The Second Best Time to Plant a Tree Is Right Now
(or: When Life Doesn’t Go According to Plan and the Jewish Community Is Slow to Catch On)


Married people are more religious than unmarried people.

Of course, on the face of it, that’s a patently absurd statement. Plenty of married people aren’t all that religious; plenty of unmarried people are.

But hear me out.

If you don’t compare the masses of couples to the hordes of singles, but consider each person—where he or she would stand as a single person as compared to where he or she would stand if married—the odds are high that the married version of the same person is the more Jewishly involved (Note: my study is anecdotal).

I have a cousin who married out (most of us do, I think). I was in favor of the marriage, however, and that was unexpected.

Sarah was beatifically happy. Her joy alone was likely sufficient to convince her intermarriage-averse mother that it was a good match. Me, I was thrilled for her on a personal level, but I’m far too concerned about the future of the Jewish people, and also our present, to approve an intermarriage gratis, no matter how great a guy he is (and he is). What did it for me was the conviction that she’d be more “Jewish” (or, if you prefer, Jewishly engaged) married to him than she’d have been on her own. Her previous engagement with Judaism as a single hipster has nothing on managing the practices and messages of a Jewish home. Now, had my cousin been the male of the relationship, my take might have been less positive, what with matrilineal descent and all, but as it is.… These days, the family belongs to a synagogue, celebrates Shabbat, and the kids attend Hebrew school, with their non-Jewish father learning Hebrew alongside.

Such is the power of creating a Jewish home.

The enveloping mist of Jewish tradition has fewer places to hover, as it were, in the homes of never-marrieds. Living Jewishly, sure; but no lifecycle events, no transmission of heritage. And then there’s the often decreased motivation to keep it all going when you’re on your own, where Jewish practices are often tinged with envy, loneliness, and regret for the life not yet lived.

The same is at least as true among the Orthodox community, where toeing the societal norms of marriage and children is a religious imperative, and the encompassing nature of Orthodox practice means that diminished Jewish engagement begins at a more intense place on the spectrum.

The People Who Used to Do More

To be clear: I am not talking about the people who stop being religiously observant altogether, though for some, the catalyst is undoubtedly the increasingly long years of singledom. One woman I know couldn’t bear to be alone for the entirety of the Sabbath day, so the television became her companion. One man found company in his Kindle, and it wasn’t a big jump for him to start using electricity regularly.

Rather, what I am talking about is how not getting married makes people stop being as religiously observant as they themselves had been, and presumably expected themselves to continue to be. It’s hard to sustain any practice by yourself over the long term. And then there are uniquely “Orthodox single” challenges: many stop keeping the laws of separation between the sexes (yihud, shomer negiah) in despair of finding the right person, out of curiosity to find out what physical intimacy is all about, because celibacy without end is incredibly challenging, or some combination thereof. Others slack in their minyan observance—or avoid regular individual prayer at home. (Certainly some of these same people daven in their hearts all the day long, yearning for basherts, future families, and release from the limbo imposed by themselves and the Jewish community while they remain “single.” But that’s not the communal normative expectation of prayer.) Still others relax their standards of kashrut: the quick glass of wine with work colleagues, an activity that might once have been horribly taboo, demands “what’s the big deal?” for some who spend their days with non-religious Jews and non-Jews, and know them to be quality people.

While those who stop going to minyan or lower their standards of kashrut or stop holding out for sex (or even stop keeping Shabbat) may have established firm limits for how much observance they’ll allow themselves to relinquish, the ground where they once stood has shifted beneath them, though their personal demographic remains the same.

A Dirty Little Secret

The fact is, attrition, if you will, is logical. Like it or not, the social network of the Jewish community revolves around nuclear families. Even recognizing that the Stepford wives stereotype is just that, the community at large approves of those who are able to keep up appearances. Those who don’t measure up to the communally accepted model of married parents of X number of children (X can vary by neighborhood) are often shunted aside, usually without intention to harm, but in that simple intuitive sense of like seeking like. And so the default status of…long-married couples with no children, single-parent families for whatever reason, divorced men and women, widows and widowers, LGBTQ couples, and all those never-married folk is external to the Jewish community of which they would otherwise expect to be a part.

The attrition is self-perpetuating, because the less that people participate, the less they participate. When minyanattendance is a norm, for example, then skipping minyan draws concerned inquiry from the regulars—a communal benefit of being present and accounted for. But if skipping minyan is the norm, then the community doesn’t miss the truant (so to speak), and has no thought of inducing him (or her) back to shul. For single women, who rarely expect to participate in communal Jewish life in a daily way, the sense of exclusion or isolation may be even greater. Without the minyan attendance (for most women) that routinizes communal participation, there are few points of connection to the community, few invitations to Shabbat meals, and few natural opportunities to get involved. Single Orthodox Jewish women easily find the question, “Why bother?”

Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the attrition is a dirty little secret. Nobody wants to pay attention to the exclusion of Jews from the Jewish community. Indeed, the less attention paid to people slipping away, the less attention need be paid (the foil to less participation yielding still less participation). The “single-never-marrieds” remove themselves from sight, with diminished minyan attendance and bare-bones Shabbat observance, slowly exiting the club that doesn’t want them as members.

