February 2, 2023
Twenty years ago, on February 26, 2003, EndTheMadness held its first event. It was a community-wide symposium at Yeshiva University, featuring my rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, of blessed memory, Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Sandra Gross, a straight-talking matchmaker.
I was a graduate and rabbinic student at the time, with no prior experience running events, no team, no funding, no publicity, and I was flying by the seat of my pants. By the grace of God, we filled up the second-largest auditorium on campus, and the grassroots movement grew from there.
If you're interested in the full story, you can read 5 Years of EndTheMadness – A Retrospective. The audio recording of the first event, which is a must-listen, is available on the EndTheMadness site, along with several others recordings, at http://endthemadness.org/audio/audio.html.
I don't write much about the shidduch world anymore because I've already pretty much covered all the bases in my articles and books. But for this occasion I'm writing a couple of new articles or so. I hope that after all this time more people will be open to the truth, and, more importantly, will be willing to do something about it. Otherwise, what's the point?
20 Years After EndTheMadness: The Next Generation
If you are an Orthodox Jew below the age of 40 or so, you never experienced a world where shidduchim happened any other way. You might believe that the way it works today – or doesn't – is the way it always was, and the way it must always be. You might take it for granted that the way nearly everyone in your society goes about trying to get married – daunting, difficult, frustrating, and painful as the process almost invariably is, with increasingly poor results – is normal, even sacrosanct.
If you are an Orthodox Jew above the age of 40, you know that the shidduch world as it exists today is a radical departure from the way it used to be done. You know that certain segments of the Orthodox world that look down on “modern” Jews as essentially apostates (and not entirely without justification) have introduced massive religion-oriented “reforms” into the shidduch world, yet remain oblivious to the irony.
Their own parents and grandparents would hardly recognize the way young people attempt to find a spouse today, let alone consider it an improvement. The same rabbis who supposedly endorse this “system” didn't meet their own wives this way, though inconvenient history tends to be suppressed when possible and casually dismissed when not: it's different now, whatever.
At the same time, we are regularly lied to that “the shidduch system” is “the traditional” way. That is a weighty assertion, for it comes with an implied threat against those who would dare challenge the prevailing norms. This is why letters to the editor on the subject, and even dating columns, are almost invariably anonymous.
The “frum world” has its very own cancel culture, and this devastating punishment isn't reserved for incorrigible sinners. Those who, even with the best of intentions, question accepted social norms – all of which are treated with exaggerated religious importance – are fortunate if they are let off with just a warning. Those who deviate from these norms risk having their lives and the lives of their family destroyed, like a Chinese citizen whose social credit score drops to zero.
To be accepted as a “frum” Jew requires not just acceptance of all the mitzvos and a sincere desire to live according to the Torah, but rigid obedience to pseudo-religious social expectations and total subservience to authority figures, who are presumed to be quasi-prophets possessed of something called “Da'as Torah” (yet another modern innovation from those who claim to be unfailingly traditional).
Since the norms of the shidduch world have been consecrated as “the traditional way”, publicly challenging them is tantamount to heresy. Countless people are suffering in so many ways, quietly dying inside, but their desire to be accepted as “frum” and the terror of being canceled keep them in line. The most they can muster is anonymous, passive exhortations that “something needs to be done”. As if the reader of their letter will martyr himself on their behalf.
Orthodox Jews under 40 are oblivious to most of this – though the terror of stepping out of line is real – and were raised to be mindlessly obedient cowards from birth. Orthodox Jews over 40 lament what has happened, but worry too much about their children and grandchildren to speak out. Besides, even if they did speak out, it's their children and grandchildren who need to operate differently, and none of them dare be the first. It's a social death sentence.
Of course, the other option is to stop being frum, and indeed many disaffected people have gone that route. For all the talk about kiruv and the overall success of the Orthodox world, the Orthodox world is hemorrhaging young people “going off the derech”. There is hardly a family that hasn't been affected by this, yet, as with the shidduch world, the community can only look outside to explain its failures.
