Orthodating gone meshuga?

Why are observant singles having such difficulty finding spouses?

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
August 29, 2007 20:46
Orthodating gone meshuga?

chuppah wedding good 298. (photo credit: Courtesy)

'Rather than being selective about a potential spouse's values, ambitions and character," says EndTheMadness founder Chananya Weissman, "a growing number [of observant singles] are focused on things like what high school the person went to, or what the parents or siblings do for a living. This is not content that has any basis in terms of starting a marriage." As a result, he claims, fewer and fewer are finding mates, and more and more are divorcing the ones they have. This state of affairs has been a source of worry to Weissman - a 29-year-old unmarried rabbi and owner of an eBay company - who established his non-profit organization nearly five years ago to combat it. At fault, he argues, are several factors converging simultaneously. One is a shift on the part of the younger generation toward more stringency where rituals such as modesty are concerned - which makes "normal" meeting opportunities between boys and girls scarce. Another, a byproduct of the first, is the increasing reliance on matchmakers. This wouldn't be so bad, says Weissman - a resident of New York, where the bulk of his organization's activities take place - if pairing up people for blind dates involved substantive considerations, rather than superficial ones. In an hour-long interview in Jerusalem (where, earlier this month, EndTheMadness sponsored a two-part discussion series, in conjunction with Habe'er and Congregation Beit Yosef, on the challenges facing the Orthodox dating scene), Weissman urges people to get to know themselves before seeking a significant other. He also bemoans what he believes is a lack of faith in God in the realm of spouse-searching. "If we date in an ethical and healthy way," Weissman assures, "He will guide us through the process, just as He does in every other aspect of our lives." Why "EndTheMadness"? What's the madness you're referring to? It's the insanity that's taken over the Orthodox dating world. It's a corruption of Jewish values; a change of attitudes from the days when our parents and grandparents were dating. Today, many otherwise intelligent and reasonable people go about their search for a spouse in an abnormal way. What do you mean? Our parents and grandparents could meet socially in many different ways, even within the framework of Jewish law. They would meet in the synagogue, in school, in summer camp, at political rallies, wedding meals - perfectly normal and natural places for people to meet. Nowadays, a lot of those avenues have been closed off for singles. Why? Ostensibly because of modesty and Jewish law, but the pendulum has swung a bit too far. The price that's paid is that singles aren't meeting and getting married. Are you saying that the younger generation is more frum [observant] than their parents? Ostensibly, but this extreme behavior isn't really frum. There are rabbis married today who met their wives at social functions back then - so it was perfectly normal in the framework of Jewish law. But today it's being interpreted differently, which is why singles are not having the same opportunities to meet. How did this happen? What often happens in New York City, where I grew up, is that kids from Orthodox families might even attend a co-ed school for 17 years, and then they go to Israel for six months or a year and sort of "frum out" and change their whole value system. Why Israel, of all places - which has the reputation of being not observant enough? Many kids from Orthodox homes go to very sheltered yeshivas, where the influence of the rabbis is very strong. And while they're learning Torah, which is good for them, sometimes they simultaneously undo all the perfectly good values their parents have taught them. Young kids are very impressionable, and it's not healthy for them to be abandoning everything that they've been taught for the first 17 years of their lives in a short time span. Do the parents of such kids generally disapprove when their kids go to Israel and transform? Or are they relieved that their daughters are staying away from boys? A lot of them are torn. On the one hand, they see their children coming closer to their Judaism, and they're very proud of it. On the other hand, they might have issues with some of the changes they see in their kids. This is a very difficult situation, because there's a lot of social pressure on these kids, many of whom simply follow a path of Judaism that is expected of them, as opposed to one that's based on learning and research. And that's how they're making choices. What kind of pressure is being exerted on them in relation to choosing a potential spouse? One thing girls are often told when they're in Israel is that they should only look for a boy who's planning on learning Torah for the rest of his life. Some of these girls might have grown up in homes in which it was normal for both the husband and the wife to have gone to college and work for a living, and now they're being told to completely change their value system - to marry somebody with no plans of ever going to college or getting a job. Obviously, that lifestyle would be very different for them. That's one example of a radical change the girls are being pressured into. Pressured by whom? By their teachers in Israel and by their social circle. They see what their friends are doing, and they feel pressure to do the same things. For example, the girls will see their friends going out on dates and getting married, and they'll feel pressured to get married as well, even though they might not be ready for it. There's not a certain age at which people are ready to get married; it's a certain stage in life and growth. Some people are ready at 18 and some are not ready until they're in their 30s. But seeing your friends get married is not a very good reason for doing it. What you're saying could be construed as contradictory. On the one hand, you're saying that Orthodox singles are finding it hard to meet and marry; on the other hand, you're saying they're liable to get married too quickly because they see all their friends doing it. It's both. Because they have fewer opportunities to mingle, these people are relying more on shadchanim [matchmakers]. The shadchanim begin by nitpicking on the details of what constitutes a good match, and the singles themselves nitpick along with them. Now, if you are going to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you certainly should be picky. However, singles today are being picky about the wrong sorts of things. Rather than being