Confronting the Shidduch Crisis

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Readers of Chananya Weissman’s piece “Shidduch crisis? What shidduch crisis?” (Jerusalem Post, October 21) will quickly discern that he does not think too highly of sixty American roshei yeshiva who recently published a public letter addressing the “shidduch crisis” in the Orthodox world. They are variously compared to Balaam’s donkey, accused of being “disconnected from logic and reality,” and described as attaching their names to “foolish words” comparable to declaring a chicken to be an ostrich.

As someone who runs an organization devoted to helping older Orthodox singles find a spouse, one might at least expect Weissman to express appreciation that the sixty roshei yeshiva publicly called attention to the fact that hundreds of girls from non-Chassidic haredi homes are failing to find a spouse. But no, they are castigated for having denied any such crisis until now, or for having said the phenomenon only existed in the Modern Orthodox world, or having claimed that it results exclusively from exposure to Internet or movies or television.

Each of these claims is false. True, any observer of the Manhattan Orthodox singles scene knows that the number of singles is greater in the Modern Orthodox world, but the problem of women going unmarried has long been on the chareidi communal agenda. The Novominsker Rebbe, the titular head of Agudath Israel of America, told me last year, that the growing number of those unable to find a spouse are our single greatest communal tragedy. Nearly twenty years ago, Agudath Israel of America, the largest haredi grassroots organization in America, devoted a session at its national convention to the problem of shidduchim and created a special volunteer organization, Invei Hagefen, to address it.

It is also true that exposure to images of romantic love predicated on an intimacy that is impossible for dating chareidi couples makes it more difficult for young chareidim to commit, but no one ever suggested the problem was purely one of external influences.

So what exactly raised Weismann’s ire? The roshei yeshiva’s attribution of the greater number of young women not finding spouses to certain demoraphic realities. And what are those realities? First, that the chareidi community is experiencing approximately a 4% annual growth. Second, yeshiva students tend to marry women between three and four years younger than themselves.

As a consequence, if we assume that roughly the same number of men and women are born each year (actually a slightly larger number of men are born each year), and that each age cohort is roughly 4% larger than the previous year, that means that there will be approximately 116 19-year-old girls for every 100 23-year-old boys.

The theory is borne out by a good deal of observational data. First, in the Chassidic world, where boys and girls marry younger and tend to be almost the same age, one hears much less about a generalized “shidduch crisis.” Second, within five years of returning from their studies in Israel to Lakewood Yeshiva (by far the largest American yeshiva), only 2% of the young men are still unmarried, whereas the number of Bais Yaakov graduates still unmarried ten years after graduating high school is estimated at over 10%.

The communal response urged by the roshei yeshiva’s letter is to take steps designed to encourage a reduction in the age gap in the couple’s being matched together. One such initiative, the North American Shidduch Initiative, paid over $100,000 in incentive bonuses to shadchanim (matchmakers) who successfully matched couples within two years or less of one another in age. (Shadchanim are only paid for successful “matches” and thus will naturally seek the low-hanging fruit without counter-incentives.) Even though NASI can no longer offer financial incentives, its efforts appear to have made some dent in communal norms: The organization has on file over 700 married couples within their parameters in recent years.

Weissman responds with howls of derision. According to him, the roshei yeshiva are under the illusion “that more boys are being born than girls,” and he accuses them of attempting to perpetuate a Madoff-inspired Ponzi scheme to marry off the oldest girls, in the hopes that in the meantime things will somehow even out.

These statements reveal that Weissman has entirely failed to understand the argument being made. The roshei yeshiva are well aware that approximately an equal number of boys and girls are born every year, and that is constant. They are not buying time so that basic demographic realities will “even out.” But rather seeking to change social norms so that those objective demographic realities exact less of a toll.

For his final coup de grace, Weissman seeks to one-up the roshei yeshiva as insufficiently pious. Their attempts at social engineering, he claims, fly in the face of an explicit Talmudic statement that forty days before birth a Heavenly voice declares for whom the in utero child is destined.

This too is sheer silliness. Since we are not privy to that Heavenly voice, it has no implications for our own efforts to match young couples. Does Weissman believe that the Heavenly voice has miraculously destined Chassidic girls for boys their own age and non-Chassidic ones for someone four years older? True, the primary desideratum in matching couples is compatibility, but what reason is there to believe that the most suitable match is less likely to be found among those close in age?

Social norms are notoriously resistant to change, and it remains to be seen whether the average age differential of 3.5 years between husbands and wives in the yeshiva world will be significantly reduced anytime in the near future. Even if it is, there will still be those young men and women who do not find their matches easily, for a host of individual reasons or perhaps none at all. But none of this detracts from the roshei yeshiva’s efforts to deal with the clearest objective cause of the tragedy of chareidi women going unmarried, and thus the one most easily subject to amelioration.

