Monday, August 11, 2014

The Shidduch Catastrophe

Philanthropist, R' Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz (Mishpacha)
There is a line used by philanthropist Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz in a Mishpacha Magazine article (available in PDF) that I think accurately describes what is going on with Shiduchim in the Charedi world: There is no Shidduch crisis. There is a Shidduch catastrophe! It is a cancer that is metastasizing every day. R’ Shlomo describes the pain he sees in the faces of young women who approach him to ask if he knows anyone for them that are ‘their type’.

I should make clear at the outset, that none of this applies to the Chasidic world. They apparently do not have these problems. And the Modern Orthodox world has an entirely different set of problems. Both of which are beyond the scope of this post.

The numbers do seem dire. Increasingly so.  According to this article, some Shadchanim estimate that fully 10% of the young women in the current Charedi world remain unwillingly single. One experienced Shadchan R’ Shlomo quoted suggested that a young Charedi young woman over the age of 25 has less than a 15% chance of ever getting married. That figure was considered optimistic y another Shadchan that R’ Shlomo spoke to. If that is anywhere near true, then I would suggest that the Shidduch ‘catastrophe’ is cataclysmic!  For a 25 year old young woman to be considered an ‘over-the-hill’ spinster defies any sense of reality. And yet I suspect that it is so in these circles. The question what is the real cause and how can we fix it?

R’ Shlomo has bought into the notion that the fault lies in what is referred to as the ‘age gap’.  This is something I have written about before. Briefly it can be described as follows.  Women are ready to get married by age 18 or 19. Men tend to not be ready until about age 23 since they want to get a lot of learning under their belt before accepting the responsibilities of marriage.

So although there are approximately the same number of boys born as girls, there is a 4 or five year accumulation of girls aged 18 to 23 that outnumber the boys by a factor of 4 or 5 . 23 year old boys prefer dating the younger girls. Hence the problem. The older they get, the less desirable they become. Once they reach the age of 25, they may as well give up! And the phenomenon keeps growing.

I never quite understood this since there are an equal number of boys born as there are girls. The numbers do not seem to add up. The ratio of boys to girls is one boy for one girl. Where is the excess?  Nonetheless, this is what they claim to be the problem.  On the other hand one explanation for this imbalance is that there are a lot fewer young men that are ‘good learners’ than there are ‘good girls’ who want seek only them for marriage. It is easier to ‘want a husband to learn’ than it is for a husband to actually learn.

What is the solution being touted in these circles? Closing the age gap! Some Charedi Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbonim have publicly called for lowering the age for men to get married to as early as age 20. R’ Shlomo also suggests a novel approach whereby young women not begin dating until they are age 22.

In the meantime there are organizations that have been created that offer financial incentives to encourage Shadchanim to find Shiduchim for the 25 year old ‘spinsters’.  (And yes… I use the term for shock value – the situation is serious enough for us to be shocked into action.) But as R’ Shlomo points out, all this has done little to change the ‘overall trajectory’- of the ‘downward spiral’.  

Interestingly, to help offset this, R’ Shlomo has made an offer to any Shadchan of $10,000 that sets up a successful Shidduch between a 25 year old woman (or older) with a man the same age or younger.

I do not see any of this as being realistic. Young women will never be convinced to wait until they are 22 to start dating. And young men getting married at age 20? Really? Needless to say, for most young men(there are exceptions of course) age 20 is way too young to get married. Most 20 year olds are boys, not men. They are simply are not mature enough to handle the responsibilities of marriage.

There is another issue that impacts negatively on Charedi Shiduchim: The idea of parents treating it like a business deal. What I mean is that it has become an unfortunate norm in the Charedi world for parents of a ‘good learner’  to extort huge sums of money to support their son in Kollel in the event they get married as a prior condition for a date. No money? No date!  

If you ask me, this system is broken. Leaving aside the fact that far too many young men are encouraged to stay in the Beis HaMedrash for as long as possible despite the fact that they would better serve God in other ways, I cannot protest enough the mercenary way in which Shiduchim are treated these days.

The unbelievable pressure that parents must feel to support their sons in law with money they don’t have must be enormous. In a typically large family where there are many daughters to marry off, where is any middle class parent going to find the money to do that? Is there any wonder that some people resort to fraud or worse to meet those obligations? Who wants to see their daughter suffer? …and reach the age of spinsterhood at age 25?  Desperate parents have been known to double mortgage their house; sell their life insurance policies; work well past retirement; and even borrow from free loan societies in order to support their sons in law in learning.

I know that this community will not listen to me. But I still feel obligated to suggest a way out for them. The time has come to reconsider these values. The idea of automatically supporting a son in law should be abandoned. The work ethic should be restored to the way it was just a few short decades ago - to the time I was dating. Young men – even in the Charedi world – prepared for the future. They valued secular studies. They went to college and thereby prepared for decent jobs and careers. Paying for Shiduchim was unheard of in my day. I do not recall any one my contemporaries – even the biggest Masmidim, getting married for dollars.

Women’s seminaries in Israel (and to a lesser extent Beis Yaakov high schools) need to stop putting Kollel on a lone pedestal to the exclusion of the working man. It is time for these Mechanchim to open the doors for these women to value men who serve God in their own unique ways – not necessarily by staying in a Kollel. They should value young men who are Ehrlich, Koveah Itim, with good Midos and a good work ethic. Becoming a professional, a businessman, or a tradesman should not be put down in any way. Young men who seek these means of supporting a family should be built up – right along with the Kollel Man. This will open up a far greater field of men for these young women to date.

As I have mentioned before – many times – dating should not be limited to Shadchanim, or even to introductions by friends and family.  The taboo of interaction between the sexes should be lifted. Once a man or woman comes of marriageable age (often referred to as ‘being in the Parsha’), they ought to be encouraged to meet socially. Prior to that, there ought to be some sort of supervised interaction between young people of the opposite sex. Like families with children of the opposite sex inviting each other over for Shabbos meals. What would be so terrible if a young man and woman saunter into the living room while their parents continue schmoozing at the Shabbos table? There have been plenty of Shiduchim made this way. 

Young people can also meet during a Shul Kiddush. When they are in ‘the Parsha’ I would suggest mixed seating at weddings and other social events be mandatory for singles. There are many ways for young people who are ‘in the Parsha’ to meet, once the reins of Charedi social taboos are lifted..

There is a lot more to say but this post is long enough. For me - one thing is certain. The current efforts to change things are not nearly enough. It is like spitting in the wind. If we really want to change things for the better, we need to get serious and make some of these major changes. Otherwise, as R’ Shlomo suggests, the situation will indeed continue to spiral downward.