Splitting Seas, Drying Tears| January 17, 2023
Can we revamp a shidduch system that leaves too many behind?
They are three ordinary frum Jews with busy lives, jobs, and responsibilities. But they spent days and nights worrying about a shidduch system that leaves too many behind. With the support of gedolim and rabbanim, they’ve joined forces for a concerted and systematic effort to uncover the real roots of the crisis. Here is their evolving story.
Will you help pen the next chapter?
Monsey roads tend to be idyllic, dotted with the prototypical brick-blended-with-stucco homes and cars with “Thank You Hashem” bumper stickers in the driveway. An early morning walk might find you inhaling wisps of dew-soaked air, basking in the natural music of birds chirping, crickets singing and the occasional scurrying of deer from behind a cluster of trees.
But for the vice-president of one commercial security-integration company, it’s all an off-beat harmony to a far more dominant sound: The lonely cry for help from thousands who’ve done nothing wrong but suffer so much. He hears it wherever he goes; the pain of those hurt by the shidduch crisis, cranked to an earsplitting octave.
At some point he decided it was enough, it was time for something dramatic to happen.
Because Avi Schwab wants to hear the universe sing again.
Avi couldn’t disguise his sincerity even if he tried. His company is called Care Security Systems, and “care” is a motif that seems to follow him wherever he goes. Whether it’s running a simchah room from his basement or hosting the many guests who consider themselves like family, chesed is a running theme in the Schwab home. But uppermost on their minds and hearts has long been the topic of shidduchim.
After years of concern and conversation, Avi has recently joined a team in launching the Monsey Shidduch Initiative, or MSI. The program operates with a representative system, where two full-time “advocates” pair girls with shadchanim who are dedicated only to the girls in their charge. The initiative is just a few months old, but has already proved successful and has been received with widespread popularity.
But sincere concern will never limit itself to one locale. The Monsey Shidduch Initiative is wonderful, but it services only Monsey, and the thousands of broken hearts and shattered dreams extend well beyond that. To help all the others, something much greater had to happen.
It was Simchas Torah of 2021, and Avi, a longtime friend and neighbor of Reb Leizer Scheiner, was invited to the famed philanthropist’s house for a post-hakafos kiddush.
“I approached Leizer and said, ‘You’re a guy who knows how to do big things. For shidduchim, something big needs to be done. Something that takes on a macro perspective. There are so many wonderful people running so many wonderful organizations. Yet there’s no one entity taking achrayus for the whole picture.’ ”
Reb Leizer was receptive, and he and Avi met for a follow-up discussion shortly after Yom Tov. Avi came well prepared, with a PowerPoint presentation elegantly detailing his ideas, and spared no time launching into a well-thought-out description of the problem and his visions for solution.
But Reb Leizer’s response was short and blunt. “I need data,” he said. “I need to know the actual numbers. We can hypothesize all we want, but we won’t get down to the bottom of this until we really understand what’s going on.”
Avi admits he was frustrated. “Why can’t we just do something?” he said. But Reb Leizer held his ground. “Anything that’s good takes time,” he said firmly. “We can’t rush into this.” Then Reb Leizer offered one last piece of advice.
“There’s a fellow in Lakewood by the name of Ari Berkowitz. He’s the publisher of the Voice of Lakewood. Give Ari a call.”
Avi dutifully took down the number, and when he had a few spare minutes, he dialed.
It turned out to be a prescient move. Gentle and mild-mannered, it’s Ari Berkowitz’s understated self-confidence that allows him to accomplish so much while maintaining such an approachable persona.
Ari takes up the thread. “Out of the blue, I get a text from Leizer Scheiner, telling me that a guy named Avi Schwab wants to create an all-encompassing organization dedicated toward helping people with shidduchim,” says Ari. It wasn’t just random, it was downright uncanny.
“I was always passionate about shidduchim,” Ari remarks, “but I never mentioned this to Leizer. I don’t know how or why he decided to include me in this project.”
Ari is a problem solver by nature, and the thought that perhaps a yet unseen solution might be lurking just around the corner fueled his passion. “So many people are suffering, and we might be able to help them if we would just be better coordinated. It drove me crazy,” Ari says.