selective about a potential spouse's values, ambitions and character, a growing number are focused on things like what high school the person went to, or what the parents or siblings do for a living - not content that has any basis in terms of starting a marriage with somebody. When a single chooses not even to go out with somebody on a first date based on such things, it's a big problem. You make it sound as though this phenomenon only occurs in the Orthodox community. In fact, it's something you could say about all singles. It's not necessarily restricted to the Orthodox. But I'm an Orthodox Jew, and these are the people I associate with most closely. And I see it happening a lot more than it used to. What do you mean by "Orthodox"? I'm using the term in a general sense. In fact, I'm actually starting a campaign to get rid of all the labels, since labeling is part of the problem. If a matchmaker asks a person what he's looking for in a potential spouse, and the person says, "I'm looking for someone modern Orthodox," what does that mean, really? It can mean 10 different things to 10 different people. I was once screening people for one of the Shabbat retreats we ran, and I asked participants to tell me a little bit about themselves, for the purpose of matching them up with hosts and meals, etc. Some gave me very thoughtful answers - about their personalities, their goals in life, different challenges they face, different qualities they're proud to have - indicating that they really know who they are, and the kind of person they would be happy with. Others gave me short answers like, "I'm modern Orthodox," to which I replied, "Excuse me, I've never heard that term before. Can you tell me what it means?" One girl explained that it means she watches movies. So I said, "OK, why don't you just tell me you watch movies, then?" When I probed a little deeper, people would really struggle. They got frustrated and upset, and couldn't really tell me anything. I actually advised some of them to go out on a date with themselves for a few hours and do some hard thinking about who they really are. If you don't know who you are, you don't have a very good chance of finding somebody who's right for you. You say you don't like labels describing religious practice. Wouldn't the absence of labels lead to confusion in the dating world? For example, an observant single could end up on a date with someone who keeps no mitzvot at all. Many couples have been faced with such issues and have managed to work them out. Obviously, there needs to be some common ground and trust. It's certainly complicated, but the real problem in the shidduch world lies in people's expectation for everything to match up exactly on paper - as though, if a man and a woman are not carbon copies of each other, the marriage couldn't possibly work. On the contrary, men and women are very different anyway by nature. In fact, the differences are what make a marriage beautiful. The ability to help one another in areas where the other may be lacking somewhat. It's both a complementary and supplementary package. There's certainly room for differences, and growth through experiencing those differences. What's your position on singles who are considered "damaged goods" by matchmakers - such as ba'alei tshuva [newly observant] or converts, or even those with divorced parents? The stigma can go even farther than that. I've heard quite a few stories about children with physical or mental problems not getting treatment because, if word gets out, it would hurt the matchmaking prospects of their siblings. This is criminal. Monstrous. Yet that's what's going on in some circles. The organization considers it absolutely terrible for people to make life decisions based on such prejudices. As far as ba'alei tshuva are concerned, I have a lot to say on the subject. The proper definition of the term ba'al tshuva is any Jew who repents for any sin he has committed. It does not mean a non-Orthodox Jew who becomes Orthodox. So, if a Jew goes to synagogue on Yom Kippur and cannot honestly say that he's a ba'al tshuva, there's something wrong with him. In fact, people who didn't grow up in an Orthodox home and who are now more passionately Jewish are those who have struggled with the issues. They've sacrificed certain conveniences in their lives to live a Torah lifestyle. These are and should be the golden standard of the Jewish people. They're the best Jews of all! They've proven a thoughtful dedication to their Judaism. Yet they are treated like second-class citizens in the world of matchmaking. Why? It comes from a false sense of seniority and superiority on the part of those who judge them. This is especially bad because it's a judgment based not on a person as he is today, but on the person he used to be. It makes no sense. God judges us the way we are right now. The same thing goes for converts. Look, a lot of our forefathers married ba'alei tshuva or converts. The precedent is there. And who among us today is better than Moses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and a whole host of others? Is it legitimate for someone to convert in order to marry a Jew? It's not the ideal reason to convert. But if a couple is going to get married anyway, of course it's preferable that the non-Jew convert - if he or she intends to keep Jewish law. Without this intention, it's not a halachic conversion altogether. So, though it's not ideal, it's true that people can stumble upon Judaism in many different ways, and this is one of them. Let me play devil's advocate here. Jewish law by nature is restrictive - even when it comes to marriage. It's all well and good to talk about the essence of a person, but the fact is that certain people - no matter how right they are for each other - are forbidden to marry, such as a kohen and a divorcee. Jewish law is what it is. I mean, if we truly believe that God is the ultimate matchmaker, we should also believe that if we date in an ethical and healthy way, He will guide us through the process, just as He does in every other aspect of our lives. But there's a shortage of faith. The emphasis of faith in matchmakers is partly responsible for all the gameplaying and lying that goes on in the process of dating. Perhaps the rationale for relying on matchmakers rather than what you call normal social events is that in today's world, singles are more likely to end up having premarital sex. I understand the rationale, but I don't think an appropriate balance is being struck. Every humra - or stringency - in Jewish law is also a lenience in some other area. They're being stringent in terms of modesty, and lenient in terms of aiding people to get married. So, though I completely understand the