You don’t need to consult a rabbi to figure out that being a single woman of a certain age in the Orthodox Jewish community is no piece of babka. While 27 is the median age for an American woman’s first marriage, in many Orthodox circles — even modern ones — a single woman is considered over the hill by her late 20s.
Both sexes are encouraged to marry at relatively young ages. But there’s an extra burden on women due to the disproportionate amount of single men. As Jon Birger wrote in his 2015 book “Date-Onomics: How Dating Became A Lopsided Numbers Game,” in the Orthodox dating pool there are 12 percent more available women than men. Within the community, this imbalance is called the shidduch (or matchmaking) crisis.
“We feel the onus is on us,” said Naomi, a 42-year-old teacher at a modern Orthodox day school outside Manhattan. “It’s almost like the [matchmakers] are desperate to get the women married because there are so many of them. We don’t sense they tell the men to get a better profile picture or do this, do that. It’s more like ‘oh, the women are desperate for you, so it’s okay, you can do whatever you want.’”
However, the bigger issue for a modern Orthodox single woman may not be her relationship status, but how she is treated by her community because of it. “For me, it is a ‘crisis’ because I think we are looked at differently. I think we are forgotten,” Naomi said.
She described how she feels her ideas are often dismissed by her colleagues, who are mostly married Orthodox women. “I definitely get treated differently at work. I think they just think I don’t know anything. If I mention a recipe, they’ll just ignore me,” Naomi said. She said she feels it in more substantive areas, as well, such as working with young students, because she herself is not a mother. “I don’t sense they really think I know what I’m talking about when I’m working with the kids.”
Other single women in the modern Orthodox community shared similar experiences of feeling slighted by community members because they were not married. “Slowly you start to realize your single status, and realize that even though you might have a master’s degree or be accomplished in your work, people in the religious community still talk to you as if you are in high school,” Eryn London, a 31-year-old rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat, wrote in an email. She described how, at her parents’ synagogue, “very rarely do the young married couples talk to me.”
Toby, a 38-year-old psychotherapist in Manhattan, said she suspects she isn’t afforded the same privacy and respect that married congregants are. When she visits her family in Atlanta and goes to their synagogue, she says that “people stop me, and the first thing they say is, ‘How’s your social life?’ or ‘How’s dating?’”
“I feel like I’m doing something wrong because I’m not married — and then, they feel this need to tell me what I’m doing wrong,” Toby added. “If someone were trying to get pregnant, would they experience the same thing? I don’t know, but I do feel people probably treat me a little different than if I were married.”
What may contribute to this treatment is that many of the Orthodox obligations for adult women are tied to being married. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, who is the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and has advocated for better treatment of singles in the community, said the high value on being married starts with the first mitzvah, or good deed, described in the Torah: “You shall be fruitful and multiply.” While this line can be interpreted in different ways, many view it as a commandment to have children. And some, such as Rabbi Aryeh Citron, dean of Yeshivah College in Miami Beach, Fla., view it as a directive “to have as many children as possible.”
Toby brought up her frustration with not being able to fulfill some of the obligations traditionally designated for a woman her age, including those regarding sexual behavior. Since premarital sex is forbidden, only those who are married can practice the laws of niddah, which include regulations for when sex is permitted in regard to a woman’s menstrual cycle and after she gives birth. Practicing niddah also involves getting to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath, and purify one’s self. While some might see the laws of niddah as a burden, a woman who follows them is considered to be doing a religious deed or good works, akin to lighting the Sabbath candles or keeping kosher. In a way, it’s a privilege to practice the laws of niddah — a privilege denied to all who are not married.
“I feel like the commandments specifically designed for me as a woman are not something I can do. It makes me feel like I can’t be Orthodox in that way I was always taught I was supposed to be,” she said.
The separation between married and single Orthodox Jews goes beyond religious responsibilities. It’s embedded in the culture, too. Many single women said couples and families tend not to invite them over for Shabbat meals. As a result, they end up feeling isolated, not just at weddings or other family milestone events, but every week. The ritual of sharing a Shabbat meal with family, friends or community members is a cornerstone of Orthodox culture.
Naomi said that she’s taken on the responsibility of organizing and hosting some of her single friends, but she’s “tired of always being the one to make the meals” and “wishing the families I knew would invite me.” Toby also said that Shabbat has become lonely and, thus, a burden. “I would much rather be going out than sitting in my apartment,” she said. “You’re also taught you’re supposed to love Shabbat, and I don’t.”
Naomi said she has sensed that, if couples were to invite her for Shabbat, they would feel pressured to have other single people come, too. So they end up excluding singles altogether. “They could invite me, but then they don’t know who to invite me with, so, I think they just don’t,” she said. “I think they’re just not sure what to do with me. I find they look at me differently. They don’t see me as someone they can be friends with, because I’m not in their life station.”
If this divide between singles and marrieds remains, it may hurt the modern Orthodox community at large — not just its single congregants. At best, single women have less of an incentive to be active participants if they are not viewed as such. At worst, they leave the community, as some women said their single friends have.
Weiss-Greenberg warned: “If they’re going to make people who are single, for whatever reason they are, feel different or less than, then they’re missing out on all they could be contributing.”