If there is one area of orthodox Jewish life that is truly messed up and needs fixing it’s matchmaking. In our communities we eschew the recreational dating scene of the secular world. As a counselor in that world and someone who once served as matchmaker-in-chief for JDate, I agree that it is too flawed. External qualities like beauty and money play an outsized role. People don’t date to commit but to have fun, except that there is nothing ultimately pleasurable about relationships that are expected, from the outset, not to last. Who needs a broken heart? Life has enough uncontrollable pain not to have to add the self-inflicted variety.
So what is our solution? Is the alternative that we offer in orthodoxy of young men and women never meeting at all and connecting only through matchmakers a viable alternative?
Well, it once was when the orthodox community was, say, a tenth of the size it is today. But let’s be proud of our growth. From the time I got married nearly 25 years ago, thank God, until today the orthodox community has exploded in growth. We’re having a lot of kids, which is wonderful, but it has strained the shidduch-matchmaking system to the limit. Some would say it has broken it almost completely. How the heck are a few, mostly volunteer matchmakers supposed to cope with this vast demand? Are young orthodox men and women really supposed to sit around, preparing their resumes, as if they’re on a job interview, and badgering shadchanim (matchmakers) to prioritize them amid so many others clamoring for the same attention? Is it a workable system? Is there any dignity in it?
I am the proud father of nine children thank God and I just became a grandfather. My first three children are daughters, all raised with my standards of dating to marry and dating within the shidduch system. This is particularly important to me given my considerable exposure to the romantic and sexual challenges, not to mention the sky-high divorce rate, prevalent in mainstream culture and which I address. However, I’m not the kind of guy who believes in delegating life’s most important responsibilities to others. But here I am, as an orthodox father, forced to relegate my daughters’ dating life to matchmakers who are very well-intentioned and who care but who cannot possibly know my daughters well or prioritize them, given the vast demands on their time and energies from so many other parents.
In the Chabad system it’s especially challenging because of the vast increase in the size of the community, thank God, how spread out it is internationally, and because most of the shadchanim, trying to be pure of heart, offer their services in a volunteer capacity rather than professionally. But that also means there is no real accountability.
So, am I being fair to my daughters when I tell them, based on my personal values, that they should only date within the shidduch system? Should they be reduced, like so many other young Chabad men and women, to friends and matchmaker’s introductions? Should their involvement in their own dating life really be so passive?
I have to admit that my own experiences within the shidduch system has caused me to question it considerably, though my own children would probably disagree and say the system functions well enough. They would say that being frum (religious) means certain things and they embrace the shidduch system, whatever its shortcomings. But Yeshiva University, where my daughter is an undergraduate, holds events that bring young men and women together. It is not seen as scandalous or secular. Indeed, I applaud it. Chabad and the more ‘black hat’ communities would not countenance such interactions. And there is a part of me that not only understands that and agrees with it but even, for years, advocated it. When a leading Chabad rabbi with unquestionable credentials suggested a few years back in a column that Chabad begin limited interactions between the young men and women, in a controlled environment, to have them meet for the purposes of marriage, I attacked the suggestion as being a slippery slope. I, who counsel so many secular singles and know how screwed up the singles scene is in secular singles-events and party communities.
But having said that, I now have a much more open mind. I do not believe it’s fair to my daughters, and my sons when they come of age, that the limited interaction they will have with a potential spouse will come from people who really don’t have a lot of time to commit to the endeavor. Less so do I believe that such an important stage in life should become so fundamentally disempowering that one cannot take any kind of personal initiative but is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Indeed, a few years back I was prevailed upon by young Chabad men and women writing to me to host a small Shabbos gathering in Englewood where I would offer talks on Judaism and dating and where young Chabad men and women, thoroughly committed to the shidduch system, could have the opportunity to meet. I did it as an experiment. It worked well and was very educational. And, though I don’t know what couples resulted, I know it gave people hope.
And this is but one idea about how to fix a broken system. I welcome all other positive suggestions.
In the final analysis, the Jewish people are still here, after thousands of years of persecution, because our young people have married and produced strong families. This crisis, therefore, is an existential crisis that must be courageously addressed.