For Orthodox Jews, matchmaking and dating are more confusing than ever. Is secularism to blame? Feminism? Or is it part of a greater crisis?
In a flurry of high heels, pleated skirts, and perfectly pressed suits, hundreds of young Orthodox Jews streamed out of the sanctuary doors and into the adjacent social hall of Mount Sinai Jewish Center of Washington Heights. Beneath an old glass chandelier, the young mixed in the loud, crowded room, flitting and flirting from one group to the next. The room was packed, but there’s an unspoken dance that transpires here each week, a kind of subconscious choreography. Men and women aren’t allowed to touch each other, so they must navigate carefully. A woman turned her body just to slide between two men, and they adjusted accordingly.
There weren’t any low necklines, spaghetti-strap dresses, or short skirts. The men wore suits and ties, and the women dressed according to Orthodox standards of modesty—covered elbows, knees, and collarbones—but in fashionable, color-coordinated outfits. “It’s like a bar on a Friday night in the secular world,” said Susanne Goldstone, a resident of Washington Heights who has been attending Mount Sinai since 2002. “People characterize it as a meat market.”
The service that preceded the socializing was, in many ways, an Orthodox service like any other. There were separate sections for men and women, divided by a barrier called a mechitza. But throughout the service, amid the swaying bodies and mumbling recitations of personal prayers, men and women glanced furtively at each other over the wall, checking out the possibilities.
For Goldstone, services at Mount Sinai are a Friday night ritual. Originally from Orange County, California, Goldstone, thirty, is a bubbly former blonde—she says her natural blond hair was the first thing she lost when she moved to New York—with a smile for everyone. She’s a die-hard fan of her TiVo, the musical Spring Awakening—seen it five times—and professional bull riding. She even owns a cowboy hat.
But because she hadn’t gotten married yet, and therefore didn’t have an excuse to leave the community, she also felt as if she had no alternative but to stay.
In the past several decades, young Orthodox Jews like Goldstone have stayed single longer, and as they’ve delayed marriage, young Jews have formed singles communities like this one in Washington Heights, a primarily Dominican neighborhood in northern Manhattan.
As Goldstone grew older, and the community got younger, she no longer enjoyed the socializing after services at Mount Sinai, where she had once been a social butterfly. “Now I’m not even comfortable there,” she said. “I feel like I’m the old fart.” But because she hadn’t gotten married yet, and therefore didn’t have an excuse to leave the community, she also felt as if she had no alternative but to stay.
A Shidduch Crisis?
Dating—for Goldstone, the Jews who attend Mount Sinai, and thousands of other Orthodox singles—isn’t easy. Most of these singles dream of marrying young, in their early twenties. They hope to begin having children immediately, integrating into a community where marriage and family life are the building blocks of society. “It’s not good to be single,” said Chananya Weissman, thirty-one, founder of End the Madness, an international group that seeks to change attitudes about dating among religious Jews. “The first thing that God tells people is that it’s not good for man to be alone.”
But today, many Orthodox young people are alone. Precise numbers are elusive, but many members of the community believe that the growing number of singles constitutes a societal crisis. Despite the pressures from parents, rabbis, and Orthodox society, young people are graduating from college without getting married. They’re reaching twenty-five and—God forbid—even thirty without finding a spouse.
As more and more singles have failed to meet their matches, Jewish leaders have declared the situation a singles crisis, a crisis of the shidduch. The shidduch is the system of dating—solely for the purpose of marriage, and not for fun or entertainment—that is the norm in Orthodox Jewish life. The shidduch crisis has many dimensions, including a growing number of unmarried young people and the growing instability of marriages in the Orthodox community, said Rabbi Yosef Blau, a spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University in Washington Heights. “The two feed on each other,” he said. There is the fear that as people get older, they tend to gradually shed their religious devotion, undermining the fabric of Orthodox society. This leads to fewer Orthodox couples, and therefore fewer Orthodox children in a culture that seeks to expand. “In Jewish society, numbers matter,” Blau said.
Michael Salamon, a psychologist and author of the book The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures, said the pressure to marry young has produced more young divorces and increased problems like anorexia. “I called the book the Shidduch Crisis, but the bigger problem is, it’s really a divorce crisis,” Salamon said. “The divorce rate has gone up astronomically in the religious community.” He sees many young couples, some of them pregnant, divorcing after brief marriages resulting from societal pressure. He estimates that the divorce rate in the Orthodox Jewish community is 30 percent, about three times as high as it has been in the past.
