When I read Channah Cohen’s online essay on singlehood,* I was struck by a quote attributed to a woman named Lauren:
The loneliest thing is a fear that—in the Jewish world—I will have no legacy. But that’s not all. I wish that there were more spaces, more respect for the fulfillment that single people have in their lives. . . . Otherwise we just fulfill ourselves elsewhere. And mark my words: it will be a huge loss to the Jewish community because we will just leave. . . . I am just going to leave. And it will have nothing to do with my observance of mitzvot or my relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. It’s just going to be because I don’t have a home.
I am Lauren.
Staring at me from the screen (despite the changed details protecting my anonymity) were my words from the painful, yet cathartic, OU study on single men and women (see page 61 for more information on the study).
When I revealed myself as Lauren to some friends, they immediately laughed and told me, “We are all Laurens.”
I am extremely moved that my words have resonated so deeply with so many other singles. It’s somewhat of a relief that I’m not alone, even if the situation makes me profoundly sad.
An update on my circumstances: I am still single. I am still fully observant. I am still looking to date/marry someone who is also actively choosing to be frum. I still sometimes feel like I’m holding on by a thread. And I know too many people who have cut ties with the Jewish community because of this tension.
I still don’t have a place, or a home, in the Jewish community.
The pandemic disrupted my life and, like so many others, exacerbated the feeling of loneliness.
At the time of the survey, I was living in a community with a large young professional population. Many of my friends (both single and married) had moved out for one reason or another, and I was toying with the idea of moving elsewhere. A few weeks after my conversation with researchers from the OU study, I was schmoozing with a community lay leader at a shul event. He had heard about my apartment hunt, and we were chatting about it. He turned to me and offhandedly remarked, “The more I think about it, there’s no place for singles in their upper thirties here.”
I was so heartbroken by his throwaway line that I was trembling. I had called this community home for the past decade. I had invested in it, not just as a participant but as an active volunteer, donating time, energy and money. The thought that this community, this shul, this place, was no longer mine or ours but only theirs, was devastating and kept me up most of the night.
I continued the conversation with the lay leader the following day. “I cannot imagine that you would say such a thing about or to any other demographic in this shul,” I told him.
At the time, the shul leadership was bending over backward to be more inclusive, but seemingly, it was for everyone else. I pointed out how the shul provided babysitting so young parents could enjoy events. It offered daytime activities for retirees. It created new minyanim and programming to attract a younger crowd of recent graduates. “If there is no place for me or other singles in their upper thirties here,” I emphasized, “it’s because this community has done nothing to foster an environment where we belong.”
I don’t think this is a singles crisis. I believe this is a community issue.
It’s hard to describe the pain of feeling like you’re the odd one out, or how deeply the systemic rejection cuts. It is difficult to convey the feeling of loneliness. I know those struggling to find their life partners (either for the first or second time) experience this acutely. I’m sure there are many others who have felt disenfranchised and can empathize with these emotions. I don’t think this is a singles crisis. I believe this is a community issue.
Have you ever walked into a crowded room by yourself, feeling awkward or slightly uncomfortable yet compelled to go in? You finally eye a single open seat, and turn to your potential neighbor and ask: “Is this spot available?” There is a world of difference between someone smiling and answering “Sure, please take a seat!” versus the person brushing you aside, or rolling their eyes, even if they move over to make room for you.
The discomfort of being unmarried in a family-centric society is magnified when you are ignored, shunted to the side or, more unfortunately, dismissed or pitied. With such a chilly reception, do you really want to squeeze into that seat? Would your desire to join the klal, celebrate with others or participate in the event override those insecurities?
I, like many of my unmarried peers, have focused on developing myself as a person. I have taken advantage of opportunities I would not necessarily have had if I were attached. I’ve traveled. I’ve pursued hobbies and interests. I set aside time to learn Torah. I volunteer, help others whenever I can, and have been involved in chesed projects. And I’ve advanced in my career.
Yet it seems like all of my personal and professional development is compartmentalized when I go to shul or to a Jewish communal event. It is overshadowed by the fact that I’m not married, and therefore do not fully belong.
I yearn to find space, respect and fulfillment for myself and other singles within the Jewish community. I wish the Jewish community would do better. I wish more shuls would be more proactive in providing integrated programming, where people from multiple demographics are welcomed and feel welcomed. I wish there were more opportunities for social, educational and religious growth for singles. I wish to be treated as an equal with my married peers, and not viewed as if I were broken because I am single. I would love to invest in the klal; I only wish my contributions would be appreciated. I wish the Jewish community felt like my communal home.
Where do we begin?
I believe each individual can make a difference. It’s the little things that foster a warm and welcoming environment, create community and provide reasons for people to stay. Everyone is busy. Life is hectic. But small gestures and considerations go a very long way.
l Try to be more aware. If you notice someone hesitating when she walks into shul, smile at her or pull out a chair. If someone is standing by herself, introduce yourself, start a conversation, widen the group circle and include her.
l Reach out to single acquaintances. If you thought of him, let him know. Ask how he is doing and acknowledge his response. If you read something you think he might enjoy, send him the article, or text that meme.
l Help single people network. If you know someone looking for a job, offer to connect him to someone in that career or field. Share a job posting. Ask if your suggestion is on the right track. Listen to why it may or may not be for him. Try again. The same holds true for those seeking spouses.
l If you enjoy their company, invite them. Open invitations are lovely, but a request for them to join a specific Shabbat meal is so much more appreciated. The gesture of asking someone “Do you need a meal?” is nice, but may carry undertones of pity. “We would love the pleasure of your company; are you available?” is so much more meaningful.
Mark my words: it will be a huge loss to the Jewish community because we will just leave. . . I am just going to leave. And it will have nothing to do with my observance of mitzvot or my relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. It’s just going to be because I don’t have a home.
I still don’t have a home within the Jewish community, but with your help, we can build one together.
*Channah Cohen was one of the researchers of the OU Center for Communal Research study “The Challenges of Singlehood among American Orthodox Jews,” which was launched in 2020 and released, in part, in June 2023. Her essay about the experience of single men and women in the Orthodox community appeared on 18Forty.org, a highly popular podcast and website that explores Jewish thought and ideas.