Playing the Blame Game

Ideally, the Jewish community would open its collective arms to welcome those whose family demographics don’t fit the stereotypical mold—not with pity (albeit an important spur to kindness, to be sure), but with conscious appreciation that every person is able to contribute to the community at large, regardless of marital status or family size. And ideally, all of those who feel disenfranchised in any way would make a point of joining in—paying synagogue dues (many who are not married don’t), showing up to shul, signing up for committees, volunteering at the Sisterhood bake sale or the moral equivalent—taking on a contributory role in the community at large.

The ideals are hard to live up to.

Yet it’s hard to find a fitting rebuke to communities that, for the most part, are doing what comes naturally. Organizational psychology has a fair bit to say about how to change group behavior, but without a firm structure and a boss (neither rabbi nor gabbai nor even synagogue board quite fits the bill), recommendations for change may well fall on decentralized, autonomous deaf ears. And it’s hard to suggest that the responsibility here falls altogether on the community, when my anecdotal evidence indicates that relevant individuals are at least complicit.

It’s also hard to rebuke those individuals who slide in their religious observance as a factor of not having found the people with whom they’d ostensibly spend the rest of their lives. Note that when the Torah enjoins the Jewish community to be kind to widows and orphans, it provides no explanation why these parties were left on their own. A question of theodicy, when we get the chance to ask God.

Who Am I to Talk?

At the moment, I am the single mother of a delightful and occasionally cantankerous (as they are) three-year-old boy.

And in establishing a Jewish home for more than just myself, I am pushed to refresh the level of observance that I’d begun to take for granted—nay, I am pushed to go that much further.

There’s that much more at stake.

Having a child doesn’t grant quite the standing in the community that “married” does (though I’m sure there are married folks with no kids who have something to say about that). But being a “family” is a different status than “single-never-married.” At the most basic level—I now have company at community events. No, a child doesn’t replace a husband in my book either, but the fact remains that I am no longer the solitary person in my own domain. And if the community infantilizes me in my never-married status (and if I still hope for that lifelong partner who may not be in the cards), I have less time to worry about it, while I am busy making the home I didn’t have reason or daring to make alone. Not to mention that my attention is directed at protecting the active little guy, soothing his hurts, provoking his giggles, grooming his confidence, and raising him well into goodness, with all that I can muster.

When my boy was about to turn three, he and I had a little chat about how we needed to make sure to go to shulevery Shabbat once his birthday came. As he grows, that will become even more of an imperative. When we’re not in shul(which is admittedly still most of my prayer), I feel strongly that he see me daven. That he hear me make brakhot (he’s begun to make his own). That he say Shema before he falls asleep. That he don tzitzit as soon as he’s toilet-trained (and that he learn to say Asher Yatzar as part of that process). That his experience of the holidays be rich and religious and anything but perfunctory. He once asked that we learn Torah together soon, a request that is oh so welcome—and beyond daunting.

Especially given the sex-segregation in the Orthodox world, some of the above will surely be challenging, but my point is that in establishing a “Torah-observant home,” my own Torah connection inherently and necessarily expands. If I want my boy to grow up with profound Torah convictions, then I can’t slack off in the Judaism department. And then I myself am elevated from where I had stood on my own, as I work to bring Torah into my family, and we as a family (eventually) pay it forward to the community.

It’s still not enough.

The disenfranchise element remains. There are those who respond to my Shabbat invitations with, “Oh, you don’t need to go to all that trouble.” They mean well. But I’m sensitive to a (perhaps fictitious) undertone of “you’re not actually fit to host,” since I wouldn’t have extended an invitation if I hadn’t specifically and intentionally wanted “all that trouble.”

Moreover, if my satisfaction with my role in life has expanded exponentially since the arrival of my son, it should nonetheless go without saying that the recommended antidote to the attrition factor I’ve described is not, and cannot be, having children on one’s own. It’s not for everyone—not the least because reproductive technology doesn’t always work. Outside of Israel, it can be prohibitively expensive. Not everyone feels equipped to mother on her own. And let’s not forget that a good number of singles who feel shunted aside are men, who encounter obstacle after obstacle when they seek means of parenting on their own.

No, the community at large must do better.

Rebecca Traistman’s penetrating work, All the Single Ladies, suggests that it might not be as hard to accomplish as we all think. She investigated how the modern Western world shifted, such that far fewer women were marrying than ever before…and discovered that there was no real shift.

The stereotype of the nuclear family has apparently always been stronger than its expression.

That’s the case in the religious Jewish world as well, and it’s exactly the point. There have always been those who broke the stereotyped mold. The matriarchs were barren. The patriarchs—some of them—married “late.” The family dysfunction is quite literally the stuff of legends. With these origins of the Jewish people, it should be easy enough to integrate the complexities of people’s lives that are already present in the congregation at large into the communal narrative—one that we all create together.

Anne Gordon is the deputy editor of Ops & Blogs at The Times of Israel. A native of Boston, she holds a B.A. in History and Philosophy and an M.A. in Judaic Studies from Harvard University, and hopes to complete her doctorate in girls’ Talmud education. She is an alumna of the Drisha Scholars Circle, and learned at length in women’s batei midrash in Jerusalem. She has taught widely, including at Matan, Midreshet HaRova, Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central), Kohelet, Maimonides, and Drisha Institute. She is a founding member of Chochmat Nashim.

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