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Focus on Issues Single, Jewish and Worried: Orthodox Tackle Matchmaking Crisis by Uriel Heilman

David Smith believes Orthodox Jewry is facing a crisis — and a communal day of fasting and prayer, like those held occasionally about violence in Israel, is needed to address it.

The crisis: Smith, and thousands of other Orthodox Jews, still are not married.

“Why don’t they have a fast for people who are single, to say tehillim or something?” Smith said, referring to psalms. “The first mitzvah in Bereshit is ‘pru u’rvu,’ ” he said, specifying the commandment in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply.”

“No one helps,” Smith continued. “Among the singles themselves, there’s no direction of what to do. Something has to be done.”

Smith, 50, was one of 300 singles, parents and community professionals to turn out for the third annual Shidduch Emergency Conference, held recently in New York.

Organized by the National Council of Young Israel, the conference addressed what many community members say is a growing problem. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Orthodox Jews are marrying later in life than their parents did, alarming many in a community that is preoccupied with family and Jewish continuity.

Sociologists say single Jews are less likely to be active in Jewish communal life than family members, and community leaders are worried that a later marrying age will translate into fewer children.

At stake, some say, is nothing less than the perpetuation of Orthodox Jewry.

“It’s a huge problem all around the country,” said the president of the Orthodox Union, Harvey Blitz. “The family is really the center of existence in the Orthodox Jewish community. So people are obviously very pressured to get married, and the intensity of the pressure only increases when you get older.”

For singles, the inability to find a mate can trigger depression, cause stress in relationships with parents and significant others, and alienate them from the community.

“The reason why it’s a crisis is, for the people who are impacted, it becomes the single most dominant factor in their life,” Blitz said. “And there’s inadequate community structures for helping them to meet people to marry.”

The recent conference in New York, which aimed to tackle that problem, was part-networking event, part- symposium and part-workshop.

Matchmakers were on hand to interview prospective mates, psychologists were there to talk about overcoming fears of commitment and rabbis instructed attendees about what to look for in a husband or wife.

Jacob Weinberger, a middle-aged immigrant from Belgium, said he came to the conference to learn how to help find an Orthodox wife for his son, a U.S. soldier stationed in Hawaii.

“My son is 25 and he’s in Hawaii. That’s the problem,” Weinberger said.

Sessions included a seminar on medical and genetic issues to consider when selecting a mate, a symposium on how to package oneself to become an attractive marriage prospect and a workshop on navigating Jewish dating Web sites.

Susan, a divorcee in her late 20s, said she came for one simple reason.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” she said. “The desire to get married.”

Susan said she has met with matchmakers, gone to singles events and even tried speed-dating. Still single, she said she hoped the one-day symposium would help her “gain a new perspective.”

The organizers could not have chosen a more appropriate location than the Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Filled with young Orthodox Jews, the Upper West Side has become something of a singles mecca, drawing thousands of young Jews seeking mates from as far away as Europe and Israel.

Some say that’s just the problem.

“It’s become acceptable to be single at an older age,” said a woman who identified herself as Helen. “It’s too comfortable to be single on some level.”

Nearly everybody at the conference seemed to agree that Orthodox Jews, like Jews and Americans generally, are marrying later in life. But opinions differed on why Orthodox Jews were staying single longer — and what could be done about it.

“Maybe they think there’s somebody better around the corner,” said Bonnie Keller, a mother who came to the conference to help others in her community meet mates or find mates for their children. “And if they’re older, maybe they say: I’ve been around for such a long time, should I really settle for this?”

At the conference, the bachelors and bachelorettes who showed up — young and old, divorced and widowed, and plenty of people who were never married — appeared as intent on finding a mate as a newly minted MBA is on finding a job. They filled out shidduch profiles for matchmakers, scribbled furiously in their notebooks during workshops and mobbed lecturers after their presentations to ask personal questions.

While conference-goers mingled at the symposium’s luncheon, an exhibitor stationed at the entrance sold such books as “Talking Tachlis: A Single’s Strategy for Marriage,” and “In the Beginning: How to Survive Your Engagement and Build a Great Marriage.”

Compact discs were on sale too, including one titled “Spousal Responsibility 2: Halachos and Hashkafos of the Husband/Wife Relationship.”

At the luncheon, one 26-year-old Los Angeles native who moved to the Upper West Side to try to find a husband said she came to the conference to network.

“My mom would always tell me, ‘You have to go to many places. You have to get yourself out there,’ ” she said. “It’s like you apply for a job. You have to not just go to one place for an interview. You have to put yourself out there and show them what you have to offer.”

At one workshop, the founder and CEO of SawYouatSinai.com, a Jewish matchmaking Web site, used a PowerPoint presentation and complex graphs to demonstrate how best to search for a spouse and market oneself as a potential mate.

Becky Braun, a widow with four daughters, said one of her girls met her husband on Frumster.com, an Orthodox Jewish dating Web site.

Now Braun is trying to get on the market herself, but said she’s having a difficult time because most of the men she has met have not measured up.

“The divorced people never stop hating their wives, and the widowed people never stopped loving their wives,” she said. “I’ve found very few exceptions to that.”

The one-day conference also provided many attendees with a unique opportunity to voice their frustrations about searching for a soul mate, strategize on how to get married and commiserate with others in similar situations.

“You should tell marrieds to have a little more rachmanut for us,” one woman from the audience, using the Hebrew word for mercy, told a “dating adviser” at a heavily attended session called “Still Searching.”

Another audience member, irritated at being told how to make himself more appealing to women, said, “We can only package ourselves so much. How much more do I have to change in order to find someone?”

In the open-microphone session at the close of the conference, the speaker ended an answer to one questioner by blessing him with a wish for marriage, saying, “May we hear about your simcha soon.”

“Amen!” a few audience members shouted.

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