Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Shidduch "Catastrophe": A letter to the Editor of Mishpacha Magazine that was declined for publication

To the Editor of Mishpacha Magazine:

Dear Sir or Madam

I read the article by Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz entitled There IS no Shidduch Crisis in your August 6 edition with great interest. I want to thank him, and you, for devoting so much attention to this very serious issue. Upon reflection, I would like to make the following observations, some of which differ with Mr. Rechnitz. I base myself on my experience of having been, ב"ה, in the Parsha and married three children in the past two years, and from what I hear as a Rav and a member of the community.

To begin with, let me summarize what I feel are the main points of Rechnitz presentation:
  1. Too few of the young women are married by age 21. It is not a crisis, but a catastrophe that, for example in Los Angeles, only 13 of 72 girls of a high school graduating class were engaged or married by age 21-22. Furthermore, Any change should not have to come from the girls, as the risk to the current group of girls is too high if they will wait until they are older to begin dating.
  2. This is not a problem among Chassidim and Chareidim in Eretz Yisroel, and other populations. It is only "our oilam – the American Yeshiva World – that is dealing with a self-created problem.
  3. This is a problem to which too many have become deaf, blind, and desensitized. We speak about it and then push it aside as we digest our dessert.
  4. The problem has nothing to do with money, as money cannot and will not solve this catastrophe.
  5. The core of the proposed solution is that bochurim should begin shidduchim when they are about 20 or 21, and an elaborate description of how the yeshivos would adapt to this is laid out. Even though the bochurim may be insufficiently mature at this age for marriage, (or even at 23), they can be expected to rise to the occasion and quickly become men when they need to, much as young men do in the army, or during times of crisis -- you grow into the role.
I would like to examine these points, in the order noted above.
  1. The notion that if young women are not married by age 21 or 22, it is a catastrophe in the making.

    In short, I believe that this type of thinking is, in itself, one of the main causes of the problem.

    Apparently there is an unwritten rule that as soon as a young woman in our community finishes the year after high school, or even earlier, she must immediately enter the shidduch process. If a year goes by, and it is two whole years, Heaven Forfend, after High School, and the big Two Oh looms, it is time to begin panicking and to enter crisis mode. 


    Why do we already begin to consider this a crisis and misfortune, and 21 year old girls begin worrying about becoming spinsters?

    Here are some possible factors that ought to be examined in the light of this problem:
    • There is an ethic that it is undesirable, or even dangerous, for a young woman to have finished High School and Seminary, and not be interested in getting married quite yet. That somehow it will be harmful if she finds employment or goes on for higher education for a year or two while having some degree of independence.
      While many young women do want to marry younger, I know of many others who would prefer to have a year or two as a young adult without having the responsibilities, and yes  –  the burdens, of being a wife and mother  by age twenty. To be free to work, explore, travel, see something of the world outside of school and seminary and figure out for themselves who they are and where they fit in to the community. They resent greatly the pressure of having to immediately put all their efforts into getting married, for fear of being left out while all the good bochurim will already be taken.

      The manufactured urgency that sees it as a “catastrophe” when the majority of girls are not married by age 20 is certainly part of the problem.

    • The result of this urgency is that the families of the young women are put in the position of having to launch an all-out desperate effort to snag one of the available good young men, while the families of the bochurim can sit back and wait in relative calm while the many offers pile in. The Gemara in Kiddushin 2b which states that it is the way of a man to pursue a wife, and not the way of a woman to pursue a husband, has lost all meaning. Instead, a herd mentality prevails whereby every young woman and her parents are told, explicitly or implicitly, that they better immediately get in the game when their daughter is eighteen, or else. They will be told horror stories about how difficult it is to find a shidduch, and how they must immediately make contacts with the shadchanim because any good bochur already has a long list of offers and they cannot delay. This of course contributes to the crisis when the desperate search does not produce results as quickly as desired.
  2. This is a problem only in the American Yeshiva world. That is not the case. The Israeli Yeshiva world has a very similar problem. The modern Orthodox also have a large and frightening problem of too many singles, as anyone familiar with the scene in Upper Manhattan is well aware of.

