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All of us stood at Sinai: On being Orthodox and single

Many of our leaders have been married for a long time, which makes crucial that they learn what single people need from the single people themselves
'Descent from Mount Sinai,' by Cosimo Rosselli and his assistants, a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, 1481–1482. (Wikipedia)
'Descent from Mount Sinai,' by Cosimo Rosselli and his assistants, a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, 1481–1482. (Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I was approached after Shabbat services by one of the members of our community. She said that she had a question for me related to a recent simcha our congregation celebrated, where she noticed that I was the only single and childless person there. How did my experience feel, she asked. Unable to respond to her, I abruptly left the conversation with tears in my eyes.

I belong to the small percentage of Orthodox people who are later-in-life singles (I’m in my 40s and have never been married), but still want to find a partner. I cannot attribute my lack of a relationship to my lack of trying: my Saw You At Sinai (a dating/matchmaker website) account remains active and my friends are aware that I continue to look. But this process is slow and sporadic, much of which feels out of my control. I will readily admit that bitachon (faith) is not my strongest trait, but even a person with supreme faith has moments when it is tested.

There is a term for the type of grieving that single people experience while hoping for their circumstances to change: ambiguous loss. In most forms of grief, the acute pain of loss gradually improves over time — while the pain caused death of a loved one may never fully heal, the intensity of this pain typically abates. As the name suggests, ambiguous loss is a more nebulous process. This form of grief shares many similarities with other types of loss, but with no end in sight. In other words, the pain remains acute, and is often exacerbated by precisely the kinds of events that I experienced when asked how it felt to be single.

It seems as though there is a growing awareness in our culture at large about the challenges that single people face. This greater sensitivity is part of a broader trend that exposes trauma that used to stay hidden, such as groups to help families that have experienced fertility issues and increasing acknowledgement of how important accessibility is to ensure people with disabilities can actively participate in our communities. Yet the predicament faced by single people in an Orthodox environment differs in one key way: our texts and practices place a particularly high value on family, whereas single people do not have such visible representation in this wealth of tradition.

How can we make it better? It is crucial that Orthodox leaders remain in thoughtful dialogue with the single people who are also in their communities. When possible, single people should be given platforms so that they can share their experiences: both what they find to be rewarding and what they find to be challenging. A staggering number of the leaders in our community have not been single for a long time, meaning that they may not understand how the needs and hopes of a single person can change significantly over the course of life.

This work is important not only because it creates communities where all can feel welcome, but because for many single people, community is a vital way of mitigating the loneliness and social isolation that might otherwise occur due solely to their marital status — consider that single people may be left out of meals where couples are invited or the relationships that form around child-raising. As we are reminded in this week’s parshah: each of us — individually — was at Sinai. Let’s ensure as a community that we see each individual soul and make it welcome.

About the Author
Zoë Lang is on the faculty of Maimonides School in Brookline, where she teaches Jewish history. She is also the Director of Ma'ayan, an organization that creates text-based learning opportunities throughout the greater Boston area. She lives in Brighton, MA.
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