Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Monday, December 26, 2005

One reason for the so-called "shidduch crisis"

(Note: I was inspired to write this post after reading some recent posts by RenegadeRebbetzin. Read her. She's awesome.)

When I decided to go to Stern College for Women, I imagined that, even though I would be at an all-women’s school, there would be plenty of opportunities to interact with the male students of Yeshiva College. I imagined going to school activities -- speakers, parties and social service activities -- and developing a network of friends that included both men and women.

I was sorely disappointed. While I loved my four years at Stern, and made the most of the academic, extra-curricular and social opportunities at the Midtown campus, most of my interaction with men my age consisted of walking past them in the lobby of my dormitory and seeing them take other women on dates. I did manage some social interaction with men -- mostly through volunteering as an NCSY advisor and participating in a handful of other co-ed university and community events -- but throughout my college years, I had very little meaningful interaction with men my age. (For example, I recall attending co-ed lectures where the seating for the event was completely separate, and Stern students were whisked away on a bus after the speech, leaving no opportunity for mingling.)

As someone from a small Jewish community who had not attended day school or any of the popular Orthodox summer camps, I lacked the intricate network of social connections that many of my peers had. I certainly did not choose to go to Stern to meet a husband -- I chose the school because I wanted to obtain a solid Jewish education and, for once in my life, to live in an environment that was unmistakably Jewish. However, I thought that social opportunities -- including the opportunity to meet single Jewish men -- would be part of my college experience.

Part of the blame is certainly on my own shoulders. I listened to the admonitions of certain friends that participating in co-ed activities would not be appropriate. On my own I could have chosen to participate more in these activities. However, I found that even when there were co-ed Shabbtonim at Stern, the prevailing atmosphere did not encourage friendly interaction between men and women. And, as much as any student should take full responsibility for his or her social choices, it is very difficult to attend activities without the support of friends, especially if one perceives that doing so will give the person the reputation of being “desperate.”

While I was at Stern, I felt that there was an unspoken message from my peers that I should not have friends who were male. But at the same time, I was not ready until my junior year to begin thinking about "dating for marriage," and even at that point, I had few connections to "set me up." In essence, I was being told to put my romantic life on hold, but was given little assistance in meeting men once I was considered to be "of age."

I also found it disheartening that when I was set up on dates, the men I met often seemed uncomfortable around me. While a certain amount of awkwardness is to be expected in dating, their nervousness went beyond that. Eventually, I concluded that they had never learned how to behave around women.

If we want to understand the roots of the so-called shidduch crisis, we can find them here. I don't fault Yeshiva University for this problem. In fact, in condoning co-ed activities of any sort, the university is showing the Orthodox world that it is possible to have wholesome, appropriate co-ed activities. However, a handful of student-organized activities is not enough. The university needs to take a stronger stand on the issue of co-ed interaction and to provide appropriate venues for men and women to meet. While some may argue that doing so will only reinforce the notion that women go to Stern to find husbands, I say that fostering healthy relationships and better communication between men and women is more important than any negative perception of the school.

Sadly, this problem has followed me throughout my twenties. Many of the men I have dated -- some of whom are in their thirties -- have never learned how to communicate with women because they have never been encouraged to attend social events where they can learn those skills, and the difficulty in communicating only gets worse as time goes by.

Unfortunately, throughout much of Orthodox life, men and women are only encouraged to socialize with the express purpose of getting married. This places undo pressure on their interactions and almost makes the type of friendships that blossom into romance impossible. There is lots of pressure to measure a person up for their marriage potential, and not to take the time to get to know him or her as a person if certain criteria are not met. That is bad for all of us.

Ironically, by denying young Orthodox people the opportunity to interact in religiously sanctioned environments, our leaders are encouraging singles to develop their own less appropriate social situations or to become estranged from Orthodoxy altogether.

I have the impression that the tide at YU is beginning to change, and that co-ed activities are no longer as taboo as they once were. However, Yeshiva University and Orthodoxy as a whole have a long way to go to repair this terrible situation.