Right of Reply: Confronting 'the shidduch crisis'

Right of Reply Confront

November 3, 2009 21:11
4 minute read.

Readers of Chananya Weissman's recent piece "Shidduch crisis? What shidduch crisis?" (October 21) will quickly discern that he does not think too highly of 60 American roshei yeshiva who recently published a letter addressing the "shidduch crisis" in the Orthodox world. They are variously compared to Balaam's donkey, accused of being "disconnected from logic and reality" and described as attaching their names to "foolish words" comparable to declaring a chicken to be an ostrich. As someone who runs an organization devoted to helping older Orthodox singles (including himself) find a spouse, one might at least expect Weissman to express appreciation that the 60 roshei yeshiva called attention to the fact that hundreds of girls from non-hassidic haredi homes are failing to find spouses. But no, they are castigated for having denied any such crisis until now, or for having said the phenomenon only exists in the Modern Orthodox world, or that it results exclusively from exposure to Internet, movies or television. Each of these claims is false. True, any observer of the Manhattan Orthodox singles scene knows that the number of singles is greater in the Modern Orthodox world, but the problem of women going unmarried has long been on the haredi communal agenda. The Novominsker Rebbe, titular head of Agudath Israel of America, told me last year that the growing number of those unable to find a spouse are our single greatest communal tragedy. Nearly 20 years ago, Agudath Israel, the largest haredi grassroots organization in America, devoted a session at its national convention to the problem of shidduchim, and created a special volunteer organization, Invei Hagefen, to address it. It is also true that exposure to images of romantic love predicated on an intimacy impossible for dating haredi couples make it more difficult for young haredim to commit, but no one ever suggested the problem was purely one of external influences. SO WHAT exactly raised Weismann's ire? A letter signed by 60 roshei yeshiva in which they attribute much of the greater number of young women not finding spouses to certain demographic realities. And what are those realities? First, that the haredi community is experiencing approximately 4% annual growth. Second, yeshiva students tend to marry women between three and four years younger than themselves. As a consequence, if we assume that roughly the same number of men and women are born each year (actually a slightly larger number of men are born), and that each age cohort is roughly 4% larger than the previous year, that means there will be approximately 116 19-year-old girls for every 100 23-year-old boys. The theory is borne out by a good deal of observational data. First, in the hassidic world, where boys and girls marry younger and tend to be almost the same age, one hears much less about a "shidduch crisis." Second, within five years of returning from their studies in Israel to Lakewood Yeshiva (by far the largest American yeshiva), only 2% of the young men are still unmarried, whereas the number of Bais Yaakov graduates still unmarried 10 years after high school is estimated at more than 10%. The communal response urged by the roshei yeshivas' letter is to take steps designed to encourage a reduction in the age gap in couples being matched. One such initiative, the North American Shidduch Initiative (NASI), paid more than $100,000 in bonuses to shadchanim (matchmakers) who successfully match couples within two years of one another in age. (Shadchanim are only paid for successful "matches," and thus will naturally seek the low-hanging fruit without counterincentives.) Even though NASI can no longer offer financial incentives, its efforts appear to have made some dent in communal norms: It has on file over 700 married couples within its parameters in recent years. Weissman responds with howls of derision. According to him, the roshei yeshiva are under the illusion that more boys are being born than girls, and he accuses them of attempting to perpetuate a Madoff-inspired Ponzi scheme to marry off the oldest girls in the hopes that in the meantime things will somehow even out. Clearly, Weissman has entirely failed to understand the argument. The roshei yeshiva are well aware that approximately an equal number of boys and girls are born every year, and that is constant. They are not buying time so that basic demographic realities will "even out," but rather seeking to change social norms so that those demographic realities exact less of a toll. For his coup de grace, Weissman seeks to one-up the roshei yeshiva as insufficiently pious. Their attempts at social engineering, he claims, fly in the face of an explicit talmudic statement that 40 days before birth a heavenly voice declares for whom the in utero child is destined. This is sheer silliness. Since we are not privy to that heavenly voice, it has no implications for our own efforts to match young couples. Does Weissman believe that the heavenly voice has miraculously destined hassidic girls for boys their own age, and non-hassidic ones for someone four years older? True, the primary desideratum in matching couples is compatibility, but what reason is there to believe that the most suitable match is less likely to be found among those close in age? Social norms are notoriously resistant to change, and it remains to be seen whether the average age differential of 3.5 years between husbands and wives in the yeshiva world will be significantly reduced in the near future. Even if it is, there will still be those young men and women who do not find their matches easily, for a host of reasons or perhaps none at all. But none of this detracts from the roshei yeshivas' efforts to deal with the clearest objective cause of haredi women going unmarried, and thus the one most easily subject to amelioration.

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