Within all the sound, do we hear the voices of the young men and women themselves?
hese are just some of the questions that have bothered me over the last five years:
What happens when we fail to give words and framework to what thousands of people are experiencing?
What happens when the inner experience of an entire segment of our community goes largely unnoticed?
What does it feel like to be part of a “crisis”? To be looked at with a mixture of pity, compassion, and the feeling that you — your very existence — represents a communal problem?
What does it feel like to live in a constant state of impermanence?
I’m talking, of course, about our single young women.
Some talk of invisibility as a superpower. But the need to be seen is basic to our humanity; it’s nothing less than an affirmation of our existence, our foundational worth. Being invisible is also deeply related to being inaudible — or having a voice that is barely heard or drowned out.
A case in point: the noise surrounding the shidduch crisis. Within all the sound, do we hear the voices of the young men and women themselves? How effectively are we listening to their needs, struggles, suggestions, and experiences?
A few years ago, I noticed a shift among the many students I teach and am in touch with through the rubric of Penimi, an organization that develops educational materials and provides training to thousands of classrooms in the US and around the world, giving wholesome, authentic, and effective approaches to contemporary challenges.
I started to listen. First, over the phone, and then in intense conversations in circles. We interviewed whole groups of young women, and then sent out informal surveys. We received hundreds of replies.
Here are some of their own words:
“How do you stay upbeat and positive when you feel like the world has forgotten about you?”
“I have to keep reminding myself that dating is not a race to the marriage finish line. Which is a bit scary….”
“How can I keep davening when I don’t see results, and feel burned-out?”
“I tell myself all the time: I’m not a misfit in society just because I’m not married yet. I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Here’s more of what they say:
A boy can approach his rebbi anytime in shul or yeshivah. For a girl, it takes courage to pick up the phone and call a teacher. I know that while my teachers are genuinely happy when I call, and do everything to make themselves available — I’m in awe — tachlis, they’re overstretched. So I think twice before calling and receiving guidance and encouragement.
What about a support system? A girl who comes from a family that isn’t savvy about networking and knowing the shadchanim, can feel she’s been left on her own. I wish there was a set shadchan for every girl, who would get to know her and advocate for her.
Our community has expectations of what your life is going to look like… and if marriage doesn’t happen right away, or you’re dating someone who doesn’t exactly match the picture that was put in your head by others, you think there’s something wrong.
IN the past, there was mostly a clear progression for girls: elementary school, high school, seminary, marriage. But that is no longer the case for too many. A gap has opened, a new stage has emerged. Today, it’s not unusual for a young woman to go through four or five years of shidduchim until she gets married. A girl who got married at 21 used to be considered old; no longer.
This societal shift means that our idealistic, creative, intelligent young women reach this delicate time in their lives, when they face so many choices and decisions, with scant formal support. Moreover, this lack of framework comes when they are moving from the relative protection of the world of education to the world of practice.
So what does happen?
These incredible young women continue going to shiurim, doing endless chesed, and remaining focused spiritually and emotionally. They embrace life, despite uncertainty.
Some also begin advocating for themselves. They may form unofficial support groups. Some develop emotional armor and some do anything they can to switch status.
Many are left to struggle. They may express pain, confusion, and an aching feeling of being lost and forgotten.
Yes, there is much talk about a shidduch crisis. There are statistics and numbers and proposals about shadchanim’s wages and global databases, and these are all both vital and encouraging, for they reflect herculean thought and effort by so many who deeply care. And yet, perhaps due to the level of our collective distress, fingers are pointed, too. At parents. At an inflated level of materialism that has bloated expectations and demands. At shadchanim, for taking on only “easy cases.” Mostly — tragically — at the girls themselves. At our talented, intelligent, giving, eloquent, idealistic, fun, growth-oriented young women. For being… too picky, too idealistic, too materialistic, too influenced by social media, too cut off from the world, too demanding and too just about everything.
Now, obviously, discussion and introspection are vital. But blame is often an outgrowth of despondency. It’s easier to blame than to confront the silent loneliness of our neighbor, friend, student — or daughter.
As a community, so much important work has been done. But I’d like to point out a part of the picture that hasn’t yet been adequately addressed. And that is the basic need of our young women for spiritual and emotional support. For a formal framework — spiritual, emotional, intellectual — within which they can discuss the many, many, dilemmas and challenges of this age and stage.
And there are many.
About shidduchim, obviously. But much more, besides.
Questions of work: boundaries, tzniyus, how to navigate the double messages we receive about ambition (just enough but not too much, please) and success (ditto).
Questions of resilience: the courage it takes to try again, opening your heart, knowing that it may be bruised. How to frame rejection. How to handle frequent loss of friendships as friends and colleagues marry and move away.
Questions of spirituality: How to daven when there are so many days that it feels like it’s just not working? What to daven for, and how to continue when your heart feels dry — and where does bitachon come into the picture? Should I “settle” for someone who may be less spiritually oriented — after all, “it’s so much easier to be a good girl than a good boy”?
Questions about their place in the world: How much privacy can they ask for as young adults living at home? How to navigate the parent-child relationship — always a delicate dance between closeness and individuation, but which now may be colored by unmet expectations, unspoken disappointment, and mutual pain? What about their place in our communities as a whole?
With hundreds of voices ringing through my mind from interviews, discussions, and think tanks, I slowly began to identify three ways in which we can give our young women the response that they seek. They are as follows: A. Support. B. Education. C. Advocacy.