It's the secular world. It's the Internet. It's smartphones. Before the Internet and smartphones, it was television and movies. And before television and movies, it was something else. It was always an external scapegoat, because an external scapegoat largely absolves the community for its failures and shortcomings.
Far be it for the Orthodox world to take a serious, honest look in the mirror and wonder why so many of its children go to “the best schools” and emerge disaffected with Judaism. Far be it for the Orthodox world to consider why thousands upon thousands of singles live in terror of shidduchim – a stage in life that should be pleasant and exciting – and increasing numbers of them are failing to get married, let alone successfully, like never before in history.
I don't care what's going on in the outside world; if a community is failing to inspire the next generation and marry off its children, the problem is primarily with the community. A community that cannot hold it together and perpetuate itself except through fear and suffocating control is a failure.
The Orthodox world has a lot to be proud of, but in many ways it is a dismal failure. And the greatest failure of all is its refusal to take responsibility for its own problems.
This is why it is rare to find Orthodox Jews over the age of 40, or even 30, who are still single. It isn't because they all got married long ago. It's because, at some point, they reach a breaking point and leave. And while I don't wish for anyone to stop living according to the Torah, no matter their personal situation, I cannot judge these people unfavorably. Not only did the community fail them, but the community blames them for the failure and no longer wants them.
This is a damning statement, but it is true. In many shuls an “older” single man will be treated like a leper. He will not get called up to the Torah or otherwise treated as a valued member of the community (except when there is a fundraiser). His presence will be tolerated – it's not as if people will tell him straight out that he isn't wanted – but he will be generally ignored, like a piece of furniture that happens to have a soul.
The general assumption is that there is something deeply wrong with the older single, and that's why he isn't married. Who wants people around that have things deeply wrong with them? And what type of shidduch would they suggest for such a person even if they were inclined to “help”?
If you see an older single who still shows up to shul regularly and tries to live according to the Torah, you should know that this person is a quiet warrior for Hashem, and the community doesn't deserve him.
Older single women are treated with more magnanimity – perhaps only slightly more – because of the popular lie that “there are so many great single women out there and not enough guys”. Ah, that's the problem. Unmarried women are simply unfortunate casualties of statistics and demographics; there simply aren't enough men to marry the women, and most of these men are bumbling idiots, besides. This canard is regurgitated with such regularity – shadchanim, rabbis, and other “experts” pay homage to it at every opportunity – that no one dares challenge it.
So single women, by and large, are embraced by the community – not as valued members, for, after all, they are still single – but as victims and chesed projects. We must daven for them, and organize groups of people to say Tehillim for them. We must host them for Shabbos meals, make off-the-cuff suggestions, and forward their profiles and pictures around to be ogled by random strangers. We must even raise large sums of money for causes that promise to help them get married, and pay no attention to their poor track record, nor wonder how funding these causes will solve the supposed shortage of males.
Good Jews don't ask questions. They do what they are told.
Single women don't have it easy in the Orthodox world either, and many of them leave after 30 as well, but the men are almost pushed out.
The same men who might otherwise marry these women. Go figure.
The Orthodox world has allowed itself to be deluded by foreign elements that any single man worth his salt has a long list of terrific women desperate to go out with him, and he can marry virtually any of them whenever he wants. Consequently, any man who is single past a certain age, and not by choice, must be an abject loser. The game was completely fixed in his favor and he still lost.
Single women believe this, too. Every woman loves to be told that she is amazing, no man is good enough for her, and that single men are a bunch of losers. While this might alleviate the tears and fears of being single after her friends get married (which, perversely, seems to be the primary impetus for today's seminary-educated women to hurry up and get married), it doesn't set her up for future success. The Orthodox world – even those segments that purport to reject secular influences of any kind – encourages women to look down on men, even while stressing the importance of marrying one and being a devoted wife to him.
It didn't used to be this way.
And what do you know, the entirely new, radically un-traditional way isn't working so well.
But when is the last time a rabbi or some “expert” dared bring that up?