For years, Ari has engaged in the conversation on an informal level, trying to understand what lies at the root of the decades-long crisis. To little avail. “Everyone I spoke to had a different perspective, and everyone was convinced that their perspective was the right one,” says Ari, reflecting on the frustration of it all. “How can Klal Yisrael possibly coalesce around any possible solution when there is no clear consensus of its cause?”
This was the conundrum that had Ari contemplating the idea of taking a deep dive into the shidduch issue and trying to come up with some concrete answers. And then… “just like that, I get a text from Leizer Scheiner introducing me to someone who wants to do precisely that.”
After an initial phone conversation, they agreed in principle that this was an idea they wanted to pursue. Together, they would embark on an initiative to gather as much data as possible to understand the root causes of the shidduch problem. Only after that, would they progress to develop a program that could serve as the beginning of a solution.
It was a big undertaking, and, for it to work properly, it would need more hands on deck. They needed someone to fill the role of proficient coordinator and logistics manager.
As if on cue, Avi received a phone call from Mrs. Chani Jaffe, a neighbor and close family friend of the Schwabs for many years. She had heard that Avi was planning to start a large-scale shidduch initiative and she wanted to help. Avi was pleased, albeit unsurprised by the offer. He knew Mrs. Jaffe well, and it was nary a novelty that she’d jump on an opportunity to lend a helping hand.
As a volunteer for the L’Chaim Shidduch Organization, Mrs. Jaffe had long since been involved in helping to organize, or even host, the organization’s now famous bi-annual shidduch meetings. Beyond that, she volunteers at Care2Connect, a Monsey-based shidduch organization, as well as Care2Connect2, which focuses on those looking to remarry.
But it isn’t just Mrs. Jaffe’s passion to help that made her a perfect fit for the team; her professional background was everything they needed to complete the triangle for their fledgling entity. A licensed accountant, Mrs. Jaffe works as a senior director of operations for Avalara Inc., a leading provider of tax-compliance-automation software for businesses. Her job description includes high-level communication and coordination, as well as strong leadership and networking skills.
Mrs. Jaffe had the professional skills the initiative needed, and, as an added plus, she was also well experienced in applying these skills for the sake of the klal, working with surrounding townships on behalf of the Monsey eiruv, and as a liaison to the Suffern Central School District on behalf of the local non-public school children.
Mrs Jaffe’s personal experiences with children in shidduchim contributed to her deep-seated concern about how the system operates. She found the difference between her daughters’ and son’s experiences very unsettling. “My daughter would go to meet a shadchan and they’d ask her about my son,” she remembers.
Always a community-focused doer, she spent years channeling this concern to help as many people as possible. A few years back, she watched a presentation given at the Agudah convention by Rabbi Yechiel Rhine, which focused on a communal solution to the shidduch crisis. “I contacted him immediately. We worked on various ideas for months, but then Covid hit and that really put an end to our efforts.”
Now that the opportunity to embark on another wide-scale shidduch endeavor had arisen, Mrs. Jaffe was eager to get involved.
The trio shared a common vision. Over the past few decades, dozens of organizations have cropped up, all geared toward trying to alleviate some of the myriad challenges posed by the shidduch crisis. As a People, our collective heart is certainly in the right place.
But sometimes, you need more than that. What’s referred to as “the shidduch crisis” is the result of a web of intersecting factors. Until these issues could be identified, clarified, and analyzed, reasoned the team, it would be impossible to make significant, sweeping change. The idea here was to do the research, and to figure out, with as much scientific accuracy as possible, what’s really going on. Once armed with that knowledge, they would be able to serve as a resource to the many organizations currently operating, helping them increase their efficiency and raise their success rate.
They shared a dream — now they had to figure out how to execute it.
Spelling It Out
“In order to make the study as accurate as possible, we first needed to compile a list of all theories out there,” says Ari. “We met with dozens of shadchanim and mechanchim; we wanted to understand their experiences and learn what they perceived to be the most prevalent issues. We also wanted to make sure that nothing we did was based on our own preconceived notions. A crucial component of our efforts was to keep our own views at a distance and work with what we are being told by the people most intimately familiar with the shidduch market.”
