Does the Shidduch System Need an Upgrade?

Yesterday, I had one-on-one meetings with four students on campus. One spoke about coaching basketball. The other three were crying.

Now, crying in and of itself is not unusual in my line of work—I serve as an OU-JLIC Torah educator at Queens College. What alarmed me was that they were all crying about the same thing.

What was that thing? The shidduch system. It’s not just that the system isn’t working for them; it’s demoralizing for them.

Let’s take Rena, for example. Rena’s bright. She’s charismatic. She’s funny. At Queens College, the OU-JLIC and the Hillel compete every year over whose committees she will head. She’s in the honors track in college. She’s deeply spiritual, always growing religiously. She volunteers with special needs children, runs youth groups at her shul, and helps an elderly woman who lives on her block cook for Shabbat. Despite all this, Rena’s having a very hard time finding the right guy. Rena’s family is atypical, so her parents aren’t helping her navigate the shidduch system. She meets with shadchanim on a fairly regular basis and e-mails them consistently afterwards to make sure they remember who she is.

Rena’s story is far from sui generis. I have troves of students in the same boat as she is in, with ever-so-slight variations. And their main mode of hishtadlut to get a shidduch: write up a resume, make sure they have the best references, meet with shadchanim, and pray.

But in my meeting with Rena yesterday, I could tell she had reached a breaking point in pain, frustration and despair. What could I do? I saw that she was caught up in the maelstrom of shidduch dating and as her mentor, so was I.

But that’s when it struck me. For the majority of my students in the same predicament (and trust me, the majority of my students are in the same predicament), their primary means of hishtadlut is to meet and connect with many shadchanim, in the hope that one of them has already met with, and can soon introduce her to, her future life partner.

I found myself wondering, while listening to Rena tearfully explain her situation: in what reality should we expect this model to work? I spend the majority of my professional life in up-to-an-hour-long meetings with students, getting to know them. I would wager that it takes at least two meetings, if not three or four or more, for me to really get to know a student. Isn’t it unrealistic to expect a shadchan to understand a person in a single half-hour-long awkward meeting? And from this meeting the shadchan is supposed to understand a young woman well enough to select, from memory, one of the 200 men she’s met with over the past decade who matches the girl’s description of what she’s looking for, and who, in turn, is looking for her? How can this possibly work?

It was at that point that it occurred to me that, in all probability, it doesn’t.

I said as much to Rena.

“If I had to guess, I would say the majority of people who get married were not even set up by a shadchan,” I said, though it sounded somewhat blasphemous.

With my background in research and a taste for demographics, I went home and, while on the phone with Rena later that night, devised a way to find out.

We were to ask one question, which was exactly this: Were you and your spouse set up by a professional shadchan (you met with Mrs. Jacobs for a half hour, your husband met with Mrs. Jacobs for a half hour, and she set you up with each other)—or were you set up by a layperson (your sister-in-law, or your rabbi and his wife, thought of you two for one another)? We had three checkboxes: Professional Shadchan, Layperson and Other (which one had to enumerate upon).

What would you wager? What percentage of our young people are married due to the efforts of a professional shadchan?

When I asked that question to friends and students, the majority
of estimates were between 60 and
90 percent.

Rena and I fanatically sent the survey to everyone we could think of, throughout the gamut of Orthodoxy, and asked them to please pass it along to anyone who they thought would take ten seconds to answer the question. We qualified that it should only be answered by those married within the past ten years. Within an hour, we had forty responses. Within four days, we had 265 responses. That’s information about 265 couples; in other words, 530 newly married Jews, across the spectrum of Orthodoxy.

(This method of collecting data is referred to as “snowball sampling” and is a fairly reliable way to collect data. We didn’t test for statistical significance, of course, but throughout the five days the numbers only fluctuated by a total of eight percentage points.)

The total response: 12.8 percent of young people surveyed are married to someone whom a shadchan set them up with.

This number blew my mind. I had expected a bit under 50 percent, maybe in the 30 to 40 percent range. Here was a fairly reliable statistic, although a simple one, that suggests that a full 87 percent of people—of my students, let’s say—can expect to be set up with their spouse by someone other than a shadchan.