Twenty years ago I started EndTheMadness specifically to bring up these uncomfortable topics – what changed in the shidduch world, why it changed, why these changes made things worse, and what needs to be done to fix it. My small group of volunteers and I ran about 100 community events, including symposiums, social events, and Shabbatons. We learned of about twenty couples who met and married at these events, countless dates that were arranged through singles meeting naturally and normally, and made a positive ripple in the Orthodox world far beyond that of the huge organizations that talked big but did little of consequence.
We modeled a better way. We proved it could be done – and it didn't require any fundraising or bombastic campaigns. We just got to work and made things happen.
The “frum” media and its detached authority figures almost entirely ignored EndTheMadness. This is startling, since the “frum” media is obsessed with the shidduch world. It's one of their go-to topics whenever they need to drum up reader interest. Yet this grassroots group of regular people who took no money from anyone, organized successful events with astonishing frequency, and was making a serious difference received exactly zero attention from the likes of Mishpacha Magazine, Hamodia, Yated Ne'eman, and other such publications that regularly bemoaned the state of affairs in the shidduch world and pretended to be desperate for “solutions”.
Then again, EndTheMadness challenged their hegemony, and our track record of success with a shoestring budget and no infrastructure made the establishment authorities look pathetic by comparison. And, of course, the clean-shaven young rabbinical student with a knitted yarmulka who ran EndTheMadness could not possibly be acknowledged as having anything to offer the “frum world”, with its quasi-prophetic sages who must never be doubted. So they simply pretended we didn't exist.
Keeping up appearances is far more important than addressing the real problems with the shidduch world and helping real people who suffer from them. Keeping up appearances explains so much of the shidduch world, and the Orthodox world in general.
So, outside of whatever op-eds I managed to get published in the not-overly-frum media and the occasional interview, ETM and all we had to offer were censored by the establishment. Rather than acknowledge our contributions and learn from our example, the community stubbornly continued down the track of self-defeating behaviors, denying responsibility for its own problems, denying even the true nature of the problems, and coming up with the same failed “solutions” over and over again as if for the first time.
The results were entirely predictable. There was no chance these “solutions” would work, and there is no chance they ever will. Yet community leaders – if detached authority figures who bear no responsibility for the disasters they preside over can be called leaders – continue to double down, recycling the same failed ideas with exaggerated hype.
Twenty years is enough of a long-term study. It is more than enough time for the community's approaches to alleviate problems in the shidduch world to have proven themselves. And prove themselves they did – they proved to be utter failures. The articles and letters to the editor in today's “frum” media bemoan exactly the same things that they did twenty years ago. There has been no improvement.
Not only has there been no improvement, but the situation has continued to deteriorate. Now there is a phenomenon of “older singles”, many of whom are unlikely to ever marry and have children, plus a huge number of “second-time singles” from failed marriages, and a new generation of singles that is marrying later, is less likely than ever to remain married, requires “coaching” and “mentorship” to achieve competency in dating, and believes this is normal. The average person who will sacrifice everything for social approval did just that.
The results are in. Your way didn't work. Sure, many people got married – many people will get married no matter what – but overall the state of affairs with shidduchim has never been worse.
Many, many people will never get married and have children because you refused to take responsibility for problems in the shidduch world, you refused to speak up with your real name, and you refused to do anything about it. You complained about how wrong the game was, yet you continued to play it, and you forced your children to play it, too. You breathed a sigh of relief if you were fortunate enough to win, and complained bitterly if you got burned, but you refused to stop playing no matter what.
As far as I'm concerned, until you are willing to take even the slightest risk and do anything even slightly differently, you have forfeited the right to complain about the shidduch world. You made your choice, and you would make it again every single time, so stop whining.
Twenty years is more than enough time to evaluate the results of millions and billions of micro-choices that all together make up the shidduch world.
It is a generation of singles.
A generation that has been badly damaged by a social experiment gone horribly wrong.
Vindication never felt so tragic.
To be continued.
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