By Rabbi Perry Tirschwell
Yeshiva high schools care for our children throughout their teenage years. Yeshivot and seminaries take it up a notch during their year(s) in Israel. Institutions such as Yeshiva University and Touro inspire our students during their college years, as do the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program and Chabad. There are countless communities in which young married couples can begin their lives together.
What about our growing singles population? The longer they stay single, the more challenging it is for them to maintain their religious commitment. And we all know that an increasing number of them are staying single longer.
Though one might say that the obvious solution is to help singles find their mates sooner, that is easier said than done. With men and women investing many years into graduate school and climbing the corporate ladder, the singles population will no doubt continue to grow.
One of the greatest selling points of an observant Jewish lifestyle is family life. Taharat ha’mishpachah keeps excitement in a couple’s intimate relationship, Shabbat meals give parents quality time with their children, living close to a shul in the suburbs gives people opportunities to know their neighbors, and knowing that their children’s friends’ families share similar values is extremely comforting. It is not so difficult to understand why some people who are not religiously motivated become “socially Orthodox”–it is a uniquely wholesome and fulfilling lifestyle.
However, these benefits do not extend to singles. Marriage gives a person a sense of stability and security that extends to religious observance. Singles, who are at an in-between stage in life, lack this security. Trying to navigate between the demands of the early phases of a career and the desire to find a mate, the halachot precluding physical displays of affections are extremely challenging for men (and the women who want to be attractive to them) whose hormones are at their height.
In this era of acceptance of various lifestyles, there are fewer familial demands and little social pressure to induce people to go through the motions of observance during periods of religious questioning. This is doubly true for singles, who have recently completed their years of exploration on the liberal college campuses.
We have tried exceptionally hard to make an observant lifestyle as enjoyable and attractive as we can for our children. Pesach programs in exotic locales, Sukkot in Israel at beautiful hotels, observant summer tours to Europe and Australia, etc. The unintended consequence is that we have raised a generation that is not accustomed to making sacrifices to maintain their religious commitment.
Though many of them are making money, this generation is not used to paying for anything (e.g. free dinners at Hillel, complimentary trips to Israel via Birthright, and unfettered access to their parents’ credit cards).
Sadly, they do not feel that there is anyone to turn to for religious guidance and spiritual motivation. Most feel that their rebbeim and rebbetzins from yeshiva and seminary will not understand the struggles they are facing (few of them had this experience), or they are too embarrassed to share their challenges with their mentors from earlier stages in life.
There are excellent kiruv programs for young professionals, but none for Orthodox twenty- and thirty-somethings. Some of our tzedakah organizations are running programs for this particular age group, but they are focused on friendraising and fundraising, not on strengthening the participant’s religious commitment.
Young professionals are exhausted at the end of their long workdays and after compulsory visits to the gym. They do, however, take off work on Shabbos. There is hope!
One hundred years ago, the National Council of Young Israel was founded by American-born twenty-somethings who did not feel that they had a place in the observant community. Instead of derashot in Yiddish, aliyot being auctioned off, and landsmanschaft shuls that recreated European communities that they never knew, they wanted something that appealed to them and spoke to their souls. Whether or not your shul is technically a Young Israel, it inevitably reflects the changes that those pioneers made during the pre-War period.
Since I assumed the helm of the National Council of Young Israel in the beginning of August, I have been meeting with the people who know this situation best–singles, the rabbis of the communities where they reside, shidduch professionals, and national Jewish leaders. Everyone agrees that this is the next age group that our community has to address.
I invite all who are concerned about this problem to join me in addressing it. Please e-mail me at RPT@youngisrael.org. By working collaboratively on this critical issue, we can ensure that the Jewish community’s leaders of tomorrow are given the foundation they need and the assistance they deserve to maintain strong and genuine connections to Orthodoxy and the Jewish way of life that we are so grateful and privileged to enjoy. v
Rabbi Perry Tirschwell is the new executive director of the National Council of Young Israel. Rabbi Tirschwell is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshiva University, and RIETS, and holds a master’s degree in school administration and supervision from the College of New Rochelle. He is very happily married to Miriam, a speech therapist in the public schools, and they have five daughters, ages 14—24.