When’s the date?

As the pool of religious singles grows, a non-profit organization is trying to help them find their intended.

Chocolates 390 (photo credit: (MCT))
Chocolates 390
(photo credit: (MCT))
Building a Jewish home and family is the modern Orthodox ideal from childhood – but there are tens of thousands of young and not-so-young singles from this sector around Israel and many more abroad who have not yet found their intended. With the growing phenomenon of late bachelorhood in the community, one wonders: What is going on?
Almost no academic research has been conducted into this phenomenon, which is an ongoing and painful subject for national religious families. But a nonprofit organization established a decade ago to find these singles their longed-for shidduchim believes it understands at least some of the reasons, and three years ago it launched a counseling program for those who have some emotional block about tying the knot.
Known by the (inelegant) name Yashfe (a stone in the breastplate of the High Priest and a combination of the founders’ initials), the organization has already married off about 400 singles and has a database of 4,000 more. The Jerusalem-based group (http://yashfe.org, (02) 644-8422), initiated and chaired by humanitarian businessman Haim Falk, also matches up some 500 couples for dates each month and counsels others who are either contemplating engagement or having difficulty making an emotional connection. About 450 trained volunteer counselors around the country (10 percent of them men) give of their time as well. There is a second office in Givat Shmuel near Bar-Ilan University.
Two of the organization’s professional counselors, psychologist Zipi Rhein and clinical social worker Roni Hollander, recently held a workshop in the capital’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood on delayed bachelorhood in the religious community, at the annual meeting of ATEM-Nefesh, an Israeli network of modern Orthodox and haredi mental health professionals. The allday conference was organized by ATEMNefesh chairwomen Judith Guedalia and Leah Abramowitz.
“Maybe people are a bit spoiled today,” suggested Rhein in an interview with The Jerusalem Post following the conference.
“They have seen their parents’ marriages, the good and the bad, and want more. They yearn for perfection and romantic love.”
“They don’t want to compromise,” added Hollander. “Society encourages individualism and personal development. This influences singles [regarding] what they are looking for in a marriage partner. They want to fall head over heels in love.”
Yashfe director-general Shirat Malach – whose husband’s surname romantically turned her own into the Hebrew phrase meaning “song of (an) angel” – said that “young modern Orthodox tend to have high expectations for a mate, hope for a deep relationship before getting married rather than something that develops afterward; they used to have more patience.”
In addition, she said, “people are afraid of the possibility of divorce; they want to be sure.”
About 60 percent of those in the database (which includes widow/ers and divorcees looking for a second time around) are women, said Malach. The number of eligible single men may be depleted because some have left religion or are homosexual, and the complexity of religious categories further complicates the issue.
“Young women can call themselves observant even if they wear pants. It is very flexible,” she said. “But if a young religious man doesn’t put on tefillin daily, he cannot call himself religious. Men usually want to marry women several years younger than themselves, so it’s harder for women in their 30s. Divorced men tend to marry singles, while its hard for divorced women to find single men to marry. There definitely is a delay in marriage among national religious Jews, even though there are still many who marry very young. It’s such a big decision that people don’t know how to decide. I don’t believe that most prefer their freedom. There is a lot of societal and familial pressure to get married, but the vast majority also want to wed.”
It’s much harder for the modern Orthodox to find a life partner than for secular Jews, noted Rhein. Religious women do not go to bars and other such gathering places to get “picked up.” They prefer to be introduced by somebody who knows the potential partner well, his background, level of religious practice, temperament and education.Young observant women who have graduated from Torah seminaries have accumulated a great deal of Jewish learning, often no less and sometimes more than their male counterparts, added Malach.
National religious male singles also usually have strict criteria, the Yashfe staffers agreed, but at least they do not include the prevalent demand in the haredi sector that the potential bride’s family be welloff enough to buy an apartment and even support the bridegroom during long years of yeshiva study. Young haredi men, not only in the Diaspora but also increasingly in Israel, want to marry beautiful and slim women – so much so that anorexia and other eating disorders are no longer a rare phenomenon in that sector despite their minimal exposure to the general media.
Speed dating, in which an equal number of women and men encounter potential dates for five minutes until the next one comes around, is “almost passé,” insisted Malach. “It hasn’t proved itself. Get-togethers are desirable in this group only if they are not called ‘singles events’ but provide opportunities to meet while learning or doing something interesting.”