    While there are some differences between these communities and the issues that they face, there are also commonalities that contribute to the problems in the Yeshiva
    oilam. Issues regarding parnassah, misguided priorities when looking for a shidduch, and of too much community pressure to conform to certain ideas and standards without allowing those who are a bit different to find their way within the community.
  3. It is true that too many have become desensitized to dealing with the issues. A compelling reason for that is that although there are fairly obvious problems with the system that are endemic; people throw up their hands knowing you cant fight the system – that is the way things are and they cannot be changed. Most people do not like banging their heads against a brick wall; if they feel it is hopeless that change will happen, they turn away from the problem, as it is too stressful.
  4. The claim is made that the problem has nothing to do with money. By this Mr. Rechnitz means ostensibly that throwing money at the problem by creating programs, incentives, etc. (which Mr. Rechnitz has done and continues to do in a magnificent way) will not alone solve it. While this may be true, saying that money has nothing to do with the problem is very inaccurate; the fact is that money has EVERYTHING to do with the problem.

    To put it bluntly, as the Shidduch “system” now works, unless a girl is (in descending order of importance) either (A) from a wealthy family willing to support a young man for years in a comfortable lifestyle, or (b) very beautiful, or (c) has exceptional yichus, or possibly (d) has an unusual amount of talent or personality, her chances of finding a shidduch are drastically reduced. This is a sad fact, which any shadchan will confirm.

    There is not much that can be done about factors (b)-(d). Heavenly gifts will be reacted to in given ways, and that is the way of the world from time immemorial. While more education might help mitigate these factors (as discussed below), there is no question that factor (A) has become horribly distorted in the yeshiva world, causing great misery. So long as it is expected that every young man be supported comfortably for years while learning in Kollel, and that every young woman is expected to marry a young man who will be learning in Kollel, a great premium will be placed on the girls who come from wealthy families, to the detriment of others.

    This letter is not the place to discuss whether or not every yeshiva bochur should be looking forward to learning in Kollel for years; whether this is a sustainable economic model; or if this is what Hashem wants for most Bnei Yeshiva. I raise it here only as it relates to the Shidduch Catastrophe discussion. Put simply, the economic demands that are being made by the bochurim today  – very often with the blessing and encouragement of their Rabbeim –  are large contributors to this crisis.
    I personally know of two particular cases when bochurim were instructed by their rebbeim, You are a metzuyon – a great catch for some young woman. Make sure that you tell the shadchan that you will only go out with a girl whose family will commit in advance to fully and comfortably supporting you for at least five years in Kollel. Parents know that How much money will you give? is virtually the first question that they will get from any potential shadchan. In such an atmosphere, money has everything to do with the shidduch catastrophe.

    The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the young women are also expected to be the breadwinners of the family for as long as possible, in addition to being the wife, mother, and homemaker. And she will be expected to do so with only the skills gained in High School or a year of seminary (See #1 above). Thus if a girl does not come from a wealthy family, and does not have the credentials to get a well paying job, she is considered inferior marriage material for a young man who wants to learn in Kollel.

    Now it is certainly true that there are a significant number of young women who come from families who are willing and able to support a young man in Kollel who
    nevertheless are finding great difficulty in finding shidduchim. As to them Mr. Rechnitz is quite correct that money is not the issue. Even so, I maintain that money has distorted the shidduch process greatly, in that it has created an atmosphere of entitlement whereby young men are seen (and too often they or their families see themselves) as the prize whom all these young women must vie for, and thus will only go out with those who offer the most perfect future scenarios, rather than themselves having to be worthy of the wonderful young women. More on this below.

    Bottom Line – While money cannot alone solve the problem; money too often IS the problem.
  5. The main proposition – that a structure be set up for the boys to marry younger, assuming that they will man-up to mature fast enough to do so – requires some comment.

    For those young men who are mature enough to marry younger, and who are willing to maturely assume the responsibilities, I certainly see no problem with following this route.

