February 10, 2005
The Mating Game
What Is the Jewish Community Doing About the Singles Problem?
"I'm going to a shidduch conference," I announce to my friends.
Despite my protests that I'm going to the conference for research I am conducting about the desperate and dateless ... um -- I mean single and searching -- in Los Angeles, I am bombarded with a plethora of jokes by my (former) friends about wearing long sleeves, choruses of "Matchmaker" from "Fiddler on the Roof" and references to "Crossing Delancey." Then again, who wouldn't want to look like Amy Irving and meet a sweet Jewish pickle man whose hands smell of vanilla?
So, armed with my long skirt and long sleeves, I make my way to the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) and Young Israel of North Beverly Hills (YINBH) West Coast Shidduch Conference. More than 50 percent of the 100 or so attendees are women, 70 percent of those are shadchanim (matchmakers) and the remainder are mostly young Orthodox women in their 20s looking to meet their match.
The conference is a tacit acknowledgment that the Orthodox Jewish community is in crisis. Marrying off young and not-so-young Orthodox Jews ain't as easy as it used to be.
But the singles "problem" in Los Angeles is not just an Orthodox one. Apparently, "singles syndrome" can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. It's nondiscriminatory, hitting the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and everyone in between -- including the unafilliated.
As such, singles themselves, along with a multitude of synagogues, communities and organizations are doing their utmost to combat what is being viewed as an ever-growing problem. ("Why Being Single Happens to Good People" is the title of a lecture being given by Dr. Lisa Aiken Feb. 22 at Young Israel of Hancock Park.) And they're also attempting to do so in a way that doesn't stigmatize the singles community.
It's something Rebbetzin Judi Steinig doesn't contest. As director of Shidduch Programming at NCYI, she believes today's young Orthodox singles are mostly in need of guidance.
"With many young Orthodox boys being sent off to dormitory-style yeshivas, they don't grow up in a family structure, and don't get to see other girls in synagogues," she says. "By the time they're ready to date, they simply don't have any social skills. They have unrealistic expectations about the type of girl their potential wife should be."
That is why, she says, the conference is so important to bring a dose of reality to the young men, women and their parents.
Rabbi Sholom Tendler, rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills and rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Los Angeles and Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles, explains yet another problem: With no real equivalent to New York's Yeshiva University and Stern College, many of Los Angeles' best and brightest yeshiva boys are moving to the East Coast, leaving the young women here with very few shidduch potentials.
In an effort to combat the L.A. exodus, Dr. Esther Lowy is currently working to establish Touro College in Los Angeles, based on the Touro model in Brooklyn. Set to open this fall, she believes the school will keep local young men local and to look for their future wives right here in Los Angeles.
But the search for eligible mates isn't confined to the Orthodox community. Rabbi David Wolpe, rabbi of Conservative Sinai Temple, started Friday Night Live (FNL) about six years ago in an effort to help Jewish singles of all affiliations meet. Primarily aimed at singles in their 20s and 30s, there were never any really strict age guidelines until last December, when -- to the consternation of some -- Wolpe announced that older visitors should cease attending.
"Older men primarily come to singles events to meet younger women," Wolpe said. "I started getting complaints from the younger women who said men in their 50s and 60s were coming up to them and making them feel uncomfortable."
"Michael," a 47-year-old computer programmer who lives in the Pico-Robertson area and describes himself as "Conservative in belief but Reform in practice," understands Wolpe's sentiments. "At first I thought it was unfair, but now I think that it's a good idea to have an age cutoff. I think people in their 40s begin to have different needs than people in their 20s and 30s."
But Wolpe does acknowledge that there is a serious problem in the 40-plus demographic.
"It's a tougher one to address," he says. "Everybody I've spoken to has this same dilemma, men in their 40s and 50s are looking for women who are a decade or two younger."
Yet despite the initial success of FNL, Michael argues, "It's also a place where you can feel all alone. After services, it's up to you to try to find that special person in between the masses."
Thirty-five-year-old Michelle Fellner (the only single interviewed willing to use her real name), who describes herself as Conservative and works as an assistant editor on a network television show, agrees.
"It feels a bit like a meat market, and you can feel very uncomfortable once the service has ended," she says.
Part of the problem, according to Rabbi Isaac Jeret, president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) in Simi Valley, which describes itself as both pluralistic and nondenominational, is that "communities were once constructed and people married those who were part of a circle that was organically Jewish. People met on the block or at the grocery store. Today, our neighbors and schools aren't Jewish, so we have to create inorganic collections of Jewish singles."
Wolpe adds there is also a problem with people coming to "contrived" singles events, because they are already a little discouraged and come with a slightly cynical attitude for fear that they won't meet someone, and then will certainly not wish to come back. Sinai Temple also boasts the ATID program for people in their 20s and 30s -- single, married or dating -- so that there isn't a "desperate singles air" about people, says program director Leslie Klieger.
Wolpe is also looking to expand the after-service events of FNL. (With a recent endowment from Hedy and Ted Orden, FNL will now be branded as "The Orden Family Friday Night Live.") Wolpe also intends to expand on the variety of events offered after the service, starting this Friday night (Feb. 11) with a kabbalah class.
Says Fellner, "I do feel like there's a lot of external pressure, as well as self-pressure, to meet people. I'm also more shy and reserved, and feel like I might be part of the problem. I think I don't put myself out there enough."
