More thoughts on the shidduch crisis
By Ilan Preskovsky
Alex Cohen’s article in the previous issue of this magazine, entitled “The Shidduch Project?” no doubt struck a chord with many single people in our community. It certainly did with me. While rightly crediting the various shadchanim for all their hard work, Alex accurately identified a number of different problem points that have made finding the right person such an unending, uphill trudge for so many of us, while also offering a possible solution or two to our community’s version of the shidduch crisis.
It is, however, only the beginning of a much larger conversation. It’s a conversation that has, admittedly, been raised in quiet whispers and in fits and starts for as long as I can remember – but it would be charitable to the extreme to suggest that it has ever really gotten anywhere. Unfortunately, without a more concentrated, even organised attempt to deal with the matter head-on, the status quo will persist in all of its sad, frustrated (lack of) glory.
Now, with COVID-19 ensuring that in-person socialising is at its 100-year low and the very idea of actually dating someone seeming as difficult and as cumbersome as taking a quick trip to the moon, it is about as good a time as any to have that conversation and to confront the shidduch crisis with gusto. And I’m only being slightly ironic. With the world stuck in this weird stasis, singles are confronted with the relief of having the pressures of trying to date alleviated by circumstances completely out of our control, along with the frustration that we are left with even fewer options to take control of our destinies. It’s a strange place to be, but it’s not a bad one for taking a long, hard look at our reality and what might be done to make things better going forward.
In light of that, what follows is an attempt to pick up the baton raised by Alex and hopefully provide a few more insights, maybe even possible solutions to this very important challenge.
Before any further steps are taken and any ideas raised, we have to try and get past this: the stigma of being single and, G-d forbid, having to rely on others for help to meet someone has got to end. And don’t ask what stigma. You know. It’s that same stigma that makes even writing this article a vicious battle between my calm, measured, reasonable superego (to go all Freudian for a second) and my slightly crazed, emotionally raw id that is screaming “loser! loser! loser!” with each passing keystroke.
But seriously, whether it’s brought on by unfair societal expectations, or, far more poignantly, by our own insecurities, if we are to get anywhere with confronting the shidduch crisis, we need to at least acknowledge our own meshugas around being single, about relying on others for help, and trying oh so desperately not to appear desperate. Especially for those of us in our late twenties or worse, our very, very late twenties.
How to achieve such a lofty goal, though? Inevitably, easy answers to this are going to be tough to come by. It probably won’t come from shifting societal attitudes, for example, but it will from acknowledging these attitudes in the first place. Both within larger society (which is, admittedly, becoming less marriage-centric by the day) and within our sometimes too close-knit Jewish community. Religious expectations are another thing, but I’ll go more in-depth into that shortly.
To shamelessly tie into (and slightly spoil the conclusion of) my other feature in this issue, what is most important here is in dealing with our own attitudes, our own explanation styles. This is, obviously, a completely personal undertaking and how we each approach it will no doubt be pretty different from one another. Something does have to shift, though.
To be honest, this particular attitude is probably more prevalent in the males of our species than in the females; there’s a sense that if you don’t go out and find your own mate, you’ve clearly failed as a man. Putting aside the fact that matchmaking has been the primary source of marriages in even the most patriarchal societies in history (though the specific form of matchmaking in those societies was…less than ideal), the idiosyncrasies of today’s world makes meeting someone on your own particularly difficult.
For non-Jews too, no doubt, but all the more so for Jews who – as Alex correctly pointed out – may easily find themselves stuck between their religious/cultural tradition and their real attraction (and often more than just attraction) to a non-Jew with whom they may work or who happens to sit next to them in a lecture. After all, in terms of meeting someone without the help of a third party, work and university are easily among the most prevalent and most effective ways to meet a potential romantic partner. Jewish dating has to become a real and attractive possibility for even the least “frum” and the shidduch system should reflect that reality.
Frankly – and this is only a suggestion – it might be prudent to move away from words like “shidduch” and “shadchan” altogether. Such terms have a habit of evoking images of shotgun weddings – though, in these, the rabbi is the one holding the shotgun – taking place between two people who hardly know each other in a setting not too dissimilar from Fiddler on the Roof. Obviously, this is a huge distortion when shadchanim, certainly shadchanim in this country, really are just there to help single Jews meet each other. Sometimes by doing little more than providing a phone number, sometimes acting as an involved intermediary between the two parties – but never much more than that. And yet, the stigma persists.
To Frum or not to Frum.
Speaking of touchy subjects, this one is a bit of a doozy. It is also extremely complex and should be treated as such. I am, as a disclaimer, going to be using the “F word” (“frum”) here a lot because, though it may be a term that is at once simplistic and confusing, it is also an easy shorthand that most of us understand. Which, as we’ll see, is kind of the problem.