The team conducted dozens of meetings and discussed the multitude of factors that seem to be playing into the very complex puzzle that has morphed into the current crisis. When the dust settled, four factors seemed to emerged as the most prominent issues creating barriers in the dating system as we know it.
These factors, in summary, are as follows:
1 › Selectivity
On both sides of the gender aisle, there appears to be a gap wedged between expectations and reality. Expectations tend to be too high, or too narrow, making failure to realize them all too likely.
A boy might enter the shidduch market with a witheringly specific image of what he is looking for. Ranging from level of educational degree to an explicit personality profile, his mind has painted the picture of his future partner-for-life long before he meets her. Girls, for their part, might insist on a boy being both learned and outgoing, yeshivish and put-together but certainly not materialistic. The orders are tall and demanding.
The problem with searching for perfection is that, as the cliché goes, nobody’s perfect. And even the pool of people who are close to perfect is severely limited. When preconceived and largely imagined preferences serve as the single barometer for determining compatibility, the outcome is doomed from the start.
The challenge here is rooted in the values we impart, both as parents and as educators. It is crucial that those entering the shidduch parshah learn to differentiate between the ideal spouse and the ideal person. Where there may be objective standards to determine the “best guy in Brisk,” there are no objective standards to describe the “best husband for you.” That standard is entirely subjective to who you are.
Unfortunately, this consideration gets swept beneath the carpet, which is sadly ironic considering this is the primary factor that will make or break a marriage. These blurred lines account for what is called “the selectivity factor.”
2 › Age Gap
This is likely the most well-known, and most hotly debated, factor. The theory is straightforward. The birth rate grows with each passing year. There are more two-year-olds than there are five-year-olds. The same dynamic will obviously apply at an older age as well. There are more 19-year-olds than there are 23-year-olds.
Since it’s typical in our community for a girl to begin dating at 19, while a boy won’t start until he’s 22 or 23, the math dictates that there will be many 19-year-old girls who simply cannot be matched up with a boy. The 19-year-old boys aren’t dating and the supply of 23-year-olds run out. The outcome might be what is called in the vernacular a “shidduch crisis.”
3 › Gender Misalignment
The yeshivah and Bais Yaakov systems work alongside each other — up until a point. Throughout high school, the respective curriculums focus on Torah and Yiddishkeit. Girls then do an additional year of learning in seminary, after which they begin to shift direction. Post-seminary girls tend to pursue higher education, positions in the corporate world, or both. Boys, however, generally remain within the yeshivah system.
This divergence results in a disparity in the lifestyles and experiences between the two genders, and that disparity only grows with time. Once a girl hits her mid-twenties, she might have a master’s degree, or has sat in on multimillion-dollar transactions. The boy she is dating will not relate to any of this, causing a gulf between the two parties and making compatibility a challenge. This is one way gender misalignment presents.
Another presentation is almost the exact converse. Since the yeshivah system offers a very specific experience, i.e., a religious one, those wishing to obtain a degree or advance a career will struggle to straddle both worlds. And once a boy is no longer in yeshivah, the stigma of becoming a “working guy” as opposed to a “yeshivah guy” becomes a very real challenge. Girls, on the other hand, don’t have this issue. Since the Bais Yaakov system culminates at the end of 12th grade, or seminary, a girl can move on to college or the workplace without the stigma of having left the system.
Thus, either way you cut it, there’s a problem. Boys will either be perceived as too yeshivish, or not yeshivish enough, for the girls they are dating.
4 › Limited Capacity
It’s hard to tally an exact number of shadchanim in our community, as it’s an informal job almost by definition. But we do know that there are thousands of boys and girls in shidduchim and there are not thousands of shadchanim. Thus, the better-known shadchanim are impossibly overworked. The problem then compounds itself. Since there’s less demand for lesser-known shadchanim, there’s less incentive to pay any significant sum for their services. The less they get paid, the less motivation there is for them to make shidduchim and the less incentive there is for others to pursue full-time shadchanus as a career. In short, there just aren’t enough shadchanim to go around.
But that’s only part of the problem. Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky made the observation that the shidduch system, as it operates today, is essentially an expansion of the shidduch system of the European shtetl. In the days of yore, when a town consisted of a few hundred families, it made perfect sense for the town shadchan’te to be tasked with matching local boys with local girls.