Two years ago, Masha Kuznetsov decided it was time to move to Washington Heights, blocks from where Susanne Goldstone lives. She had been living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, also a haven for young, unmarried Jews, but had decided that the lifestyle wasn’t quite right for her. She was twenty-nine, still single, and wasn’t getting any younger. Observant Jews follow the rules of shomer negiah—literally, “guarding the touch.” They can’t touch anyone of the opposite sex before marriage—no kissing, no hugging, not even a handshake. And on the Upper West Side, some members didn’t keep strict shomer negiah. The Upper West Side is known for rumors of “tefillin dates.” Young men bring their tefillin—phylacteries necessary for the morning prayers—with them on a date because they anticipate spending the night at the woman’s apartment. Kuznetsov wanted someplace where others shared her level of observance.
“We all know what goes on there,” Kuznetsov said.
A shy brunette with a musical laugh, Kuznetsov was born in the former Soviet Union, spent her teenage years in Rochester, New York, then attended the State University of New York at Binghamton and did graduate work at Columbia’s Teachers College. In her late twenties, she moved to the Heights.
Washington Heights has two primary Orthodox communities, each enclosed, more or less, by an eruv, a thin wire that allows the Jews living within its boundary to carry things—like keys, food, or even strollers—on the Sabbath. The eastern community revolves around Yeshiva University, and is made up of mostly young married couples and grad students.
The western section is primarily a singles community, a place where people assume a holding pattern, temporarily biding the time between college and married life. They use plastic dishes, figuring that they’ll get a real set when they’re married, and attend the synagogue—although many don’t join, because they hope to leave the community soon.
When she’s not matchmaking—which she’s been doing for twenty years—she works as an employment recruiter for her own company. “It’s the same skill,” said Blackman about matchmaking. “You just hope it will last longer.”
Susanne Goldstone moved to the community right after graduating from Stern College, the women’s college of Yeshiva University, with degrees in Judaic studies and political science. For Goldstone, potential marriage partners, Orthodox lifestyle, and cheap rent made Washington Heights a perfect post-college location. But like many of her friends from college, she assumed she’d be in the Heights for a short period before moving on to married life. “Everyone thought they’d be here for a year or two and they’re all still here,” she said. “It’s sad, but what can you do?”
Make Me a Match
During the fall of 2008, Masha Kuznetsov worked for a Jewish outreach organization called Hineni International, which aims to foster Jewish faith by offering classes in parenting, Talmud, Hebrew, and other subjects.
One day at work, Kuznetsov stopped by to see Phyllis Blackman, the matchmaker at Hineni. Every Thursday evening, Blackman sits at a desk at the entrance of Hineni’s Upper West Side headquarters, her large Sony laptop open in front of her. When she’s not matchmaking for Hineni—which she’s been doing for twenty years, she said—she works as an employment recruiter for her own company.
“It’s the same skill,” said Blackman about matchmaking. “You just hope it will last longer.”
Matchmakers, or shadchanim, have always been part of the Orthodox community, introducing potential couples and helping broker marriage deals. As Orthodox society has moved to the right, singles have become more reliant on matchmakers, who have become increasingly powerful figures in the communities. “Now they’re more like investigators, private eyes,” said Salamon, the psychologist. “It’s as if they have some sort of crystal ball to the future to see who is perfect for whom.”
Kuznetsov, who has been to her share of matchmakers, said it was easier not to have the “do I want to see you again” conversation after a date. “One advantage of being set up on a date is there’s no attachment,” she said. “So you’re really logically thinking about whether this is the person you want to be with.”
Sitting at her desk in the Hineni foyer, Blackman helped Kuznetsov search through her ever-expanding database of eligible singles. They settled on Daniel (not his real name), an Orthodox Jew living in Brooklyn who had attended the same college as Kuznetsov.
Several days later, Daniel and Kuznetsov spoke by phone to arrange their first date.
The Other Sinai
As Orthodox society has become more conservative, the old ways of meeting—like co-ed dances or parties—have become much less common. Even weddings often have separate seating for single people, with all the single women on one side, single men on the other.
This separation is part of what led Susanne Goldstone to turn to online dating. A social media coordinator at the National Jewish Outreach Program, a Jewish educational nonprofit, Goldstone spends her days figuring out how to use sites like Facebook to market her organization’s adult education programs that teach Jews about traditional practices and faith. So for Goldstone, using the Web for dating was nothing new.
The Web site Goldstone used was SawYouAtSinai.com, a popular dating site where many members of the community in Washington Heights have profiles. Unlike secular dating Web sites, users are not permitted to browse through other profiles. One of the site’s matchmakers pick possible matches. If both parties approve she sets them up. It’s an electronic version of what matchmakers have been doing for ages.