The increasing gender separation in modern Orthodox society – which is a given in haredi culture – even from kindergarten, also reduces opportunities for intermingling and naturally getting used to the opposite sex. This separation, however, could be beneficial, suggested Malach, as it could make the early encounters “more exciting.” But older singles who share workplaces with the opposite gender will find this less of a problem.
Getting married early “can result in problems. They have children quickly and have so much on their shoulders,” said Hollander. “Early marriage can also have benefits; they almost go through adolescence and form their personalities together. But if they veer away and change nevertheless, it could be harder.”
Rhein, Yashfe’s counseling director, whose married name hints that she is married to a pedantic yekke of German- Jewish parentage, told the participants at her lecture that this was in fact true. The mother of two children, aged nine years and 18 months, is “by nature disorganized, and I enjoy spending money. My husband is very orderly and careful. I was nervous about living with someone who is so organized, in control and always on time. But it turned out to be a great gift, as both of us adapted. He learned to take it easy about things, and I learned to be more tidy and organized. There can be good chemistry, even if there are big differences. You can identify in a partner what you haven’t managed to accomplish yourself. You are then attracted, and as a couple, you can reach completeness.”
With the majority of the single population on computerized social networks such as Facebook, one can have many “friends” and “likes,” but this connection is almost always impersonal and superficial, said Rhein, who will soon celebrate her 10th anniversary with her husband.
“Many young people don’t have a clue about how to make real, not artificial, connections with others. They arrive for a date wearing imaginary armor, especially if they have been on many dates before,” she continued.
The two Yashfe lecturers began by asking the audience of around 20 people (three of them men; almost all of them married) to pick a neighbor (of the same sex) and introduce oneself and hug her (or him). Some of those present found this refreshing and novel, but others were taken aback by making physical contact with someone they had never seen before and felt it was “artificial” and “embarrassing.” The lecturers presumably used the exercise to show the difficulty of meeting people of the opposite sex suddenly, as on blind dates.
There are a lot of personal issues that get in the way of being prepared for marriage, they said. “These are not people with trauma from childhood, psychiatric problems or a history of abuse. They have difficulty exposing themselves as human beings,” they agreed.
One of the techniques they use when counseling singles or would-be couples is Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), a pre- or post-marriage therapy developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix, whose books Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide and Giving the Love that Heals: A Guide for Parents attracted many followers.
IRT claims to meld various behavioral sciences, psychological systems and spiritual disciplines into a theory of primary love relationships. IRT is based on the idea that people are born whole and complete; are psychologically injured (usually not on purpose) by their parents (or other primary adult caretakers); hold a composite image of all their positive and negative traits; and marry someone who is an “Imago match,” who corresponds to the composite image of our parents or other caretakers.
Thus, according to the Imago theory, we marry to complete the unfinished business of childhood and to heal ourselves. It also elevates the importance of romantic love as being nature’s selection process in finding a suitable partner.
The Yashfe counselors encourage a couple’s dialogue in which one – whose eyes are riveted on the other’s about 40 centimeters away – makes a statement, while the other repeats, summarizes, validates it and shows empathy. At the workshop, Rhein and Hollander chose single-sex partners to try this process. Most reported that they enjoyed it and got to know the person they had hugged much better.
The Yashfe professionals most worry about singles who remain on their database for five or even 10 years and never manage to find a partner. “It is for this reason that we set up the counseling service,” said Rhein. “We believe that people, from babyhood, naturally have the ability to love and make a human connection.”
Hollander gave as a typical example a 28- year-old modern Orthodox man who had been dating a woman on and off for three years. When the idea of marriage came up, he always refused. “He saw a flaw in every woman. Nobody met his criteria. He was so emotionally wounded. His ability to connect was destroyed. On a blind date, he always felt on the defensive, as if he had to protect himself. Only when you open yourself up for a connection will the healing come.”
They use Imago to help the potential mates “think of their connection and create a single space for themselves as a new entity, not constantly harp on each other’s and one’s own attributes and weak points.
They are building something together, like God’s presence between them. This relaxes them. They want to make this new entity grow. If a person is less critical, he or she is able to make a connection.”
Surprisingly, even though the modern Orthodox establishment has in recent years been bemoaning the phenomenon of late bachelorhood, it has not set up a nonprofit organization like Yashfe, which remains the only one of its kind. Even Tzohar, the organization of moderate Orthodox rabbis who perform weddings at no cost for those who want to avoid the official rabbinate, has not joined the effort.
If the community is serious about action, it would be well advised to do so.