But Klal Yisrael has grown exponentially since then, as have our resources. Every major organization, both within the frum community and without, leverages advanced technology, as well as other resources, to help further their cause. Perhaps it’s time that the shidduch system does that as well.
Almost conversely, this factor also considers whether we place too much emphasis on the formal shidduch system. Perhaps shidduchim are more frequently made through informal meetings or conversations among friends and family. Either, or perhaps both, can be possible.
Crunching the Numbers
The group concedes that these four factors are neither conclusive nor exclusive. “There may be something we haven’t yet encountered,” they tell me, “or maybe it’s a hybrid of one or two or three or all of them.” Another possibility is that the primary factor will shift based on age. What might start off as a selectivity problem could later evolve into a gender misalignment problem. All options are on the table.
After myriad meetings, and the identification of the various possibilities lying at the root of the shidduch crisis, the team’s next objective is to discover how real, or how relevant, each one of the factors independently is. Based on the answer to that question, the group will have the information it needs to present the research to rabbanim, who would then direct them further.
The team realized that properly determining what the focal issues are would mean taking research to the next level. Meetings were nice, but a proper analysis would necessitate hearing from the people themselves. This realization birthed the idea of sending out a survey to as many families in the frum community as possible, to learn from their individual experiences. Based on the information provided, there would finally be some concrete answers to these many long-pondered questions.
The team recognizes that the concept isn’t groundbreaking per se. “There have been many data collection efforts in the past few years, focusing on various demographic groups,” says Mrs. Jaffe, “but, thus far, nothing on a national basis for the yeshivah Orthodox community. The need for fresh data, evaluated under the guidance of rabbanim, is the driver for this effort.” The group also looks forward to working together with other researchers who may have already collected data and could contribute to their cause.
From the get-go, they knew that every step of this process would be in accordance with daas Torah. Prior to even considering launching a survey, they reached out to leading gedolim and rabbanim to learn their opinions. The support was overwhelming.
Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva of Greater Washington, gave the project his blessing but also shared a profound insight. “In the Torah, everything of value is counted. The material donated for the Mishkan, for example, is enumerated down to its minutest detail. The Torah approach is that when something is important — count it. Because if it’s important, then its number is important, too.”
Rabbi Chaim Schabes, rav of Monsey’s Congregation Knesses Yisroel, put things into perspective. “Hashem is doing a very good job,” he told the team. “He just wants us to try a little harder. At the end of the day, we aren’t necessarily fixing problems, but if we show Him we’re trying harder, Hashem will help us.”
It’s an important piece of guidance seeing that the group already forecasts the naysayers. “I know that people will be skeptical,” says Avi. “There will be those who will say ‘what are you wasting your time for? Do you really think you can change the system?’ ” Avi concedes that these voices of doubt circulated in his mind as well, and he voiced them to his rebbi, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita.
“Can we really make a difference?” he asked the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshivah. Rav Shmuel’s response was potent and concise. “You can,” was all he said. “You can make a difference.”
But it may have been Rav Elya Brudny, Rosh Yeshivah of the Mirrer Yeshiva of Brooklyn, who laid it out most explicitly. When the team came to meet with him to discuss the shidduch crisis, Rav Brudny interrupted them before they could launch into visions of solutions. He wanted to reflect on the problem. “The shidduch crisis is such a tragedy,” he said in a broken voice. “It is the greatest tzarah of our generation.”
Armed by the blessing, guidance, and leadership of these prominent rabbanim, the group moved onward. They coined a name for the initiative, “The Institute for Shidduchim,” and inducted an official rabbinical board composed of Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, Rabbi Chaim Schabes, Rabbi Chaim Meir Roth — rav of Lakewood’s Sterling Forest Sfard Shul, and Rabbi Uri Deutsch — rav of Lakewood’s Bais Medrash Tiferes Yosef (Forest Park).
Now that they were a formal organization, the Institute’s first line of order was to find the ideal method to maximize the surveying process which, as they would learn, is a remarkably complex and specialized field. “At the beginning I thought, big deal, we’ll send out the questions and collect the answers,” says Avi. “But I came to realize that it’s much more complicated than that. There’s a chochmah to how you ask the questions and there’s a chochmah to how you process the answers.”
