Let’s talk about what it’s like to be single in the Jewish Modern Orthodox Community. In just a few months I’ll turn 30 years old. That means I have been dating nearly 10 years, aiming to find the right person to marry. Not being able to find the right person when you want to get married and have a family is difficult in any culture, but it’s particularly difficult in the Jewish community, because we place such a strong emphasis on having a family. It’s such a focus, that many singles opt not to live in established Jewish communities, but rather in “singles communities” such as Washington Heights, where I live. For me, however, and for many others who live here, it is not where we want to end up. It’s where we live temporarily, until our life circumstances change.
The temporary nature of our single existence extends to how we live, too. Looking around my apartment, it occurs to me that almost none of the objects I own are ones that I picked out myself. From the couches to the silverware to the bookshelves, most of the items in my apartment were either given to me secondhand by someone else, or they were left in the apartment from someone who lived here before me. When my friends and I moved here, right after of college, our attitude was that we were not planning to stay long. Why bother to invest in nice, new things? Most of us planned to move out as soon as we found a spouse, to start all over when our family and friends would purchase things for us from our wedding gift registry. For some of us, that is taking a lot longer than we expected.
It’s accepted within the Jewish Modern Orthodox community that dating is difficult. Much has been written about the so called “shidduch crisis,” how it is more difficult today for singles to find spouses, and how women are disproportionately affected by this problem because there are more women than men. How there aren’t enough opportunities to meet new people, too much emphasis is placed on superficial qualities like the clothing a person wears, and overall the system lacks a certain humanity. For singles navigating the dating scene, we can sometimes feel like we are being reduced to being a piece of paper, or a list of qualities, instead of a human being.
We need to address the way our community views and relates to singles. Marital status is valued more than age. A married 21 year old still in college is viewed as more of an “adult” than a 29 year old who has a master’s degree and is seven years into a career. There are many assumptions that people make about singles. When I tell people that I have a sister who is married and has two children, they often assume that she is older than me. When I tell them that she is younger, and actually three and a half years younger, they sometimes get uncomfortable, and start to feel bad for me. Marriage happens by circumstance, not skill. I am proud of what I have accomplished professionally and personally on my own. I guarantee you there's no need to be embarrassed for me.
.We don’t talk about how things change for singles as we get older. I remember thinking I was “so old” to still be single at 25 years old, and now it is five years later. The longer I’ve been dating, the more times I’ve gotten my hopes up, hoping that this time things will work out – and they didn’t. That’s tough. No one talks about how the older you get, the harder dating becomes.
At one point it had been over a year since I had gone on a date. You may assume that it’s because I didn’t try hard enough or put in enough effort. But during that time, I joined dating websites, went to singles events, asked friends to set me up with guys, asked out a guy myself, and worked in an office with several well-known matchmakers. Still no one set me up. The more I talk to other single women my age, the more I find that I’m not alone in this. Many share my experience that it can be difficult to even find a date or can be months in between dates. Know that we need you, the community, to help us more.
My fellow single women who are going through the same thing: it’s not just you, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed or think something is wrong with you. It’s not your fault.
My friends and I are often surprised at how often people make statements that suggest or imply that it is our fault that we are single. People say things like “she’s so beautiful and nice, why is she still single?” implying so many things including: that singles are too picky. We are too comfortable in our environment and do not want to give up our independence to get married. We have issues or there is something wrong with us. We need to lose weight. We have not put in enough effort to attend singles events or are not putting ourselves out there enough. We must take a professional photo for dating profiles in order for anyone to agree to go on a date with us. Plenty of people who actually do fall into those categories have gotten married. Sometimes there are things we simply can’t control in life and there isn’t a reason.
There are also a lot of positive aspects to being single, and I fully appreciate and am grateful for them. In the past eight years that I’ve lived in a singles community, I have learned a lot, grown, met many wonderful people, and been fortunate to have many close friendships that provide support through good and tough times. I have really enjoyed being independent. When I first moved to Washington Heights I thought I would only be single for a year or two, and definitely not still be living here and single eight years later. I hope to find the right person and move out of this singles community one of these days, but in the meantime I truly enjoy and take pride in my community, my friends, and my life.
I'll leave you with this. Your single friends and neighbors want you to put in the extra effort into thinking about who would be a great match for them. But we also hope you'll do it in a respectful, sensitive way. In the month of Elul, as a community, it’s important to recognize that this is something we need to work on. It’s not just about singles, “putting in their hishtadlut (effort),” it’s about communal effort too.
Photo courtesy of Tamar Novick