    The problem is that there are many young men who are truly not ready to be married at age 21. Speaking for myself, (I married at age 30, although I probably was mature enough by 27 or so, no matter what all those young women felt . . . ) I know that I was not anywhere near ready to marry at age 21, or even 23, for that matter. Some people need more time to develop the maturity, wisdom, and responsibility that ought to be required of any man who is undertaking to be a husband to a Bas

    It may be true that in the army, or at times of crisis, men have had to
    grow up fast and assume responsibilities beyond their years. I am no psychologist, but I feel fairly certain that this often came at great emotional and psychic cost. There are endless stories of deep personal trauma suffered by those thrust into adult situations before they were ready, and of the trauma they then visited upon their wives and children, including verbal and physical abuse, divorce, and worse. Mandating that every young man marry at a younger age is a potential recipe for even worse catastrophes, I am afraid to say.

    The sharply rising
    occurrence of divorce in the Yeshiva world was not mentioned in this article, but certainly needs to be addressed when considering an overhaul of the shidduch system. I am not convinced that encouraging pre-mature marriage would not have potentially calamitous side-effects.
So much for my comments on the ideas that Mr. Rechnitz raised. I will refrain from discussing the arguments that he made regarding the rebbe-Talmid relationship (Many people find their Rebbi as someone other than their Rosh Yeshiva; sometimes later in life), or the different types of yeshivos that are needed. But I did want to raise some ideas that might also be helpful in this important discussion:
      1. If, in fact, we want to encourage young men to marry earlier, it would be helpful to begin preparing them for marriage earlier as well. I once heard a mechanech in Eretz Yisroel giving his 18 year old students the excellent advice that during their years in Yeshiva, one of their main goals should be to make themselves into the type of man that a girl that they respect would want to marry. While this certainly includes becoming a Talmid Chacham and Baal Midos, it also ought to include awareness of what it takes to be a good and caring husband and father. This should be reinforced in many ways during Yeshiva years, and not left for the Chassan Shmuz two weeks before the wedding.

        This should certainly include much discussion and one on one consultation about the important qualities that this particular bochur should seek. It should emphasize that the main thing Klal Yisroel needs now are good, vibrant marriages and families, and not just many children. I know of too many cases where young men, (and even older men in their thirties and up) have been told that they need to marry someone no older than 21 because (a) they can thus have many children, and (b) they will have a wife that they can still
        mold, who is not set in her ways. This attitude is, in my opinion, misplaced in that (a) the quality of the husband-wife relationship as equal partners is more important than how many children they will have, and (b) it is immature, condescending, and paternalistic to say that the wife must be molded to the husbands whim, rather than that they grow together into a mature relationship.

        I have often heard it said that
        there are so many quality girls around, while there are relatively few quality boys available. This has little to do with the familiar statistics that regarding birth rates and marriage ages. Rather, in the opinion of many, the mosdos for young women are doing a better job preparing their talmidos to be mature, responsible wives and mothers than the yeshivos are doing in preparing young men to be husbands and fathers.

         It is not so much that there are so few young men around; it is that there are relatively few quality young men who are being competed for by the many young women who deserve first quality husband material, and are having difficulty finding them.
      2. Too many young women are being taught that the only worthwhile husbands are those who will be learning in Kollel. I am not arguing here that Kollel is not appropriate for many young couples; rather that it is not necessarily for everybody. I am arguing that there are many fine young men who are Yirei Shomayim, Kovei Itim L’torah, wonderful Baalei Midos and Chessed, who, for whatever reason, are not learning full time. These young men should not be seen as second rate material, but as first class potential husbands for many fine young women. Girls are often not getting this message from their mechanchim and mechanchos, as Kollel life is being pushed as the only desirable goal for a serious Bas Yisroel. This needs to be tempered; Kollel life should be viewed as a wonderful aspiration, but not as the only one that young women should consider.
There is obviously much more that could be said on this topic. I did want to at least begin to address some of the important thoughts that this article raised, and hope that you allow the larger public to consider these ideas.

Once again, I commend Mishpacha magazine, and Mr. Rechnitz, for shining the spotlight on this issue


Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer

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