Jerusalem Post, November 3 2009

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57 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Let’s consider the derech the off-derech boys are off. In what ways is this the traditional Jewish derech (chassidish or yeshivish or whatever), and in what ways is it a special, ad-hoc derech that was necessary in the aftermath of the Shoah but might need reconsideration now? Our spiritual leadership needs to evaluate how best to advance both Torah and Jewish family life under current circumstances.

  2. tzippi says:

    Dina, I think that many boys benefit from a few good years post high school of uninterrupted Torah study before thinking about parnasa. For centuries that was the lot of only the privileged few but thank G-d we are living in historic times, where education is incredibly widely accessible. Of course, there are many growth opportunities that the boys can and should avail themselves of during these years, chesed such as nursing home visits, for example, summer and bein hasedorim (lit. between classes,i.e. during the school year) jobs, but that would bring them up to 20-22, still nowhere near a girl who’s finished her degree and been working for a year or two. There still may well be some gap that will make a 24 year old young man more appealing to some 22 year old young women.

  3. Julie says:

    From what I hear, the problem of older singles cuts across all segments of the frum world including the chassidish community–this may not be recognized, but a friend of mine has chassidish relatives and she says it is a problem there, as well.

    I don’t think the age-gap issue is THE conclusive reason there are so many older singles.

    I think a huge factor is the “at risk” population of boys. I know so of so many (my brothers’ peers) who came from very religious homes who are either no longer religious/ have trouble holding down a job and being stable/married girls who are not religious. These men are in their late 20’s/early 30’s–if they had married a girl from a similar background at the age they would have been expected to marry (early 20’s) there wouldn’t be so many unmarried women in their late 20’s-30’s. And I have heard of boys from chassidish homes going of the derech as well, so that would explain why there is starting to be a shidduch problem there as well. But there is no solution to this factor, so I don’t expect too many people too agree with me. It’s there, though.

  4. observer says:

    Dr. Bill wrote:
    “Let us assume that the population in question has been growing at 4% a year, a number broadly acknowledged.. The Shidduch problem results from births that occured PREVIOUSLY 18 to 30 years ago. There is no question about the relative number of babies born in say 1988 versus 1992; ~ 15% more babies were born in 1992. No predictions – just observe and count.”

    That’s exactly my point. Just where did this 4% number come from? I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you’ve said, but I am simply unaware of any serious demographic studies performed on the chareidi population at any time over the past decades. From my unscientific observations, 4% annual growth over the *past* 20 years doesn’t strike me as realistic. Are there really twice as many students in Brooklyn Bais Yakov schools now than there were in, say, 1986?
    The way it’s been presented here, this whole boy/girl demographic disparity theory seems to require a real-life 4% annual growth rate. If that’s nothing more than an urban legend, then we’d better stop peddling it.
    Hence the problem R. Rosenblum and the RY are addressing. Your comment about OTD, Downs, etc. only make the numeric disparities yet more problematic for girls, by FURTHER reducing an already smaller population of boys born a few years earlier.

  5. Dina says:

    An observable reason why the initiative will probably not have a broad following is that naturally, until they are about 30, males are less mature than females of their own age; and, our yeshiva/bais yaacov system reinforces this maturity gap. As an earlier poster pointed out, the girls in the system are prepared with life skills, academic skills, given real responsibilities and opportunities to do chessed which matures them, all in the course of high school, seminary and college, while the boys are only given the opportunity to learn. They are not given real responsibility for anyone other than themselves, not even to help another boy in his learning at the expense of their own growth. Then, while in yeshiva they are deluded into thinking that a good life is one in which he is supported, not realizing the burdens of being dependent. Thus the immaturity and irresponsibility is reinforced. Therefore it is more “natural” for this 24 year old bochur to marry a 19 year old girl, since his maturity level is about equal to hers and she can still look up to him.

    Sorry to be so cynical.

  6. dr. bill says:

    observer, sorry you misunderstood my point. Let us assume that the population in question has been growing at 4% a year, a number broadly acknowledged.. The Shidduch problem results from births that occured PREVIOUSLY 18 to 30 years ago. There is no question about the relative number of babies born in say 1988 versus 1992; ~ 15% more babies were born in 1992. No predictions – just observe and count. Hence the problem R. Rosenblum and the RY are addressing. Your comment about OTD, Downs, etc. only make the numeric disparities yet more problematic for girls, by FURTHER reducing an already smaller population of boys born a few years earlier.

    My comment was that extrapolating FORWARD to then conclude that the chareidi population will double over the next 20 (actually 18) years is more tentative. It assumes there are no other factors that might occur going forward. History teaches us that changes should not be assumed away. I can imagine many that would impact the growth rate.

    Just an anecdote, and I have heard numerous similar ones. In my daughter’s class graduated elementary school 18 years ago, no boys in that class have not been married at least once. ~20% of the girls in the class are unmarried.

    We can argue about the relative importance of various solutions, but the facts are not debatable.

  7. Ori says:

    observer, it’s because “shidduch ready” means different things. For a man, it means age 23 and up. For a woman, age 19 and up. The men in the 19-23 age group are not considered shidduch ready from what I understand.