concern over modesty, this is part of the challenge of living a proper Jewish life. That's where the parents and teachers have to come in and educate kids to face the challenges of a modern world. You can't shelter people from temptations; they are readily available for anyone who wants to succumb to them. And if you shelter people, when they do get exposed to them - which, inevitably they do - they don't have the tools to deal with them. It's like kids who grow up in a sterile environment with no exposure to germs. The first time they catch a cold, it can be deadly. What do you tell singles who might agree with your message, but argue that it's not the way things work now in their circles - and therefore they have no choice but to go along with it? That we're following each other off a cliff. That's where faith in God comes in. If you really believe that your chances of getting married are determined by the matchmaker and by what other people are doing, then go ahead. Follow that system and see if it works for you. I wish you the best of luck. But if you truly believe that God is running the show, and you feel that the system is corrupt, and it's neither healthy nor comfortable for you, you have a choice. You can opt out and say, "I'm going to do things a different way." What if "doing things a different way" makes your parents or rabbi unhappy? What's the alternative - marrying someone inappropriate for you and having a miserable life? I don't think that's worthwhile, even if you have to anger your parents one time. And frankly, this is a life decision. You can't afford to get it wrong. Doesn't marrying someone your parents disapprove of lead to misery? Your parents are not the ones who have to live with your decision, and your rabbi is not the one who's going to bail you out if the marriage doesn't work. You're the one who has to live with the consequences of whom you marry. You certainly can get guidance from parents and rabbis, but ultimately, the choice of what's best for you is yours. Who are the people you seek to influence? Who is your core focus group? People who are on the fence about the issues, or who feel that the current model is not working - and they feel isolated and afraid to say anything about it. I'm trying to show them that there are thousands of like-minded Jews across the demographic spectrum who see things the way they do, and that they should not be afraid to tell a matchmaker that his or her questions are relevant or even appropriate. Let's be fair to the matchmakers. What if they only asked the questions you deem appropriate - about values and character and arranged a date between a man who wants his wife to wear skirts and a woman who wears pants? Don't things like this give an indication of suitability? It could be, but my rabbi, Moshe Tendler, says that the way people dress is not usually a sign of their essence. It's simply a reflection on where he or she grew up. The only way to get to know the essence of a person is to get to know him. Take the yarmulke, for example. People take it to mean all kinds of things. You know why I wear the one I wear? Because I think it's pretty. I'm not making a political statement. Someone else looking at it might make certain judgments about my beliefs and he'd probably be wrong. Frankly, I think that anybody who thinks he can advertise to the world what kind of person he is based on a piece of cloth is a very shallow person. People are complex, nuanced. You say that not everybody is ready to get married at a certain age. Does this mean you see nothing wrong with people getting married well into their 30s, for example? I do see something wrong with that. Though people shouldn't get married one day before they're ready, Judaism is centered around marriage and family, not around being single into advanced age. Marriage is the ideal state of Jewish life. A person should be married if he's able to have a marriage. Therefore, people should be looking to get married younger. When people are older, they tend to be more set in their ways. The younger someone is when he gets married, the greater the opportunity he has to grow with his spouse, and have more children. You mentioned sexual temptations. Well, one of the ways to be spared this problem is by getting married. The later you get married, the more room there is for temptations that lead to sinning. Speaking of sexuality, how much value do you attach to physical attraction as an impetus? Attraction is very important. People shouldn't marry someone they don't find physically attractive. But there are extremes in this area as well. There are people who say they won't marry someone who doesn't look a particular way. But certainly a husband and wife should be attracted to one another. In certain circles, this is understated or made to be like a dirty thing. In fact, it's one of the justifications for only letting singles go on blind dates. But let's face it, they're not going to a marry a person they haven't seen yet. This is another reason for my believing in people meeting in a natural way, because once you've met in a social setting, you've gotten the question of whether you find someone attractive out of the way already. I mean, if you ask someone out on a date, obviously you're physically attracted to her. So, what kind of "normal" social events do you provide for singles? I run community events. In singles events, you have a bunch of people maybe listening to a lecture and then afterward mingling over refreshments. It's forced; it's awkward; it's weird. Our events provide some value or purpose beyond that of singles meeting. For example, a charity project. One Pessah we made care packages for a nursing home. This is a way of doing something meaningful, and along the way, getting to know other singles. You said that God guides us in this realm as in all others. How do we know when we're allowing Him to do so? How do we know which matchmaking path He wants us to follow? By reading and studying His book, the Torah. But all the singles you're trying to educate do read and study Torah. Some of them put their own beliefs into the Torah, rather than letting the Torah speak to them. The Torah is an educational guide. It's not meant to confuse us, if we really study it with sincerity and an open mind. How has your view of this issue affected your own search for a spouse? It's given me more confidence. When EndTheMadness was launched five years ago this October, I had just begun dating. And some warned me that this might harm my shidduch chances because it's controversial. I said, "On the contrary; it filters out all the women who disapprove of what I'm doing - women who wouldn't be right for me."


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