The Jewish community in South Africa is small and growing smaller. Even on a global level, the entire Jewish population on earth is tiny; a mere rounding error in the census of humanity. And yet, for those wanting to marry a fellow Jew, they have to deal with an already small pool divided by religion and denomination to the point that that small pool quickly starts to resemble a puddle.
Admittedly, in South Africa we are blessed that labels like Modern-Orthodox, Chabad, Traditional, Charedi, and Yeshivish have little influence on who we are friends with and/or who it is “permissible” to marry. This isn’t the case in many other Jewish communities. Nonetheless, there is a no less rigid barrier between the “frum” and the “non-frum” that is creating its own set of problems.
The recent survey of the South African Jewish community revealed a major truth that is, sadly, completely unsurprising. What was once a very traditional Jewish community – one where strong affiliation to Judaism and fellow Jews was almost independent of an individual’s “frumness” – has been getting increasingly polarised religiously in recent years; not by denominational labels, but by the worrying trend that the “frum” are getting “frummer” while the “non-frum” are moving further and further away from their Jewish roots. Crucially, this has also left a whole bunch of Jews stuck between these two worlds.
So, yes, setting up a “secular” Jew for whom Judaism is primarily a question of culture with a “frum” Jew who is dedicated wholeheartedly to the religious aspects of Judaism would perhaps not be the best match, compatibility-wise. Indeed, for those on either extreme of the “frumness” pole, things are reasonably straightforward, if not always easy.
Very “frum” Jews who can’t even imagine compromising on a single aspect of their observance for any reason whatsoever do need to date those of a similar persuasion and observance level. They just do. Similarly, those who have no interest whatsoever in any of the more traditional aspects of Judaism under any circumstances probably shouldn’t date someone who is fully dedicated to even the most basic observance of Shabbos and kashrus.
Between these two poles, though, is a wide assortment of South African Jews who frequently get lost in the shuffle. I count myself as one of their number and I know a great many who are in the same boat. So much so that maybe the idea of an apparent disappearance of this section of South African Jewry is more of a surprise than I initially let on.
This should mean that those in this very significant group should have possibly the easiest time dating. After all, falling on a wide and fairly elastic spectrum of “frumness” means that there is more room to play in terms of personal observance. What has instead happened is that this wide expanse of religious real estate has been cordoned off into increasingly tiny and rigidly constructed cubicles where each degree of “frumness” closes itself off to even its closest neighbour. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been told that I’m either not frum enough or too frum, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this exact same thing from others in a similar position.
It is, admittedly, hard to know how to shift this and on what level, but it is far too significant a stumbling block for too many Jewish singles to leave unattended.
New Problems to Old Solutions
At the risk of sounding like “old man shouts at clouds”, there do seem to be a number of ways in which the last couple of generations have not so much failed to learn from our parents’ mistakes, but over-complicated them further, turning our advantages into disadvantages and making a gigantic headache out of the whole dating thing.
Just take the above issue. In my parents’ generation, it seems to be extremely common for successful marriages to have arisen between couples of often lopsided levels of religious observance – often with both ultimately growing in their Yiddishkeit together. Maybe there is something to be said for putting more stock into one’s ability to change and grow over time than into one’s “frumness” level at one particular point in time.
Not that this is the only place where we seem to be going backwards in spite of ourselves. Major breakthroughs in our understanding of things like introversion and social anxiety should have made social events better and more inclusive even for those of us whose idea of hell is large crowds of strangers. And, indeed, plenty of effort is put into these social events by the shuls, matchmakers, and even the groups of singles who host them to make them as easy going and as welcoming as possible.
And yet, a quick glance around you at one of these events and you may notice that even the most confident are sticking to the people they already know and, in a desperate attempt not to seem desperate, these events are often marked by a surprising coyness that permeates even those putting themselves out there and trying to engage with a member of the opposite gender that they don’t know. It might well just be that the art of engaging with people face-to-face is being lost to a world of social media and text messages.
Yeah, you knew this was coming. Technology and especially social media have complicated things like nothing else. Not least because rather than just being these tools of destruction that so many paint them as being, they have so much about them that is genuinely good and useful in connecting people. Just look at the times we’re living in. Technology has connected us to the rest of the world even when we’re completely confined to our houses. “Zoom” is probably the word of the year and for very good reason.
It has even made it possible to date, albeit virtually, during these times. I, for one, participated in a virtual singles-evening hosted by Rabbi Stern from Sydenham Shul (weirdly, it was actually less awkward than the real thing) and some have no doubt started relationships virtually too. Whatever else you might say about them, broadband internet, social media, video chats, and dating apps have made this possible in a way that those going through a much worse pandemic a hundred years ago couldn’t even imagine.