When the profile of twenty-seven-year-old Evan Rosenhouse first landed in her inbox, Goldstone was hesitant. His picture was sort of dorky, and the profile said he had a disability. But after talking to him on the phone, and learning that they both shared a love of country music, she decided to give it a try. “It’s only a cup of coffee,” she said.
Bridging the Gap?
On a cold night in early December, Kuznetsov made the trek from the Hineni office to Congregation Adereth El, a shul on East 29th Street, to attend a dating symposium organized by End The Madness. Kuznetsov had dressed modestly, as usual—an ankle-length khaki skirt, a gray cardigan pulled over a blue long-sleeve shirt, and black boots. Her brown hair was pulled back in a loose bun. She sat between two men, and her chair was a safe distance from both of them—even accidentally brushing elbows or bumping feet isn’t considered appropriate.
End The Madness, which Weissman founded seven years ago while a graduate student at Yeshiva University, frequently holds events like this, which had been advertised as “bridging the gap between singles and the larger Jewish community.” It first occurred to Weissman to start a dating organization after attending his sister’s graduation ceremony from an Orthodox high school in Far Rockaway, Queens, where his mother and father weren’t allowed to sit together because men and women had to sit on different sides of the room. Then, after sitting through dating lectures at Yeshiva that made his blood boil, Weissman decided to start an organization and bought the domain name for his Web site—EndTheMadness.org. “StopTheInsanity.com was taken, and I feel that it really is like a mental illness,” he said. “We have people that in other aspects of their lives really are rational people. But when it comes to the way they date and marry and their values, I think it’s really insane.
“When my older siblings were dating it wasn’t the way it is today,” he said. As the fifth of seven children, he had already seen his older siblings go through the process of dating and marriage. “Why does it have to be an unpleasant, bitter experience that you can’t wait to be done with?”
At the event, attendees had split off into groups, making circles of blue vinyl chairs, pizza perched precariously on paper plates on their laps. Between bites they discussed how dating had become a painful and frustrating experience, and how they were no longer excited to go out at night.
“There’s this presumption that once you reach a certain age there’s something wrong with you,” said Michael Feldstein, who works with End The Madness. “Singles are human beings. They’re real people, and they have feelings, too.”
Leaning forward with her elbows propped on her knees, Kuznetsov agreed. “A girl I know said singles over thirty should get counseling,” she said.
Leaving the event, Kuznetsov said it was interesting but felt slightly disappointed. Not only did she not even get anybody’s phone number, but she had expected more married people to attend. “Maybe I’m naïve, but I thought the larger Jewish community would show up,” she said with a sigh.
The denizens of the singles community in Washington Heights are largely Modern Orthodox Jews. They dress conservatively, and all men attend prayer services three times a day. Every Sabbath, from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, they don’t use electricity, write, drive, or take public transportation. They don’t rip toilet paper, use umbrellas, take photos, or talk on cell phones. Every day, they keep kosher and obey dietary restrictions, including using separate dishes and silverware for meat and milk items.
When it comes to dating, they believe that touching creates an intense emotional bond and can cloud the judgment of both parties. And besides, not being able to touch often speeds along the process of dating and engagement, leading to quicker courtships and earlier marriages. Although singles say that keeping shomer negiah isn’t always easy—and that they’re certainly curious about the physical side of relationships—most said they felt it kept them from becoming irrationally attached to a partner. “Aside from the fact that it’s much harder to set limits within having physical contact, it’s also that when you do have it, it makes you see the person through rose-colored glasses,” said Kuznetsov.
Despite their level of observance, these Jews don’t eschew the secular world, but rather embrace it. They attend secular schools, some work in secular workplaces, they ride the subway and shop at secular stores. And most of them are looking to date someone like themselves. “I’m looking for a combination of someone seriously observant, but worldly and open-minded,” said Kuznetsov.
Susanne Goldstone was hoping that Rosenhouse, her recent match on SawYouAtSinai.com, would be that combination. She wanted someone like herself—on the liberal side of Modern Orthodox—who was open to her occasionally wearing pants or eating dairy in a non-kosher restaurant.
For their date, they agreed to meet at a coffee shop near Yeshiva University. There were periodic silences, and moments of awkwardness. But the date lasted three hours. Goldstone knew that Rosenhouse, a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, was missing the game. “That was huge,” she said. “He kept talking about it but he didn’t get up and leave.”
“Even after the date, it was like, ‘Oh, he’s kind of dorky, he has a slight limp, can I be seen with this guy?’” Goldstone said. “But it’s all stuff you can get over and become comfortable.” So she sent an email to her shadchan, or matchmaker, saying that she was game for a second date.
