As I look around at my apartment in Washington Heights, I think about how almost none of the objects in it are ones that I picked out myself. From the couches to the silverware to the bookshelves, most of the items in my apartment were either given to me secondhand or were left by someone who lived here before me. Most of the apartments that belong to other singles are similar. When my friends and I moved here, right after college, our attitude was that we were not planning to stay long, so why bother to invest in nice, new things?
Most of us plan to move out as soon as we find a spouse, to start over when our family and friends will purchase everything for us from our wedding gift registry. In fact, most of my friends who used to live here did move out shortly after they got married. But some of us stay. Life does not always work out the way we plan, and some of us remain single and stay in Washington Heights for longer than we expected. I have been living in “the Heights” for more than seven years now, and as a Modern Orthodox single, there is no place I would rather be.
A Young Adult Community
Washington Heights is known for its young adult community—both singles and young, newlywed couples. A 2016 survey of 504 respondents conducted by the Mount Sinai Jewish Center, a popular synagogue in the area, showed that just over half were single and close to half were married. More than 80 percent said they planned to move out within the next three years. Many board members of the local shuls are single, and most are in their twenties and early thirties. In other communities, younger people aren’t usually leaders of the Jewish institutions or the ones running activities, but here we have more opportunities to do so. I served on the hospitality committee in my shul for three years; helping others find Shabbat meals was particularly meaningful to me because one of the ways I most connect to Judaism in my community is through Shabbat.
No matter how busy a week has been, all of us come together as a community on Shabbat. Much of the social and religious life in the Heights revolves around Shabbat meals—finding them, organizing them, and making sure that everyone has one. For married couples and families who don’t have other plans for Shabbat, they will eat with their spouse or family by default, but for singles, our default is eating alone. As a result, in our community those who host meals very often receive requests from the friends they invite to bring other friends along with them to the meal. In other communities it might be considered rude to invite others to someone else’s home, but here it is an accepted, even welcome, part of the social scene.
Shabbat meals in the Heights are shared by, on average, ten to twelve people and are potluck. The host makes only the main dish, and all guests bring one item—wine, challah, side dishes, and dessert. Because friends invite other friends, often there are people who do not know each other. Accordingly, the hallmark of a “Heights meal” is an icebreaker, in which everyone goes around the table and says his or her name and a little bit about themselves, often also answering a question from the host, such as, “What was the highlight of your week?” or “What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you in the subway?”
Hosting guests on Shabbat, the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim, is one I greatly enjoy and that allows me to meet many new people. Over the years I have had the privilege of hosting not only many friends, but also so many people whom I had never met before, who were simply looking for a Shabbat meal on one of the weeks I was hosting.
This culture leads to a deep and strong sense of community, because when you are single, your friends are your family.
We look out for each other and rely on each other, from helping others move into new apartments, to going on vacations together, to being there for someone if, God forbid, they are sick or in the hospital.
Challenges of Being Single
As with every stage of life, there are, of course, challenges that come along with being single. I have been dating and hoping to find the right person to marry for about nine years now, and it can be difficult and frustrating. It’s tough to watch my friends get married and have children while I feel stuck in the same place.
This is not only my personal struggle, but one that affects many in the broader Modern Orthodox Jewish community. Much has been written about the so-called shiddukh crisis—how it is more difficult today for singles to find spouses than in the past, and how women are disproportionately affected because there are more available women than men (as is evident at any Shabbat meal in the Heights or at any singles event). The dating system is flawed in that there aren’t enough opportunities to meet new people, too much emphasis is placed on superficial qualities like the clothing a person wears, and, overall, the system lacks a certain humanity. For singles navigating the dating scene, we sometimes feel as if we are being reduced to a piece of paper or a list of qualities, instead of a human being.
Many articles have addressed these points in more detail, but what still needs to be addressed is the way the Modern Orthodox Jewish community views and relates to singles. Marital status is sometimes valued even more than age and experience.
For example, a 21-year-old who is still in college but is married is viewed as more of an “adult” than a 29-year-old who has a master’s degree and is seven years into a career.
Additionally, people make many assumptions about singles. When I tell people that I have a sister who is married and has two children, they often assume that she is older than I am. When I tell them that she is younger, actually three and a half years younger, they sometimes get uncomfortable, and start to feel bad for me. I won’t pretend that it was always easy, but I am not embarrassed that my younger sister is married, and no one should be embarrassed for me.
‘Singles Are Too Picky’—Not
My friends and I are often surprised by how often people make statements that imply that it is our own fault that we are single. We’ve heard that singles are too picky, we are too comfortable in our environment and do not want to give up our independence, we have “issues,” or there is something wrong with us: We need to lose weight, we have not put in enough effort to attend singles events or are not putting ourselves out there enough, or we must, must take a professional photo for dating profiles in order for anyone to agree to go on a date with us. Various well-meaning individuals are convinced that they need to push singles to go on a second and a third date with someone they did not like, advising singles to go against their own judgment and not to trust themselves. Although we understand that these people are trying to be helpful, instead of trying to blame us or push us, I would hope that they will learn to listen to us and respect us.
When I first moved to Washington Heights, I thought I would only live here for a year or two, and definitely not seven or eight. But these years have been an unexpected gift. I have learned a lot, grown a lot, and been able to experience Shabbat and be a part of a community in a way that I could not have done in many other places as a single. I have met many wonderful people, and been fortunate to have many close friendships that provide support through good and tough times. I still hope to find the right person and move out one of these days, but in the meantime I truly enjoy and take pride in my community, my friends, and my life.
Tamar Novick lives in Washington Heights and is a development associate at a nonprofit organization serving older adults in New York. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College and a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University/Stern College.
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