In a more general sense, these things have allowed those of us who are shy or highly introverted a safe space to put ourselves out there. They even allow people from different countries to meet – though, despite the protestations of a certain overseas dating website, dating internationally is only really an option for those few who can actually afford it.
For all of this, though, something is missing in terms of real world social skills – not just for the socially awkward and the socially anxious, but for everyone. It’s clearly rooted in the new modes of communication offered by technology and, frankly, I have no earthly idea how it can properly be solved.
The Shidduch Project Revisited (Briefly)
I wish I could say I had more solid solutions or even practical suggestions to integrate into what I hope will be a new approach to the shidduch crisis that Alex Cohen did so much to promote. Certainly, I haven’t even come close to listing all of the challenges that lie ahead if we are to try tackling this head-on. And try, we certainly must.
If there is one thing that I hope did come through over these past few pages is that for all the practical steps that need to be taken – many of which were pointed out by Alex in the last issue – perhaps the bigger challenge and the one that may (or perhaps may not) need to be tackled first, is undoubtedly centred around the biases, stigmas, misapprehensions, religious attitudes, and social psychologies around dating and “singles culture”.
But then, it’s always been said that the road to recovery starts with admitting that you have a problem.
IN A BOX:
I was moved by Alex Cohen’s “The Shidduch Project” in the July issue of Jewish Life. Well done Jewish Life for raising this vital issue and for creating debate and discussion among the community.
I also want to applaud the courage of the writer who has analysed the shidduch issue fearlessly and incisively. This is an issue which is close to my heart and your article has reminded me that we all need to do more to really make a difference.
To help people find someone to marry is such an awesome mitzvah. We need to do more to help people find the love, joy, blessing, and connection of marriage. It is part of the great mitzvah of doing acts of kindness, which we learn from Hashem Himself, who is our role model for chesed. We are commanded to emulate G-d and, when we help people find their spouse, we are doing G-d’s work in spreading kindness in the world. The midrash actually says that G-d is directly involved in the creation of shidduchim. When we follow G-d in doing this, we are also contributing to the sacred mitzvah of creating and nurturing Jewish
families, which is itself one of the most precious Torah principles. It is one of the rare cases when you are even allowed to sell a Torah scroll if the money is needed to help a couple get married.
This is also about our future. We cannot, as a community, sit idly by while the intermarriage rate in our community rises – we must be proactive. This means doing everything we can to ensure that Jews marry Jews. This is imperative for our continuity as the South African Jewish community.
So, what to do? As a first step, I would like to bring together all the talented, resourceful people working in this field, so that we can establish a task team to look at what is being done – and at what more could be done. This might involve strengthening existing individual initiatives and resources, or creating something more coordinated.
When different people with different perspectives look at the same problem, new ideas emerge. And with some freewheeling brainstorming in a task team of dedicated brilliant people all working in this field, I believe we can start to find the way forward. I’ve seen this first-hand with the establishment of organisations such as CAP and ORT/JET, and more recently, with the creation of the Gesher Fund for Jewish businesses. When it comes to addressing the vital needs of our community, collaboration and partnership is key.
And so, I will be reaching out to all the people who are active in this space and doing good work. If you’re reading this now, and are working in the field of shidduchim, please contact me so that you can join our task team. By bringing together our collective resources, ideas, and perspectives, we can, with Hashem’s blessings, discover ways to make a real difference. One thing is certain – we all need to do more to help. Our future depends on it.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
10 000 Matches?!
10K Batay Yisroel (Ten-Thousand Jewish Homes) is an incredible initiative based in Lakewood, New Jersey, that was created with the goal of, as its name suggests, making ten-thousand shidduchim. The initiative arose as a response to the horrific tragedy of a young, recently engaged couple, Yisroel Levin a”h and Elisheva Kaplan a”h, dying in a car accident not long before their wedding. At their funeral, Rabbi Shaya Levin declared that such a tragedy called for a bold and holy response. In the face of two young souls being taken so suddenly from the world before they could begin to build a life together, ten-thousand new shidduchim should be made in their honour.
10K Batay Yisroel works on the simple premise of inspiring anyone to be a matchmaker by suggesting a potential match and then facilitating a first date if both parties are interested. The amateur shadchan then logs the progress (suggestion, first date, engagement) on the 10K Batay Yisroel website. It is exactly the sort of communal response that is needed for our own shidduch crisis. 10K Batay Yisroel has so far logged, as of this writing, over twelve thousand suggestions, 1 757 first dates, and 119 engagements. Mazel tov!