While this can be seen as a 21st-century phenomenon, Wolpe argues that being single in Los Angeles can be harder than elsewhere, simply because of the geographic spread of the city.
"The carpool lane tells the story of modern society," he says. "There's no one in the carpool lane. Everyone drives alone, lives alone and works alone. By providing us with our needs, society has robbed us of our essential need, which is other people. And if you start to dull the need, then you simply don't reach out."
Fellner, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past six years, will attest to that.
"If you work in the 'industry,' you spend so many hours at work, and it's really hard to meet people," she says. "We all work long, hard hours and live in a large metropolitan area, so it's hard to form smaller areas within communities."
BBI, Jeret says, picks up the slack in this area by "contriving" settings for singles to meet. Perhaps the most successful is the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI) program, an intensive 26-day arts summer program for 18- to 26-year-olds.
"BCI is an intentional community," Jeret says. "But its intent isn't to pressure people to meet someone." That's important, he explains, "because if the goal is to meet someone and you don't the first time, then there's no incentive to go back."
There are many organizations in this city that work hard at not defining themselves as exclusively singles-oriented, but are targeted to 20- to 30-year-olds. There are also many organizations -- too many to mention -- that target themselves exclusively at singles.
Talk to any of Los Angeles' Jewish-affiliated singles, and they'll mention a handful of organizations around the city that sponsor singles events, such as the well known JDate or Aish HaTorah's SpeedDating (seven minutes for seven men), and organizations to suit every need, whether it be travel (Traveljewish.com), volleyball (Jewish Singles Volleyball, which meets every Sunday), Jewish discussions (Project Next Step and Conversations at Leon's), parties (Klutz Productions) and even personal matchmakers -- although that option is less popular among the secular.
But why use a matchmaker when you can do it yourself? JDate -- and other Jewish Internet dating Web sites that are popping up -- has been a popular boon to connecting to a Jewish mate in the last few years.
Michael says that JDate affords him the opportunity to "get to know the person before ever going on the first date." He also recently met someone on JDate and says, "So far, so good."
"Sarah," a 29-year-old product manager from Los Angeles, also recently met her boyfriend on JDate. Born and raised in a Conservative household in the Valley, today she describes herself as Reform. However, her decision to join JDate was based purely on the fact that "I figured there were very few Jewish psychopaths out there." And she still says meeting her current boyfriend on the site was "a fluke."
Many singles and organization leaders are quick to praise the Internet: "You can [use JDate] at your own pace," Jeret says, "and you have a greater degree of anonymity." But can Alon Carmel's computer business (JDate recently started charging members to make use of the site) really serve as a stand-in for real organizational involvement?
Aish Hatorah's SpeedDating coordinators take a more active role. Established in 1999, the aim, coordinator Brooke Rosenthal says, "is for Jews to meet and marry other Jews in an effort to prevent marrying out."
And while Rosenthal says some people are initially wary of SpeedDating because it is so contrived, "you don't have to come up with some cheesy opening like you do at singles events. And when it comes down to it, everyone wants to meet someone."
Yet however much pressure singles feel to meet other Jewish singles, the organizations, communities, rabbis and synagogues are feeling it strongly, too. They are all too aware of the very real problem of Jewish singles meeting and marrying non-Jews, and they're racing the clock.
Despite having met her Jewish boyfriend on JDate, Sarah reveals, "My ex-boyfriend was Chinese. I couldn't care less that my current boyfriend's Jewish, but my mom's thrilled."
Unlike Sarah, Fellner says while she would never say "never" about marrying someone who isn't Jewish, it's still definitely a priority for her. "Since my early 20s, I've not pursued relationships with non-Jews," she says.
And Michael argues that while meeting someone Jewish is "important," it's less so the older he becomes. "Being married to someone non-Jewish trumps possibly being single the rest of my life," he states matter-of-factly.
"The problem," Sarah says, "is unless you are active in a synagogue or hang out with mostly Jewish friends, it's hard to find someone Jewish. I went to a public school, and I have one Jewish friend."
Fellner adds that the problem isn't helped by the fact that most people don't join a synagogue or become part of a particular community until after they are married and have children.
Most singles don't actually blame the synagogues or the organizations in the community for their current woes. They are aware that there is a glut of organizations and events in the city -- from Shabbat dinners, community shul programs and travel and ski trips, to picnics, sports events and regular parties.
But it's that elusive combination of the effectiveness of these programs, coupled with the singles' own desire to "get out there and meet people," that appear to be the stumbling blocks.
"In the end, it's up to us to meet the opposite sex and not wait for a synagogue activity or a dating service before doing so," Michael says. "It might be difficult, but it's certainly not impossible."
"You need to make yourself a little more vulnerable," Fellner says. "I hate to reduce dating, love and marriage to a scientific statistical method, but it's there. Because even if there isn't a great yield, ultimately, all you need is one."
Ah, but which one? At the shidduch conference at YINBH, I spy a 30-something pickle man look-alike, sporting a cap very similar to the one Peter Riegert wore in "Crossing Delancey." However, he appears to be upholding the single and searching cliché -- his eyes firmly trained on the girls 15 years his junior. And there's not even a whiff of vanilla.
Kelly Hartog is The Journal's new religion reporter. She will be replacing Gaby Wenig, who is marrying and moving. Hartog can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.