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They’re accomplished women — yet still called girls. They’re intelligent and talented — yet often discounted. Do our communities create space for single women?
Wednesday, April 05, 2017
I t was a typical Shabbos table. Amid flecks of spilled grape juice and apple crumble, a lively discussion erupted. Cogently and articulately, Rachel Avigdor Burnham — then a 29-year-old single woman living in Flatbush — shared her take.
A fellow tablemate snorted. “When you have a ring on your finger, we’ll hear what you have to say,” he said. Rachel felt the blood rush from her face. She grabbed a dessert plate and stumbled into the kitchen.
“Had it been an isolated incident, the remark of a crazy person, it wouldn’t have hurt,” she says. “But it reflected vibes I’d felt all along. I wasn’t married, so I wasn’t legitimate. I was single, so something was wrong with me.”
Rachel — an occupational therapist, dating coach, wig stylist, general powerhouse, and now a happy sleep-deprived mom — dated for 14 years before meeting her husband. She says the emotional drain of extended singlehood was exacerbated by the way community members viewed her. Though she was deeply involved in kiruv and chesed, she was frequently passed over for more executive roles. Her opinion was met with bemusement.
“I was intelligent, accomplished, and capable — as were all my friends,” Rachel says. “But my contribution to the community was minimized and curtailed. My opinion was… cute.”
Now on the other side, a besheiteled Rachel can see just how deep the prejudice was. “I got engaged, and suddenly I was worth listening to. I got a sudden influx of speaking engagements, clients. The contrast was comical.”
shockingly high number of single women voice near-identical feelings. While they may not be “untouchables,” these women describe a painful, unspoken caste system that places single women at the bottom — socially, professionally, and communally.
“I’m 30 years old, but I’m considered a ‘girl,’ ” says Alana Rothstein, a successful real-estate manager who’s lived in Brooklyn for eight years. “There’s this sense that once you get your kesubah, you’ve upgraded.”
Shoshana, a native Brooklynite and nurse anesthetist who has dated for ten years, says that she and her friends are often perceived as Peter Pans who never quite grew up. She believes this is because our society’s only demarcation for adulthood is… marriage. “If marriage doesn’t happen, at what point do you become an adult? Mid 20s, upper 30s, late 40s?”
The disparity between her work and community life, Shoshana says, is stark. “I trained extensively for my profession — and I’m respected for my expertise. I have doctors in their 40s, 50s, 60s waiting on their decisions until they get my input. Then I go to shul on Shabbos, and I’m ‘the pretty girl who, tsk tsk, needs a shidduch.’ ”
Tsivya Weisenberg is a 37-year-old social worker who has counseled parents of special-needs and at-risk children for 15 years. Sincere and well-spoken, she endured a difficult two-year marriage, which ended at age 35. Now that she wears a wig — albeit post-divorce — she gets far more acknowledgment. “This is going to sound crazy, but if you have to live life as a single, better to do so as a divorcée. That’s been my experience. You get more empathy, more validation, and more respect.”
For years, Tsivya offered crisis counseling both in person and by phone. She notes that while a not-insignificant number of parents booked face-to-face initial sessions, met her, then failed to return, her phone clients almost never dropped out. She attributes this trend — at least in part — to the fact that her phone clients never knew she was single.
Along similar lines, Tsivya’s friend — a top-tier pediatric oncologist who did post-doctorate training at Harvard — has learned to make peace with the fact that many frum patients will call her by her first name (instead of “Dr. Klein”). “In their minds, she’s still a girl,” Tsivya explains.
The bias translates into dollars: professionally, single women employed by frum companies tend to get paid less. Shulamis, a sought-after educator, requested a raise in a previous place of employment. The administrator — arching his eyebrows dramatically — gave a chuckle. “But I don’t even give married women that kind of salary!” he exclaimed.
“Salary should be based on expertise. What does marital status have to do with pay level?” Shulamis questions.
Kayla, an ambitious finance professional, once applied for a position at a top-tier, frum-owned firm. After doing some due diligence, she discovered that single women in the firm were paid less. Determined to snag the higher rate, she borrowed a sheitel for the interview — and secured her target salary.
In other companies, pay is comparable — but certain perks are for marrieds only, like Yom Tov bonuses. “There’s this sense that singles don’t have bills,” Kayla says. “Especially for women who live alone, it’s the furthest thing from reality. They’re in the highest tax bracket because they have no dependants, many rely on weekly therapy — for survival, and they may be investing huge sums of money in treatments that increase their likelihood of bearing children at an older age.”
On a communal level, singles are perhaps the most untapped resource of talent. While a huge number of single women invest countless hours in chesed and kiruv, often doing jobs few others can, like sleeping long nights at a sick child’s bedside, their expertise is generally overlooked when it comes to leadership positions. In light of the single woman’s (generally) enhanced energy, availability, and often professional knowledge — many have had the chance to invest extraordinary resources in professional development — those who stand to lose most are community members themselves.
“I have friends who are experts in their fields,” Rachel Burnham shares, casually mentioning a Columbia-trained neuropsychologist; department head at JP Morgan; and highly specialized addictions therapist. “Why not invite them to present at a conference? Why not ask them to head a committee, or facilitate a workshop at a convention?”
These chesed giants are rarely honored by organizations, even when the dinner is female-only. In a dramatic case, Shaindy, a passionate dynamo who built a tzedakah organization from a no-name initiative into a global operation, was politely asked to step aside — and make room for a married woman. “Potential donors will feel more comfortable meeting with a Mrs. than a Miss,” the non-profit’s executives told Shaindy, apologetically asking her to resign.
Mrs. Ruth Daskal,* the woman set to fill her shoes, however, felt entirely unequipped — and expressed her concerns to the board. “There’s no way I can invest the time and energy required,” she said, citing family obligations. The board explained that they were well aware of her limitations. They laid out an audacious proposal: Shaindy would continue doing most of the work behind the scenes, but the Daskals would be the face of the organization, the name printed on all formal communications and publicity materials.
“To her credit, Mrs. Daskal rejected the offer, along with the high salary,” Shaindy relates. “But the fact that the committee wasn’t embarrassed to suggest this speaks volumes.”
Marriage: Not the Be-All and End-All
Where does this superciliousness come from? Why are singles so often patronized or undervalued?
Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller points out that our singles population is enormous, and we haven’t yet learned to deal with the discomfort this engenders. “For most of recent history, you were either a girl or a married woman. Our generation is grappling with a new reality, and many haven’t managed to recalibrate their perceptions.”
Suri Klein,* a mechaneches who’s been involved in girls’ chinuch for over 20 years, says it goes deeper: The dismissiveness stems from a myopic view of life. “There’s this belief that marriage is the goal. It’s not. There’s only one goal in life: to serve G-d. Marriage and motherhood are one of the most beautiful, profound ways to do that — but there are other paths.”
At the end of the day, Suri stresses, citing the Chovos HaLevavos, it’s going to be you and Him. Snood or not, we all wind up with the same, single, infinitely cosmic relationship: Ein od milvado.
“These facts don’t take away the pain of singlehood; humans are wired to crave a spouse, a family. But when marriage and children become the ultimate goal, then an unmarried person’s life seems devoid of meaning — and that’s a travesty.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 537)
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