Isn’t it unrealistic to expect a shadchan to understand a person in a single 30-minute-long, awkward meeting?

So then, my dear Rena, Yael, Chava, Sarah and everyone else with whom I meet on campus, and their mothers, sisters, friends and mentors: why is most of our hishtadlut in shidduchim focused on meeting with shadchanim?

Let me be clear: this article is not about effective dating, and it’s certainly not a vendetta against shadchanim. And, of course, all of this applies only to the population who would consider using shadchanim to meet their spouse. Many meet naturally or use online dating sites to acclaimed success. What this article is about is the fact that we have almost no data, no information at all regarding the efficacy of so many taken-for-granted practices within the Orthodox community, the shidduch system being one example of such a practice. Until we ask questions about how well the systems work, we will have no idea how well they work, or if they work at all. In any area of life, we go about understanding a process or system through research, data collection and analysis. That helps us honestly evaluate whether or not the system is working effectively. Like any problem in life, if we want to get out of it, we have to first get into it. We cannot hope or endeavor to improve a situation without first deeply understanding it.

We must challenge our assumptions about how well our systems work. When it comes to the shidduch system, we must ask: how do most people meet their spouses? What is the average success rate of individual shadchanim or various shidduch organizations? Which individual shadchanim are surpassing the average? What behaviors are they doing differently than everyone else, that may be contributing to their success? Who is below average, and what are they doing? How might we use this information to systematically train shadchanim to be more effective?

Let me imagine for you how data might help us discover alternatives to the existing shidduch system. Let’s say I collected better, more reliable data. I asked more questions, or perhaps I asked only one question: “Who set you up with your spouse?” I could then code and analyze the data. I may discover, for example, that the most likely person to set you up is a close mentor figure, such as a rabbi, a teacher or someone with whom you are a ben or bat bayit (responses to the “Other” category from our previous question intimated as much). Knowing that simple fact would vastly change the landscape of my students’ hishtadlut. It would mean that primarily I should counsel them to develop deep relationships with people they know and respect, and who may have access to potential dates. It would mean that getting to know someone deeply is more likely to get you married than meeting with fifty shadchanim in a superficial way. (And once we’re thinking this way, wouldn’t it follow that learning to develop a deep, real relationship is better hishtadlut for marriage, anyway?)

I cannot proffer a simple solution here, because most likely, there isn’t one. But in the recent conversations that I’ve had with friends, students and mentors about this issue, I can attest to the wealth of ideas out there that build off our traditional shidduch system, that can be tried and tested. One such idea that I’ve heard: normalizing co-ed Shabbat meals. While this is already practiced on some level, there is certainly a better way to systemize this practice within communities, or ways that these types of meals can most effectively introduce singles to one another (for example, suggested by a friend of mine: having two couples co-host a meal with their collective single friends). Alternatively, a few of my students suggested collaborating in small groups in which each member brings information about two or three single women and two or three single men, and the group tries to pair up singles who seem appropriate for each other.

Irrespective of your reaction to these specific ideas, the point is that in some fantastically simple ways, we can start implementing positive changes to our existing system. We, as the concerned public, as bystanders who are worried about our students, our friends and our sisters, need to do two critical things. The first is to face the cold data, to gather information. The second is to gather ideas.

As the semesters rolls on, the pitch in my students’ anxiety rises. Rena, and all my students like her, are doing much to get married. And the rest of us, truth be told, are doing much of nothing. But we must do something on a larger scale: we must be brave enough to face reality and start the conversation about improving our systems. We need to be the ones to get the snowball rolling. Rena isn’t going to without our backing. Because in a poignant display of irony, she fears she can’t publicly help to alleviate the failures of our system—she thinks it will ruin her chances of finding a shidduch.

Channah Cohen is an OU-JLIC Educator at Queens College. She has a master’s from Teachers College, Columbia University in adult learning & leadership. She is very interested in innovative solutions to systemic problems in the Orthodox community.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2018.