No Sex in the City
Both Goldstone and Rosenhouse, who is in rabbinical school at Yeshiva University, have had to find ways to balance their secular and religious lives.
“You have one foot in each world, and everyone has to reconcile that for themselves,” said Ilana Nutkis, twenty-three, who moved to Washington Heights immediately after graduating from Stern with degrees in sociology and philosophy. “You’re a modern American and you’re a religious Jew, and that’s sort of a balancing act.”
Nutkis, like most Orthodox young people, isn’t having sex, but that doesn’t mean she’s not watching it. Like many young Orthodox women, she professes her love for Sex and the City and romance movies. Masha Kuznetsov adores Friends and manages to insert Seinfeld references into conversation whenever possible, but said that she realizes that the characters’ reality is not her own. “Those of us who do watch TV and movies compartmentalize,” she said.
But it’s not easy. Most young people are insatiably curious about the world of secular—and physical—relationships, wondering if sex was more likely to happen Sex and the City-style (after every date, in sometimes inconvenient places) or if physical relationships were more like When Harry Met Sally (friendship and fake orgasms first, the real thing later). “Everything that you see affects you, even if you’re not consciously aware of it,” said Kuznetsov, who imagines that physical relationships are probably more like When Harry Met Sally. “People have certain expectations of romance and falling in love and not having to work at it.”
“We live in a sexually explicit society,” said Blau, the Yeshiva spiritual advisor. “They reject that society, but it’s not so easy. And that creates a whole slew of behavioral problems.”
Some experts believe that this exposure to—and fascination with—secular culture contributes to the shidduch crisis, giving young singles unrealistic ideas of love and romance. After all, in Orthodox marriages, love is seen as something that develops after you’re married, not a fireworks affair that happens before the engagement. Some dating experts believe that because young people are expecting fireworks, they’re unable to find a life partner at all.
But Weissman believes that Sex and the City and its ilk aren’t as corrupting as Orthodox dating experts like to believe. “It might contribute to the problem for some people, but I think it’s really scapegoating,” said Weissman. “You have many singles who don’t watch these shows, but they’re still having great difficulties. It’s looking to find the problem without looking in the mirror.”
Nice to Meet You
It was Kuznetsov’s first day at her new job, a secretarial gig at an Orthodox accounting firm in Midtown. She didn’t intend to work there long, but had promised she’d be there at least until April 15th, through the end of tax season. At close of day, she headed down to the street corner to meet Daniel, a little excited, but not particularly nervous.
They moved on to the classic first date topic: secular culture. Talking about TV and movies is a way of figuring out how much secular culture someone consumes, and therefore an indicator for general Orthodox philosophies and lifestyle.
The pair strolled over to Cafe K, a kosher restaurant on 48th Street that’s a popular date spot for the after-work crowd. Kuznetsov and Daniel both ordered salads; it was an unseasonably warm mid-December evening, and neither felt like eating a full meal.
While not all shidduch dates are set up through a matchmaker, almost all are set up through an intermediary. People are set up through mutual contacts, and everyone is looking to set up their friends. It’s not socially acceptable for men to ask women out directly, but is permissible for a friend to do it for them.
On the date itself, conversation can range from talk about Orthodox philosophies and future goals to how many children they hope to have.
“There’s definitely a feeling that you should be asking some serious questions,” said Nutkis. “You want to make sure you have the same goals and values.”
Kuznetsov and her date talked about SUNY Binghamton and then moved quickly to the classic first date topic: secular culture. Talking about TV and movies is a way of figuring out how much secular culture someone consumes, and therefore an indicator for general Orthodox philosophies and lifestyle. If a potential pair can’t agree on whether it’s appropriate to see Slumdog Millionaire in the theater or catch the weekly new episode of The Office, they believe that future life decisions will be impossible as well.
He owned a TV, and she didn’t, although she will watch it at the gym or her parents’ house. She watches DVDs, but tries to avoid rated R movies, unless it’s something like Schindler’s List. He said he only owned his TV to watch educational programming like documentaries.
As they dug into their salads, he started telling her about his job and the appointments he had that day. She could feel herself nodding and smiling without understanding, remembering the stereotype she had heard about accountants being boring.
He paid the check, and they left Cafe K and parted ways at the subway stop. “Nice to meet you,” she said, and they agreed to be in touch with Blackman, their matchmaker.
When Masha got home, she sent Blackman an email. “He’s a very nice person, but I don’t think he’s the one for me,” she typed.
