In recent years a new sort of community has developed: the modern Orthodox singles community. While previously, single adults lived in their parents’ homes or were content to reside as not-yet-married members of a traditional, family-oriented community, as they still do in Haredi circles, urban communities of modern Orthodox singles have lately begun to emerge—and to pique the curiosity of the wider public. (Witness the popularity of such sitcoms as Soon by You and the Israeli series Srugim.) In these communities, singles live in large numbers, without their parents, and in some communities the majority of communal leadership rests with those in their 20s or 30s who are still single, or who only recently married.
For the past decade, I served as the rabbi of a large modern Orthodox community in Washington Heights that is overwhelmingly composed of single adults and recently married adults in their 20s and early 30s. They are mostly yeshiva day school graduates. Almost all are college graduates, most of whom are working at their first job. They are struggling to find or maintain an identity. Whatever their level of practice, they wish to remain within the modern Orthodox community.
Although the emergence of these singles communities seems to be positive, with engaged and dynamic young persons minyanim, classes, and events, I have heard many young people in such communities express a feeling of disenfranchisement from the main community. The young persons minyan of a shul and the young leadership division of an organization can be larger and more energetic than their more established counterpart. Even so, members of these younger divisions feel themselves isolated and confined to junior status, akin to teenagers in the youth minyan who also have their own tefillah, shiurim, and events, but are clearly not included in the mainstream community, and involved in community decisions. Many of these young adults were leaders of their college Hillels or Jewish student organizations, and they don’t want to be relegated as second-class citizens. They want to continue running events and leading communities with the same passion that they led their campus communities.
One advantage of our community in Washington Heights is that communal leadership is vested in the hands of these single and only recently married young adults. Consequently, they feel a genuine sense of ownership over communal activity and are more deeply invested in the larger community. They often note with pride that this is their community. They point to all that they do to maintain a shul, raise funds, manage a budget, and run events.
In my time in Washington Heights, I have noticed a number of trends that are worthy of further exploration. Community members are engaged with and often struggling in real life with many of the issues that dominate much of the communal conversation. The larger community has, by and large, ignored this demographic, focusing its energy on the more typical family-based communities and traditional educational institutions. However important these issues are, the emerging community of singles and young adults pose other questions of equal or even greater importance to the larger Jewish world: What defines community? What are the key events that bring people together? Most significantly, young singles struggle with questions of relationships and shidduchim and the related issue of sexuality. These issues are addressed in the context of the modern Orthodox community in New York City, but also have relevance beyond the boundaries of this community to society at large.
There are several distinctive features of these singles communities. The most obvious one is apparent every Shabbat.
Shabbat meals in singles communities tend to be very large social gatherings. It is not at all uncommon to regularly attend meals with more than 20 people present. In many respects these meals serve as the highlight of the week. Singles arrange their Shabbat meals very early in the week; I have invited guests on a Monday only to find out that they are already taken for all the meals during the upcoming Shabbat.
Most often, although there is a single host of the meal, each of the participants brings a dish. In this way the meal is a collaborative effort. Most often, the meals continue for many hours with animated conversation. Hosting the meal largely means little more than that the meal is situated in your apartment and you get to recite kiddush or hamotzi.
The significant role that these Shabbat meals play in the singles community is inextricably connected to the ability to carry items on a Shabbat. In our shul there is always a large table set out where people leave the food that they will bring to a host’s home after tefillah. Were one to be unable to carry, this form of social engagement could obviously not take place. It is no wonder therefore that many of these singles communities were built around the same time that a community eruv was established. In large urban centers, establishing a communal eruv can present halachic obstacles. But only once the eruv is established can the community develop.
Of course there is always a segment of the population that is not keyed in enough to the community to receive Shabbat invitations. These individuals rarely if ever host meals and are almost never invited out. Unlike communities dominated by marrieds, where communal involvement is largely focused on davening or shiur attendance or other shul-based events, in a singles community where meals are perhaps the defining aspect of community, those who are less keyed in socially feel profoundly isolated and alone. Heads of my shul’s hospitality committees noted that nearly 80% of requests from people looking for a meal to attend come from the same handful of individuals. Obviously, there is a need to establish a communal apparatus to care for them.
In predominantly married communities, simachot—joyous events celebrating milestones in Judaism and in life, such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, brises, etc.—are a major focus of communal life. Individuals attend their friends’ simcha events and, in this respect, coalesce as a group. In a singles community, where by definition there are fewer such events, birthdays occupy a very significant place. It is fairly common for someone to throw himself or herself a birthday party and invite dozens of close friends to celebrate. The birthday occupies the role that simachot occupy in a mainstream, predominantly married community.