In my mind, I started sketching out a modest program — perhaps over six weeks — that would provide both education and support. I took the idea to rabbanim, to teachers, to seminary principals, to kallah teachers. Each of them took out time to discuss, think, enlarge, refine… and the concept slowly began to take shape. It grew.
Education wasn’t enough — we need the experience of group learning, to fulfill social needs and give emotional support. A trained facilitator who can also become a mentor. And the material itself would need to be intellectually stimulating, but not only that. It would provide insight into the specific issues facing young women today.
The original six-week plan became six months, and at this point, likely more. And, we also realized, it couldn’t just be book learning. The program had to foster emotional and relationship skills young women could use in life and relationships. And so LinkUp Nook was born, a comprehensive program for young women, ages 19–28.
What happens when your life story does not fall within the expected narrative? It’s not a simple question. After all, there is value to the accepted narrative of school-seminary-marriage — the “ideal” trajectory of life known to our communities for so long. Distinct from the secular world’s emphasis on taking time out to “find yourself” or for “self-actualization,” this narrative shows how we actualize ourselves within the context of our most important relationships and roles, and finding ourselves is a life-long journey that happens within the radius of our lives, not in Nepal or India.
But at the same time, we can be cognizant of the deep pain it causes when life veers off the accepted narrative — which is happening to so many of our young women.
Moving past the feelings of alienation, there are the practical components. How does the reality of life relate to the beautiful theories taught to us all our years up until this point? How to make emunah relevant to uncertainty, anxiety, rejection, and inner conflict? Can I reinvent my tefillah so that it becomes meaningful for this process?
We want to offer our girls, those who are just back from seminary, and those who have been in shidduchim for several years, a safe place. Not just for learning, but for conversation. Not just for information, but for discussion, questions, and sharing.
One fabulous, thinking, growth-oriented girl told me this about sitting across a young man on a date: “I want to open up about my experiences and dreams, but I know that at home he has a list of another ten girls. How can I get past the fear and show my authentic self?”
Our young women are amazing. They are self-aware, thinking, emotionally attuned and idealistic. And yet, they live, work, communicate, travel, and shop within the secular world that subtly imparts subliminal messages and expectations — especially when it comes to relationships. The secular world is in love with romance, but not with the long-haul work of relationships. Discomfort is foreign. Anxiety is pervasive. Communication is instant, but often superficial.
Cancel culture means that people are shut down without taking the time to talk, discuss, hold accountable, forgive. Outcome is favored over process. Opinions are expected to be echoed, rather than examined and discussed. In our own world, too, shidduchim have taken on tones and words that belong to consumerism, rather than neshamos. An emphasis on perfect has left our young women with an emotional fragility; they’re afraid of opening up their hearts and becoming vulnerable.
A large component of our program, therefore, explores how the wider world is impacting our relationship skills and attitudes, and helps prepare the girls for marriage. Our young women are exceptionally self-aware and knowledgeable, and yet they were born into a world of emojis, a secular culture that doesn’t support the slow, deep, delicate work of learning to live-with and forgive-with.
This element helps our young women become more conscious of our mindsets and reactions and how they’re shaped; and to work on them so that when the young women date, they’re confident, open, and ready to enter into the emotional work of this most crucial relationship. It’s designed both for the girls who are fresh back from seminary — to help them date right and set up good relationship habits — as well as for those young women further along their dating journey.
There’s also another piece to the support that I see as being vital for our young women. And that is advocacy.
Our young women need not just advocacy, but meaningful advocacy. From women who know them, and understand their needs in the here and now. Mechanchos and principals give endless hours of insight and guidance, but what a gift it would be if girls could each have a mentor who would meet with them regularly. The girls need a voice. And so I’m putting this out there — I dream of eventually integrating an advocacy element into our program. But in the meantime, we can all advocate for the young women that we know. Other than interfacing with shadchanim on their behalf and giving accurate information, this means helping the young women finetune their wants and needs, networking for them, and thinking of creative solutions not only to make more dates happen, but to make them more on-target.
There’s another problem with the phrase “shidduch crisis.” It implies a confluence of factors that exploded in a way that is not only outside of our control, but of our understanding. It arouses a sensation of impotence. Who am I? What am I? What can I do in the face of this global trend? Instead of compassion, we may feel despair, and then protect ourselves from that despair by donning a cloak of apathy.
So let’s change the narrative. Because there is so much we can do. And the overwhelming response we received at our recent LinkUp Nook launch, the B.I.G. (Balance. Insight. Growth.) event — which drew thousands of single young women in an evening of open discussion, insight, and strength — is testimony to that.
Our young women are facing a huge challenge — but we can hold out our hands in support. We can banish invisibility through advocacy and support. We can beat inaudibility by opening up discussions with these young women, asking what they need and want from us — and, as well, how they can contribute, for by failing to make space for their gifts, we are cutting ourselves off from a huge group of intelligent, idealistic, and talented people.
Rather than drowning them out in the noise of our discussions, let’s urge our young women to sound their voices — for we are here to listen.
Mrs. Faigie Zelcer is the founding director of Penimi, an international organization that provides educational curriculums and in-depth training to address contemporary challenges using an inward-based, sophisticated, and growth-oriented approach. Penimi's materials span elementary and high school levels, LinkUp groups for women, and a new initiative, LinkUp Nook, geared to post-seminary and beyond. For more information, contact email@example.com
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 951)
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