Netflix’s Jewish Matchmaking series highlights a topic long ignored by too many: the life of people who are not married in the general Jewish but especially Orthodox community. While this topic is often referred to as a “singles crisis” in terms of what can be done to help those who are not married find their match, there is much more to it than simple matchmaking to addressing such a large and essential part of the Jewish community. It begins with recognizing it exists–something communities and institutions tend to forget too often. Too often, our communal life and religious life end up excluding single people either by neglect or by design.
Take, for example, the simple fact that many synagogue memberships state outright different membership prices for married couples than they do for single people. Those prices are often not lower for single people; they are, in fact, much more expensive than the per capita cost of membership for a couple. There is no reason or justification for charging single people more for synagogue membership. While I have heard the complaint some synagogues have that single people who are regulars there on Shabbat do not become members, perhaps we can all solve this by making sure that synagogue memberships, programming, and language are set up to welcome single people and integrate them into our communities. Single people should be treated equally in their synagogue membership, synagogue, and organizational leadership roles, when we plan communal events and in every other part of Jewish communal life.
Accommodations for single people in our community are likely to strengthen our communities not only because of the stereotypical kind of single people who we think of–never married, usually younger and looking to get married–but also more likely to boost our communities with the membership and involvement of those who are widowed, divorced, single parents, and so on. We cannot allow our communities to be exclusive by design.
Having got married at an age that was considered “older” in the Orthodox community (I got married when I was 31), sadly, there was no time I dreaded more than Shabbat and the Yamim Tovim. The beauty of Shabbat and the Chagim is very much connected to it, bringing families together. Too often, those who did not start families of their own find themselves struggling every Shabbat and holiday to find a place where they can belong. The heartbreaking irony of this cannot be overstated; a time that is meant for joy, rest, and bonding can be sad, stressful, and restless for too many. It is easy to urge every orthodox person to make sure they reach out before every Shabbat and holiday to those who might not have a place to eat. Still, if we are serious about making sure that tens of thousands of single people in our communities feel like they are a part of our community, we need to make sure we have a communal design and response that makes sure everyone is included.
I remember someone complaining to me they realized that as years go on, they noticed how some single people become less religious with every year that goes by while their married friends have a more steady religious commitment. I could not help thinking that we exclude single people from so much in our communal life just to go on and wonder why many of them opt out of that exclusive environment. Our collective organizations–from the Orthodox Union to the Mizrachi, the Rabbinical Council of America, to any number of other organizations–must do more to address those who are not married and live in our communities. To those wondering what they can do individually to ensure our community is more inclusive, there is a simple answer: open your home and heart to others. It will be much easier than you think and far more meaningful than ever imagined. It does not have to be a Shabbat meal. It can be an Oneg, a Shabbat afternoon class, or any other way of making space for those who often feel excluded.
Of course, there is also the elephant in the room–marriage. Too many single people who do want to get married are not being set up often enough. Of course, there are many dating sites and apps that can be used, but those lack the show of caring and personal input. When you call someone with a potential match for them, they know that A. you have been thinking of them. B. someone they know thinks this might be a good match. We cannot outsource caring for single people in our community exclusively to apps and websites. Synaoguges and families should be hosting more singles events; individuals should be encouraged
In our community with clear social norms and expectations, where socializing and seeking a potential spouse does not happen as casually as in other circles, must maximize the opportunity for those who are interested in marriage to meet other like-minded single people. This will not be addressed in just one way. From singles events to groups dedicated to setting people up, to Shabbat meals, to synagogue events that do not only cater to married couples, we must also do more for the social lives of single people in our communities. This must be done both with marriage in mind as well as not dating-oriented events. Sure, we must do a lot to make sure people can find someone to date, but we also cannot tolerate a situation where those who are not married dread Shabbatot and Yamim Tovim. We cannot allow synagogue activities and community life to leave a vacuum in the lives of those who are not married.
Watching Netflix’s Jewish Matchmaking made another critical point clear: we lie to ourselves and our communities about fertility. The lying is either explicit or by omission.
A ubiquitous and very Jewish aspect of Netflix’s Jewish Matchmaking is the anxiety and centrality of having children to Jewish singles. One of the first things couples discuss on the show is: “How many children would you like to have?” To see people in their forties speaking about the number of children they want to have or how important having children are to them with no acknowledgment of the reality of human fertility is unjust. Seeing someone in her 40s say so easily that she took no measures to fertility preservation, at the same time, she speaks about her desire for children, embodies the communal blind eye American Jewry has turned to the issue of fertility. Yes. Having children is something even young couples can struggle with, but the odds of the struggle and success for a 25-year-old and a 45-year-old are very different, and that needs to be acknowledged. Why? Because as long as we continue to pretend that factor does not exist, we are doing an injustice to those affected by it.
While discussions about having children are the sacred privacy of every individual making their choices on the matter, every now and then, some people take this conversation to social media or other public forums. When I see the question of having children or waiting (among people who are over 30), ultimately, the most common answer given is: “You have time,” “I know someone that had her kids at age 45 and up,” “My friend had a baby when she was 50” and other lines that encourage the postponement of having children even in an advanced age. That is not a neutral position, nor is it necessarily the correct answer for the person asking. Infertility is not always solvable, and solutions that are available for infertility in your 20s may not be there in your 40s. Our larger Jewish community is often too blind to the facts and reality of infertility.
While in Israel, it is normal for communities to hold seminars and proper discussions on fertility preservation, with a prominent rabbi even calling on single women to freeze their eggs before they approach the age of 30, American orthodoxy does avoid such conversations. Much of this has to do with Israel’s socialized medicine system that gives women aged 30-41 the right to freeze their eggs for free. This has led to the fact that it has become common for many orthodox and Charedi women to freeze their eggs, something we do not openly encourage in North America.
Either way, it is imperative we make sure education and awareness for fertility-related issues are open here as it is in Israel. Stigma, shaming, making discussions of fertility-related issues inaccessible, or making certain procedures socially unacceptable in our communities rather than supporting individuals whose future might depend on them are all unforgivable norms that will hurt too many in our community.
Sadly, from my experience trying to set people up, I have been surprised by the extent to which men are blind to the issue of infertility and how they are affected by it. The fallacy that leads men to this mistake is the thought that, medically speaking, male infertility is not impacted by age the way female infertility is impacted by age and that, therefore, they have more of an option “to take their time.” True, the likelihood of infertility in a man who is 30 and a man who is 40 is not radically different. The mistake dating men make is thinking that they will have the same dating options when they are 40 as they do when they are 30. They usually don’t, and if a man waits to marry until he is in his 40s, he cannot expect not to face infertility challenges either themselves or with their partner.
While there have been countless perspectives shared about the “shidduch crisis” in the orthodox community, there is one thing everyone agrees on: there is a large group of orthodox women who will find themselves without someone to marry. Most of them dreamed their whole lives about having a child. There needs to be room in our community for those who want to have a child on their own in a halachically acceptable way to do that. This is not just about what is permitted or not–in many cases, it is our communal moral obligation to them. Too many women were raised in a system that put a great emphasis on family life while also landing them in a situation where they find themselves approaching forty without a child or a spouse. While the vast majority of women will not choose the path of conceiving and raising a child on their own, it is essential we be there for those who do choose to do so and for the children they have.
I know there are many other issues that went unaddressed in this article, many more insights that deserved to be shared, or points that others may disagree with. Feel free to reach out with more comments to email@example.com, and I hope to do better in the future.