Also unlike many families with children, young singles with disposable income will take vacations with their friends, often to exotic locations. I have received many questions about Shabbat observance in Antarctica and the Far East. I have received numerous kashrut inquiries regarding the status of milk in developing countries.
In a singles community, roommate issues loom very large, and rabbis are often called in to mediate. Sometimes the issues are not specific to Jews—splitting bills or cleaning the apartment—but in the context of this community, they are seeking a specifically Jewish law perspective on how to navigate these issues. And these modern Orthodox communities also have distinct issues: Halachic disputes may arise if one roommate changes observance levels, so roommates sometimes draw up elaborate contracts of accepted behavior and religious standards within the apartment. Roommate ads include elaborate abbreviations, some of which are understandable only to the initiated, such as SS (shomer Shabbat), SK (shomer kashrut), or NBAO (no boys allowed overnight).
More than the mainstream Orthodox community, singles communities provide an opportunity to genuinely engage with and welcome Orthodox LGBT Jews. Orthodox LGBT individuals almost always feel alienated from the Orthodox establishment. Shul life, with its emphasis on simachot, is not geared toward them. The dominant married structure of the community is similarly not something they can connect with. Leaving aside the (possibly insurmountable) halachic challenges of integrating LGBT couples into the Orthodox community, LGBT singles also feel without a place in traditional family-centered communities. Even when traditional communities try to be welcoming to LGBT individuals, these individuals feel that they cannot belong; consequently, it is well documented that LGBT people too often move away from the Orthodox community. In singles communities, however, where there are fewer barriers to inclusion, integration of LGBT individuals should be easier. So I am cautiously optimistic that singles communities may be a place where LGBT individuals can settle for at least a number of years. My hope is that if they do so, LGBT individuals will remain more closely connected with Orthodox life.
These singles communities should be hospitable to LGBT individuals in other ways. Unlike older, more established communities that are dominated by marrieds and where communal leadership is often in the hands of social, political, and religious conservatives, singles communities with their younger demographic tend to be more liberal and tolerant of divergent views and lifestyles. Hence only few bat an eyelash when someone is gay; there is little discomfort with those whose observance has lapsed as well. Formerly observant singles are still integral parts of the community, attend Shabbat meals, and connect with the community in myriad ways. Obviously this can present halachic challenges, but by and large it presents opportunity. This social and religious demographic should be able to retain Orthodox identification for those who would otherwise no longer identify as Orthodox.
Much of the conversation regarding singles communities has been exercises in hand wringing over the so-called shidduch crisis. While the increasing numbers of older singles is certainly something that is worthy of communal attention, for the singles who are the objects of this conversation the talk most often is off-putting. Singles, accomplished and talented professionals, are often put in a position where they must smile while listening to all the ways that they are responsible for not yet being married: They are told that they are too frum or not frum enough, too focused on physical appearance or nor focused enough, too picky or too loose in their criteria for a mate.
Young adults do not want their entire identity to be defined by their marital status. In most cases they feel uncomfortable with being the objects of so much conversation. Discussions about normal issues like work, politics, the weather, and even the rabbi’s sermon are preferred to the never-ending talk of shidduchim. For these and other reasons, adults who reside in singles communities are often uncomfortable returning to their parental home even for a Yom Tov. I have heard time and time again of young adults’ discomfort in occupying a professional role in life, but being treated as youngsters when returning to their parental homes. One accomplished young man, a lawyer and a musmach (an ordained rabbi), was deeply hurt when the shul where his parents daven offered him gelilah (a non-speaking role involving dressing the Torah after it is publicly read) every time he returned home, whereas other congregants’ married adult children got speaking parts. I have heard from many a young woman how off-putting it is to be asked to watch her sister’s children on a yom tov afternoon so that her married sister can nap.
Some people bemoan the reality that young adults nowadays choose to live in singles communities rather than remaining in their parental homes, and their complaints tend to coalesce around the shidduch crisis. Some oppose young people moving out of their parental homes out of a fear that no one will set them up once they are out of sight and out of mind. Others contend that the discomfort many a young single adult feels in his or her parental home is actually a positive motivation to get married, and only through this discomfort will they be willing to take the plunge.
