what’s really important.”
Judi Steinig, director of the women’s division at the National Council of Young Israel, said it is appropriate to ask some questions and check references, but inappropriate questions “at best leave little to discuss on the date and at worst are just completely unacceptable: dress sizes, all those other sorts of questions.”
Steinig, who organizes the group’s “Shidduch Emergency” conferences, adds: “Too many people aren’t meeting because they have lost the shidduch even before they make the first phone call.”
Absurd questioning is one of the focal points of EndTheMadness, which hawks T-shirts that say “There Is Such A Thing As A Stupid Question.” The group has attracted 480 signers to its “covenant,” which includes acceptance of the principle that it is “intrusive and degrading to ask petty questions about potential dates before agreeing to meet them.”
Chananya Weissman, the 25-year-old single rabbinical student who founded EndTheMadness, said that as a result of stringent gender segregation, “singles don’t know how to develop a successful relationship with members of the opposite sex.”
Weissman, whose witty abrasiveness and willingness to stick to his guns make him seem 20 years older, cites the example of a girls’ high school his sister attended.
“Most schools will throw you out if you do drugs or burn the place down, but here the rule is they’ll throw you out for talking to a boy,” he said. “Then at the graduation the principal gets up and says congratulations, now you’re all kallah meydels [potential brides]. Translation: Yesterday, talking to a boy was the most forbidden thing in the world. Today, we expect you to get married as soon as possible.”
Weissman said he understands Orthodox society’s desire to prevent untoward behavior, but leaders are “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
“If you create an iron wall between men and women you make it harder to do sins, but you’re also making it harder to develop a relationship that’s going to lead to marriage. …The problems caused by this are far greater than the problems this is seeking to solve,” he said.
As more and more Orthodox events have become sex-segregated, singles advocates say men and women are often reduced to interacting only in high-pressure situations, like blind dates and singles events — and even these are often limited.
Rabbi Joshua Joseph, executive director of the Orthodox Caucus, said: “We need to formally create informal settings that are natural venues for people to meet.”
Of particular concern to Rabbi Joseph and others is the trend in recent years of seating men and women separately at Orthodox wedding meals.
“Separate seating at weddings has got to be the most ridiculous thing out there,” said Brianne Korn, Rosenstock’s fiancee. “A wedding has to be one of the most kosher places to meet people. Why would you separate them?”
Some say that as the singles situation has generated considerable buzz, things already are starting to improve. In fact, some Orthodox rabbis have already urged people to seat singles together at wedding meals. One 26-year-old Upper West Side single woman said, “I think people make it out to be more than it is.”
The separate seating at weddings “got to a point where it was really bad, but I think people have started to realize it was not the best idea,” said the 26-year-old, who describes herself as right-wing Modern Orthodox. “Most of my friends went out of their way to do the opposite at their weddings and arranged their tables so singles could sit together.”
Some believe the rhetoric — particularly the blame on background checks and gender segregation — is worse than the reality.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said the claims made by people involved with EndTheMadness “sounds to me like sort of a parody of the reality.”
“Obviously there are significant telling details that identify what kind of a family the family is and what kind of a person the person is,” Rabbi Shafran said. “But I’ve certainly never been asked questions about the types of shoes someone wears.”
He was referring to “Does he wear shoes with laces?” — apparently an indicator, to some, of piety and one of the “stupid” questions on the EndTheMadness T-shirt.
For Rabbi Shafran, it makes no sense to blame the separation of men and women.
“Attacking something thousands of years old seems a little misguided,” he said, suggesting that a likelier culprit is the individualistic nature of American society. “There’s a greater de-emphasis on seeing oneself as part of a family, as part of a community.”
However, say advocates for change, while gender separation may not be a problem in fervently Orthodox circles like Rabbi Shafran’s — in which matchmaker use is common and people rarely expect to meet their spouse on their own — it is a problem in the centrist Orthodox community.
“We’re not a community that’s equipped, like the right wing, to do everything through a shidduch process, nor do our kids want that,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., and an activist on this issue with the Orthodox Caucus.
A Good Man
Is Hard To Find
Regardless of where one is on the ideological spectrum, everyone seems to agree that another disturbing feature of the singles crisis is that women seem to find themselves at a disadvantage, particularly as they get older.
“After we got engaged, we sat down and made a list of all my girlfriends and his guy friends to see if we could match them up,” said Channie Michanik, 27, of Cherry Hill, N.J. who recently married a man she met on an Orthodox dating Web site. “I came up with 34 girls and he had like four guys. That’s telling right there.”
Allegra Goldberg, a matchmaker who works with SawYouAtSinai, an Internet site, said there are “fewer men that are good catches.”
“There are so many more successful, attractive all-around women than men,” she said, noting that such men generally collect long lists of potential dates to call.
Rosenstock said he didn’t notice the gender imbalance when he was single, but now that he is engaged, “I see how bad it is.”
“I’ve heard administrators and rabbis say, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about — it’s a guy’s market out there,” he said. “Which is very unfortunate because it doesn’t help anyone address the problem.”
As in secular society, aging women are hurt by the fact that it is socially acceptable for men to date and marry younger women, but not for women to date and marry younger men. Some speculate that more men than women leave Orthodoxy, further shrinking the pool for Orthodox women.
Men actually outnumber women on Frumster, the leading Orthodox singles Web site, but women significantly outnumber men on SawYouAtSinai, which requires singles to be screened through matchmakers. That is consistent with trends in the secular world in which dating services that require significant financial and time commitments have difficulty attracting male customers, while men comprise the majority of visitors to anonymous on-line sites.
Ultimately, singles and their advocates say, the Orthodox world needs to do more to make singles feel like valued members of the community before they marry — and singles need to actively seek a match, but not put the rest of their lives on hold.
Rabbi Joseph of the Orthodox Caucus urges Jewish organizations to invite singles to serve on boards and committees.
Michanik, who married just a month ago, advises singles “to really get yourself out there” and “make the most of your life at any stage you’re at.”
Many singles, as well as Jewish leaders, urge individuals to get involved, too, by making more of an effort to fix up their friends.
Johanna Kaiser, 29, a Brooklyn social worker who is single, said she has tried going through matchmakers but “they don’t know you. They’re not close to the ballpark.”
“The best people to help you are your friends, but they are so concerned with their own lives they don’t have time,” she said.
Ilana of the Saturday night EndTheMadness event agrees.
“I just wish more people would want to take an active role and try to fix up their friends,” she said, noting that she has fixed up some of her friends. “No one seems to want to do that.”
That Saturday night she ended up leaving before the symposium was over in order to catch another Orthodox singles event. There she met a guy who she went out with a few times, until the relationship became mired in a game of telephone tag.
Maybe the relationship will lead to something or maybe not. In the meantime, although she is getting tired, Ilana will continue visiting her friends for Shabbat on the Upper West Side, where the pool of singles is larger than in Brooklyn. She’ll still log onto the Orthodox Internet sites. And she’ll still hit the occasional singles event in hopes that one day she will find the right man.