Most relationships, if they merit that term, are fairly short—Kuznetsov’s longest lasted for a month—and couples become engaged after dating anywhere from several weeks to several months. Engagements are much shorter than in the secular world.
But for Kuznetsov, one date was enough to know Daniel wasn’t the one for her. “Sometimes ‘Nice to meet you’ is a code for ‘No thanks,’” she said.
Men are from Mars
Although the men and women in an Orthodox shul are physically separated, men are just as frustrated by the dating process as their female counterparts.
“At least the ultra right-wing world has a very meticulous setup system,” said Rabbi Josh Yuter, thirty-two, who spent several years living in Washington Heights and is now a rabbi at the Stanton Street Shul on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Here we don’t give people the option to meet, but we don’t provide you another alternative to date people. So you’re stuck on both ends.”
Yuter believes that as men and women have been kept apart, even mundane interactions become over-sexualized. “Women are people, and [men] need to be able to speak to them as people,” he said. “We’ve lost that sense.”
Some of the disconnect between men and women comes from their different educations, said Blau. Whereas women are being educated—even at Jewish institutions—to have their own professional lives, men are taught that a woman’s place is in the family. “Here women are fully involved in public life in America, yet expected to run a traditional household, cooking and baking and in charge of the children,” Blau said. “[Men and women] are not seeing things from the same perspective, which I think plays a role in the divorce rate, and in their fears of finding an appropriate spouse.”
Yet Weissman, while certainly a proponent of women’s education, believes that some women have placed their careers ahead of family life, which makes it harder to find a spouse. “I think feminism is a problem,” he said. “With the opportunity to have a successful career, a woman needs to keep in mind that everything in Judaism centers around the family.”
The Girl in the Hat
It was the first Shabbat of 2009, and for Goldstone, Friday night services at Mount Sinai just didn’t feel the same. For the first time in her life, she wore a hat to shul. She had awful hat hair, and the brim kept getting in the way of the words in her prayer book. The announcer, in reading off the list of “mazal tovs,” mentioned her wedding. “Everyone was staring at me like, ‘Oh, she’s a married person now,’” she said.
After that first coffee shop encounter, Goldstone and Rosenhouse had continued to date. They made compromises—she insisted he stop wearing those Bill Cosby-style sweaters—and realized that in terms of religiosity, they were a perfect pair. Then, on December 29, 2008, fourteen months after they met, Goldstone and Rosenhouse walked down the aisle of a synagogue in Southern California. Goldstone, always the social media junkie, twittered her wedding for the benefit of all her friends back in Washington Heights. She updated before the wedding: “into the dress we go!” Then during the wedding: “Susanne here. waiting for my grand entrance with my hubby!!! this wedding rules!” And at the reception: “just got done with the first schvitz dance. two more to go!”
That same Friday, Masha Kuznetsov wasn’t at Mount Sinai. She visited a friend in another community and attended another shul, avoiding the local social scene. Because she’s older than most of the Mount Sinai crowd—most are between twenty-two and twenty-eight—she feels like she doesn’t belong.
Still single at thirty-two, and continuing to date, she is frustrated but hopeful, trusting that God will bring her someone when it’s time. “Obviously no one at the age of sixteen says, ‘Gee, I hope I’m thirty and still single,’” she said. “But one belief that all of us have is that everything happens for a reason.”
But Goldstone, who has always been the type to help out the larger Orthodox community, is determined to make things happen a little faster for her single friends. She recently became a matchmaker on YUConnects, a Yeshiva University-sponsored partner site to SawYouAtSinai, the site where she met her husband. “I’m an official shadchan,” she said. “God willing, I’ll set up a couple.”
Being on the other side of things has been a little strange. “It’s kind of bizarre,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot more that goes into this than I really had thought.” She’s frustrated with the people on the site who have disabilities—for example, a guy in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy and people with problems like Asperger syndrome—but who don’t disclose that information on their profile. “I actually saw two midgets on the Web site, and it doesn’t mention anything,” said Goldstone. And she’s been surprised by how judgmental people are in the profile section that asks what they’re looking for in a future spouse. “Almost every guy says no fat chicks,” she said.
But she’s determined to sort through all the faces—many of whom she recognizes from Mount Sinai—and find matches. Happily married, she sits at her computer, trying to solve the shidduch crisis one click at a time.
Corinne Ramey is a freelance journalist living in New York City. Cory has written for publications including NYTimes.com, New York Daily News, Forward, City Hall, The Capitol, CityArts, PBS Idea Lab, and the Manhattan Times. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Cory earned degrees in comparative literature and viola performance from Oberlin College, and journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.