By Baila Sebrow

Question:

I grew up in a secular home. I didn’t even know I was Jewish. Religion was never discussed in my parents’ home. It was in college that I started getting interested in my roots, and my parents told me that I am Jewish. I contacted the local Orthodox rabbi in my town, and he set me up with a learning group.

Not long after, he recommended that I move to New York where he said I would have the best chance of meeting a suitable man for marriage. He hooked me up with a rebbetzin in the community he had suggested for me.

Things were great in the beginning. The rebbetzin helped me secure a job and a beautiful apartment. She invited me to share Shabbat and yom tov meals with her family. After a while, she told me it was time for me to find a shidduch and that she had the perfect man for me.

I agreed to meet him, and right from the start I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong with him. I shared this with my rebbetzin friend, who at this point felt like my own mother. She convinced me to continue dating him to see if I could get used to him. Again I agreed. She eventually convinced me to get engaged, even though I had reservations.

Right before I got engaged, I asked her to find me another man to date, but she told me that all the other men in the community are looking for women who come from religious families. She added that although this man comes from a religious family, he is such a special person that he is willing to overlook my background. I knew very little about him other than what she told me.

From the second we got married, my husband did not want to keep Shabbat and other important things. He also became abusive, and it was clear that he was emotionally unstable. I left him, and shortly thereafter got divorced. After the divorce, I joined a support group of other women, and when they heard my story, they told me that this commonly happens to ba’alei teshuvah — they are coerced into marrying people whom singles in their own circles don’t want because of serious issues. It also came out that everyone knew what my ex-husband was all about way before we met.

The thing is that I am ready to start dating again. How can I be sure that the same thing won’t happen to me all over again? I want to meet a very frum man who is stable but who will also accept me for who I am and where I come from. Is that possible?

Response:

For starters, you should never agree to marry anyone you have serious reservations about. When you have doubts significant enough to cause that feeling of queasiness in your stomach, that is usually your subconscious trying to warn and protect you. What’s more, you must never again give any person so much power such that they feel they can effectively work you over to the point that you will agree to their suggestion.

None of what happened is your fault. On the contrary, you are an awe-inspiring woman. You gave up a lifestyle you grew up with and not only took religion upon yourself in a major way but also uprooted to a new state and community. Not too many people can muster the emotional stamina to succeed in spite of that. You did, and for that you deserve much applause.

However, being new to the frum world, you had no clue how the system works as it relates to shidduch dating. You rightfully assumed that just as you were welcomed into your rebbetzin’s life and she helped you in so many other ways, here, too, she would be your savior. But that is where things went awry, and you fell into a terrible situation that you thankfully managed to get out of.

Your rebbetzin friend was right that there are communities where those who seek a shidduch will only marry someone who comes from a similar background. But she was wrong in saying that the people who seek to marry out of their fold only do so because they are special. Rather, it is often because they have not been successful amongst their own kind. There are many reasons for their lack of success that have nothing to do with any wrongdoing on the part of the individual in question.

However, there are times when the reasons are of such a serious nature that it becomes recognized as common knowledge within their community, as was later revealed in your situation. You married an abusive man with severe emotional issues who also did not want to observe halachah. People in the community were probably wary of him, and so he knew that whoever would agree to marry him would be a woman who is unfamiliar with his history and has no way of finding out the truth.

Your story is unfortunately way too common. Specifically when a person has no trusted connections, he or she is most vulnerable in shidduchim. In most cases where there is contemplation about a shidduch, singles have family members they can brainstorm with to help them decide whether or not to marry the person they are dating, especially if something does not feel right to them.

In the case of someone new to the frum world, even if she is still close to her immediate family members, it would be difficult to discuss a potential shidduch with them because they may not understand the particular customs of their child’s new community. What makes matters worse is that the person also lacks accessibility to those who can advise them and find out information on their behalf.

I do need to point out that your type of story has also happened to people who have been frum their entire lives. Children of divorce, illness, economically challenged backgrounds, or just not-well-connected parents have also fallen prey to such incidents because they’ve been marginalized. They have been talked into marrying notorious cast-offs because they are told they’re not desirable candidates for decent shidduch prospects. Thus, they get scared to turn away the shidduch they have doubts about because they are convinced that it’s the best they can do for themselves. And sometimes, negative information is deliberately withheld or sugar-coated in the effort to quickly close the deal on the shidduch.

Those who convince singles to marry troubled people are usually do-gooders who truly believe that they are achieving a mitzvah in helping singles get married. They rationalize that the two people who each come with their unique problems or difficulties will somehow figure things out and find a way to make their marriage work.

I don’t know how much about the man you married this rebbetzin was aware of. It is possible that she, too, was misled about him to an extent. Or, if she did know, perhaps she didn’t fathom that the marriage would turn out as awful as it did. We have no way of knowing what was going on in her mind during that period. And in her commitment to helping you find a shidduch, she was probably happy that your ex-husband did not decline you because of your secular background as she claimed others had.

You cannot change your past; you can only be proud of your present and work on flourishing in the future. That said, you need to date a man who is compatible with who you are now and can accept who you were before he met you. Additionally, he needs to be an independent thinker who will admire you for what you have courageously overcome and accomplished.

How do you meet such a man? You do not indicate what level of religiosity you are most comfortable with and where you see yourself truly fitting in. However, I advise you to seek a shidduch in a different neighborhood where there are singles who are similar to you. It would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with matchmakers in other communities and to choose someone you are comfortable working with. Confide all that you have been through, and stress that you don’t want the same thing to happen again. Do not ever allow anyone to make you feel that you are not good enough for the type of man you believe you’re compatible with. Should you ever again meet such a person, immediately distance yourself.

I hope that you are also open to dating men who are ba’alei teshuvah and are similar to you in various respects, but that should not be the main factor. I am suggesting that as a possibility because there are men, too, who have fallen into unsuitable marriages specifically because they had no prior connections or acquaintances to find out the whole story about whom they were dating.

Allow yourself the chance to be in the dating scene for a bit so that you can familiarize yourself with the various hashkafos. There is no written rule that you must only date a particular type. There are many categories of frum people, and it would be a good idea to broaden your horizons. Try to attend functions that attract similar-minded singles to further increase your opportunities of meeting a compatible marriage partner worthy of all you have to offer.

Baila Sebrow is president of Neshoma Advocates, communications and recruitment liaison for Sovri-Beth Israel, executive director of Teach Our Children, and a shadchanis and shidduch consultant. She can be reached at Bsebrow@aol.com. Questions and comments for the Dating Forum can be submitted to 5townsforum@gmail.com.

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