From what I’ve observed, many single adults who move away from their parental homes do so out of a desire not to avoid shidduchim but to do shidduchim differently. Rather than seeking the shidduch date arranged by parents or close friends, modern Orthodox men and women who move out of the parental home are looking to meet, rather than be set up. As adults, they feel that they are competent enough to make their own mature decisions about whom to marry. In many cases, they appreciate some parental guidance but in most cases they are not interested in being set up with someone they don’t know—and even less interested in being set up with someone who is a stranger even to the person setting up the potential couple. If anything, after first identifying a person whom they are interested in, they ask a close friend to set them up. Dating is not blind, and they don’t want it to be. This form of dating and courtship was very prevalent in earlier generations. Sadly, the prevalent mode of dating and courtship in the frum world today has created significant rigidity on the part of many community members who look askance at young singles trying to do things a different way, even if it’s really the old-fashioned way.
Another manifestation of the disconnect between most communal elders and single adults related to the shidduch crisis concerns singles events. While these events are ostensibly geared toward this population, singles themselves are oftentimes uninterested, uncomfortable, or even put off by them. I distinctly recall a well-meaning communal figure who planned and prepared elaborate singles programming but was disappointed when his intended audience was not interested in attending. (He did not take this lack of interest as a prod to redefine his approach but rather as further proof that this cohort of singles is simply not interested enough in marriage.) Single members of the community often feel that shabbatonim and shidduch-geared events are too focused on shidduchim. They prefer to meet in normal life in normal ways rather than in artificially orchestrated settings. They view the constant barrage of invitations to singles events as intrusions into their life, rather than as well-intended attempts to help.
Modern Orthodox singles feel tremendous tension regarding intimacy and sex. For yeshiva-educated young men and women who received strong doses of abstinence education, extended life as singles presents enormous challenges. Oftentimes those who remain shomer, refraining from all forms of physical intimacy and even touch, feel like outcasts. Too often they blame their shomer commitment as responsible for their continued singlehood.
On the flipside, I have often noticed that someone who ultimately decides that he or she is no longer able or willing to remain shomer ends up straying further than they otherwise would. Too often people “oops” themselves into sexual activity, without taking appropriate precautions to maintain their health. Too often someone will retain the outward persona of being shomer only to engage in more extreme acts of intimacy and sex than they would if they were to publicly identify as non-shomer.
An interesting turn of terminology has developed among a segment of this population. I have heard young men—and some women—describe themselves as shomer biah (refraining from sexual intercourse) rather than shomer negiah (refraining from all forms of physical intimacy, even touch, as Halacha requires), or simply not shomer negiah. Although at first glance this terminology would seem to present a severe hashkafic problem, something that runs counter to Torah values, it may actually impact favorably on the young people involved. Defining oneself as maintaining some boundaries, even if they’re clearly nonhalachic boundaries, is clearly preferable to having no boundaries at all.
Extreme guilt often comes together with their non-shomer activities. This guilt causes them to identify not just as non-shomer but as nonobservant. Hence there is a precipitous decline in their shmirat hamitzvot—observance of Halacha, including basic laws such as Shabbat and kashrut—once they engage in sexual activity. Rather than defining themselves as observant Jews who erred, or as otherwise observant Jews who are unable to maintain one defined area of Halacha, they re-identify as no longer observant. I have noticed that this decline in overall religious observance is more pronounced in the male population than the female population. Most often these ostensibly no-longer-observant men still want to marry within the modern Orthodox community. This leads to a further exasperation of the shidduch crisis as the women who tend to be more observant face a more limited pool of young men to choose from.
I have dealt with numerous shailot—questions of a halachic nature—from young adults who take nedarim or shavuot (oaths or vows) not to engage in halachically forbidden activities. Too often the result of these vows or oaths is not greater mitzvah observance but rather violation of not one but two distinct areas of Halacha: Instead of simply not being shomer, they are now also in violation of an oath, in addition to not maintaining shomer. For these reasons a prominent psychologist in the community recommended that we initiate a series of events about sex and intimacy. The response from the community was tremendous. People were yearning for serious and sustained discussion of this most important aspect of their lives, an aspect that had previously been totally ignored. I cannot be sure if anything positive came from these conversations, but I am sure that there was deep desire to have them.
I am keenly aware of the significant limitations on drawing conclusions based only on one’s experiences alone. I know that the plural of anecdote is not data. Nonetheless, I hope that communal organizations will begin to pay more careful attention to these emerging singles communities, what they demonstrate about the next generation of Orthodox Jews in America, and what possible lessons can be drawn from them. My hope is that as singles communities become more and more prevalent ways of engaging, this population will increase and this new form of communal structure will add a previously untasted but deeply pleasant flavor to the smorgasbord of Orthodox Jewish life.
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Ezra Y. Schwartz is a Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, where he also serves as the Associate Director of the Semikha Program. From 2009-2019, he was senior rabbi of Mt. Sinai Jewish Center of Washington Heights.