We hear a lot about the shidduch crisis and who is and is not responsible. Are the so-called marriage mentors, dating mentors and, yes, even some rabbis part of the solution or part of the problem? I’m not sure, but I believe they certainly do not contribute to an easier and more natural dating process.
The shidduch crisis that has in recent years caused a panic throughout the more Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclaves in New York, New Jersey and other states stems from two factors: the rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox community and the marriage-age differential between men and women in these communities. Ultra-Orthodox women are typically ready to marry by age 19, after a post-high school year in seminary, while the men continue their religious studies into their early 20s. That scenario, plus the rapid growth of these communities—an estimated 3 percent per year—means more 19-year-old women than 23-year-old men. The result: Some women in every community pass unwed through their “prime marrying years.” (In some Hasidic communities, men and women generally marry at the same age, so this problem has not affected them.)
The so-called shidduch crisis dominates the Friday night discussions at today’s ultra-Orthodox Shabbat tables. Last year, Ami, an Orthodox magazine, referred to unmarried women as a ticking “time bomb.” A very popular family magazine ran a lengthy feature on the subject, with the title “Crisis Control,” in which they called single ultra-Orthodox women a demographic illness. An op-ed in The Jewish Press suggested that female singles should consider surgical enhancements, like a nose job. To the mothers of these women, the author added: “Borrow the money if you have to; it’s an investment in your daughter’s future, her life.”
It is important to note that actual evidence of a crisis is hard to find. Because of the insularity of these communities, no formal research into the issue has been conducted. One anecdotal study, however, done about 10 years ago in Lakewood, predicted that for every 1,500 frum young women, approximately 150 were doomed to not marry. This hardly seems disastrous. (The study, conducted by a rabbi and an insurance analyst, may have employed questionable research methods.)
Even if the problem may not exist, the hand-wringing over it certainly does. Who in their wildest dreams can begin to describe the tzaar, the stabbing pain, our precious bnot Yisrael endure: Single forever! No husband, no children … ever! Is this a life worth living?
The importance of marriage in these communities cannot be overstated. In the secular world, the single individual is almost the norm. In these frum communities, the single doesn’t matter quite as much. It’s all about communal ties. For the men, it’s about shul. For the women, it’s about school, the children and other mothers. If one is not a mother, she’s a nobody. Even if she proceeds to professional achievements, she is still viewed as “incomplete” due to her single status.
Further, it seems the shidduch crisis has empowered the already powerful. The men have gotten pickier. The dearth of available men has shifted the bargaining power in their favor.
One solution to the crisis, of course, would be to ask ultra-Orthodox men to marry younger, or to marry women of the same age or older. But in a society that values tradition, there remains little incentive for young men to change.
However, even a fake crisis can have real consequences. Assimilation—the loss of their young to the wider secular society—is the great fear of Orthodox Jews, and yet it is these unmarried, and in some ways unwanted, women who pose the greatest risk to flee this world for another. When a woman sees no future for herself in the community, the logical step is to leave.
So what can be done to rectify this so-called shidduch crisis?
As I have said, we rely on dating mentors to “coach” us on what to look for when we go out, as well as how to feel, how to act, what to say, what to wear and what to talk about, instead of using the instincts with which Hashem has blessed us. Meddling family members insist on resumes listing family yichus, our past yeshivot, family ties, who our friends are and other assorted trivialities instead of focusing on middot, tzniut, eidelkeit and yirat shamayim. Even some of our rabbis, who have good intentions, focus on what are in fact important elements but forget that perhaps we should be looking for our own basherts, following our hearts instead of following a laundry list of terms, restrictions and conditions. Only this way, uninfluenced by various and unnecessary external advice, can we really go out and find our intended husbands and wives.
This is not to say that assistance with a shidduch is always unwanted or unwarranted. An introduction or a suggestion may be helpful and should always be appreciated, but not if it comes with unrealistic demands or conditions regarding a future mate.
While we may not be able to change the culture of the ultra-Orthodox in terms of marriageable age, we can offer some assistance. I implore our esteemed spiritual leaders to help provide acceptable venues for singles to meet and mingle (I’m not talking about the ridiculous and shameful “speed dating” events offered by some organizations) on an ongoing basis. This will greatly increase the opportunities for socialization in an unrestricted and natural atmosphere. If the men and women are “old enough” to marry, then they can most certainly meet, mingle and even, perhaps, find their own mate.
By Yehiel Levy