The answer to these concerns came by way of Rabbi Moshe Hauer, Executive Vice President of the OU. Over the years, Rabbi Hauer has worked alongside the Center for Communal Research and recommended Dr. Michelle Shain as an ideal candidate for the job. Dr. Shain is a well-known and highly qualified researcher with much experience in researching data analytics, and throughout her career has placed a specific focus on data as it pertains to religion. With Dr. Shain’s guidance and expertise, the group drafted a lengthy survey, whose questions are all geared toward analyzing the tiniest nuances of the various factions within the frum community.
The four factors enumerated above, serve as the basis for the survey’s questions. Each question lends insight into the level of relevance of a particular factor. For example, if they find that a specific age group leans heavily toward the gender-misalignment issue, whereas a different age group swings toward selectivity, they will have isolated two separate problems directed at two different age groups. This is a step toward untangling the gnarled mess that is currently the shidduch crisis. Similarly, if they find that people from out-of-town communities are more affected by the shidduch system’s lack of efficiency, they will have identified an issue pertaining to one segment of the frum community but not to another.
But the survey isn’t limited to the four factors per se. “We aren’t making any assumptions,” they group asserts. “We may be wrong about some or all of it. We leave room within the survey for respondents to offer alternative answers.”
To this end, it’s critical that they gather as many responses as possible. Since the survey takes into account practically every nuance of family dynamic, religious affiliation, financial bracket, and social status, gaining a fully informed handle on where the problems lie, requires that data be collected from all across the frum spectrum. “This isn’t just for people who struggled with the shidduch system,” they point out. “We need everyone to participate, even those who managed to marry off their children easily.”
When it comes to surveys, there’s power in numbers. The information’s level of accuracy will directly correlate to the volume of responses. The plan is to distribute the survey to as many members of the frum community as possible, with the hope that all those wishing to contribute to this hopefully historic endeavor will participate.
But how will the survey reach so many people?
The team has planned a multi-pronged approach to soliciting participation. On a broader level, The Institute plans to leverage advertising, primarily in the community’s print media. And then there is a more targeted path being taken as well. “We are working together with the Bais Yaakov network,” Mrs. Jaffe explains. “Bais Yaakovs tend to have very formal and robust databases of their students, including contact information. We plan on reaching out to Bais Yaakovs across the country and have them send the survey out to their current parent body as well as alumnae. In this way, we expect to get a wide variety of respondents at different ages and stages, with families that include both married and single boys and girls.” The Institute expects that independent singles who navigate shidduchim on their own will weigh in as well.
Once the data is gathered, it will be analyzed by professional data scientists. The team anticipates that the collective responses of the many participants will paint a clear picture as to what the problems are, and which problem relates to one segment of our community more than another. And that’s when the real work will begin.
The Next Step
“This is all just a means to an end,” the team explains. “The data is just to help us understand what our focus should be. Once we have that information, we will begin putting together a program that will take all of this into account.”
And what would that look like? It depends on the survey’s result. Supposing the tallied responses all point in the direction of the inefficiency of the current “shadchan system,” then the approach might be to invest resources in creating a centralized system where information can be stored, accessed, and shared in a moment’s time. This can prove more user-friendly than having a string of brothers-in-law try to get hold of a certain shadchan’s phone number.
But that’s just by way of example. The group is ready to throw its weight behind whatever factors are revealed to be the primary issues and do what it can to provide solutions.
Speaking more broadly, the ultimate vision is to found an umbrella institution that takes the entirety of the shidduch crisis into its hands. That’s not to say that they wish to consume all the existing organizations. “On the contrary,” they clarify, “we want to be a resource for them. We want to be able to provide all shidduch organizations with information, resources, or funding to help them succeed in their incredible work.”
“We can’t guarantee that people will find their shidduchim immediately,” says Mrs. Jaffe, “but at least we can try to ensure that the phone will ring more often.”
The group has worked for over a year, researching, networking, and fine-tuning the survey to ensure maximum results. It’s about to be sent out, and that’s when the ball falls in your court. Our sisters and brothers and cousins and neighbors are waiting. This is the least we can do to help.
Can you really make a difference?
You can, says Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. You can make a difference.
Take the Survey Here: shidduchinstitute.com/survey
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 945)
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