Singles and the Shabbat Experience

Illustration: Yosef Itzkowitz

Shabbat has always been a centerpiece of Jewish life—a time of joy, rest and spiritual rejuvenation that can nourish us in so many ways. But like so much of frum life, Shabbat tends to be family-centric, causing many singles—whether divorced or never married, in their twenties or in their fifties—to feel unsupported, on the periphery of the community and burdened with having to “make Shabbat plans” week after week.

*All names and identifying information have been changed. 

Building a Shabbat Support System
One of the reasons Chava,* a twenty-five-year-old Orthodox single, was drawn to Far Rockaway, a leafy New York City neighborhood with a suburban feel, is because she wouldn’t have to worry about where to spend Shabbat. “What really ‘sold’ me on moving to the neighborhood was that through Sh’eefa (a local organization), I have met families who want to host me along with my friends,” she says. “This gives us a built-in Shabbat support system—which is the way we want Shabbat to be—with families that enjoy hosting singles and want to meet people like me.” Sh’eefa, located in the Five Towns near Far Rockaway, offers ongoing shiurim and social opportunities for women of all ages.

In most communities with significant frum single populations, there are invariably a handful of gracious families known for opening their homes to singles each week, serving the traditional comfort food of Shabbat: fresh, piping hot potato kugel and cholent, and other Shabbat delights. “In my neighborhood, there are two or three families that host singles,” says Batsheva, an attorney in her mid-thirties who lives in Brooklyn. “They will host five men and five women per meal. Sometimes I go there. Of course, they are hoping for a shidduch to materialize [from these meals] but in the meantime, they are doing a tremendous chesed for singles.”

Making Shabbat Happen
Some singles welcome the opportunity to meet people on a regular basis, and they develop tight bonds with local families. Over time, these bonds can grow into deep, rewarding friendships and can serve as a gateway for expanding their social networks and finding their bashert.

But there are other benefits too. Ronit, a thirty-something attorney living in Los Angeles who is considered a “mover-and-shaker” for helping other singles make Shabbat and yom tov meal plans, “loves” meeting new families in her community. “Watching a healthy interaction between a husband and wife, getting to know the children and how their minds work—honestly, it keeps my ‘muscles’ alive so when I have my own home, it won’t be unfamiliar to me. The benefits of being with families for Shabbat more than outweighs the awkwardness of inviting myself.”

“I have amazing friends in my community,” says Devora, a single mom of four, who eats out for Shabbat day meals. “It’s not easy to have an extra five people over. I know that and I appreciate what my friends do for me week after week.”

Some singles, however, have a hard time forging social ties. Going to shul can be a social venue, but it doesn’t always work for everyone.

“You would be surprised how many people see me in shul every week, know I live alone, and yet it doesn’t dawn on them to invite me for a Shabbat meal,” says Shifra, who is in her late forties and lives in the heart of Brooklyn. “People are busy with their own lives.”

“When people say ‘call me when you want to come over,’ that’s not a real invitation,” says Bracha, a single mom of two. “An invitation should be a real invitation.”

Some singles I spoke with confessed that they often find themselves on Thursday night without Shabbat plans. And not for lack of trying. “It’s hard to meet people—both singles and families,” says Ahuva, a social worker in her late twenties who moved from the Midwest to the East Coast. Building a Shabbat support system can be especially daunting for one who recently moved from “out of town” and lacks local family and a strong social network. “Shabbat and yom tov are especially difficult when you don’t know anyone,” she says.

Planning for yom tov can prove to be even more challenging, since families tend to go away or host large numbers of guests from out of town. “Yom tov can definitely feel more isolating,” says Shifra.

Ironically, singles in smaller Jewish communities often fare better than those in large cities, where it’s easier to get lost in the crowd. While the New York area is saturated with Orthodox singles, South Florida, for example, lacks a robust frum singles community, and therefore, singles are “forced to watch out and take care of one another,” says Ben Zion, a medical resident in his early thirties. And while it’s uncomfortable to pick up the phone and invite himself over for a Shabbat meal, it’s better than eating by himself. “Who wants to spend Shabbat alone?” he says.

When asking for an invite, getting a “no” can make an uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable. And yes, there have been times when Ben Zion has called families for Shabbat hospitality and the answer has been “no, not this Shabbat.” But he doesn’t take it personally. “I’ve learned that when a family cannot have me, it’s because they are genuinely otherwise busy. It’s not about me.”

Shabbat Guest Burnout
Even for those who enjoy a wide social network, being a Shabbat guest year after year, decade after decade, gets tiring. “How long can you be a guest at someone else’s table?” asks Shifra.

After a certain point, it’s no longer enjoyable to constantly be on someone else’s schedule—listening to other people give divrei Torah and to other people sing zemirot, says Aviva, an accountant living on the Upper West Side, who is in her fifties. Tired of being a guest, Aviva decided to make her own Shabbat meal and invited a friend over. She was genuinely surprised by how much she enjoyed the physical labor of Shabbat preparation: shopping, cooking and preparing for the meal. “There was a sense of anticipation,” she says, “that I don’t have when I’m a guest. I was waiting for the food to be ready, for Shabbat to come.”

“Shabbat guest burnout” tends to afflict singles who have done the Shabbat guest routine for too long and have grown weary of being subjected to an endless array of parashah sheets and to Shabbat table conversations to which they have little, if anything, to contribute (summer camps for tweens, the latest sale on kids’ shoes). “There are times when I have felt families could be more sensitive to my being an older single,” says Batsheva. “I would love to listen to my own children’s parashah sheets and there is nothing on the horizon indicating that that is going to happen for me. I’ve pondered how to make families more sensitive to the needs of singles. I don’t have any answers. But I still want to put the thought out there.”

Many singles prefer spending Shabbat with other singles—creating, in essence, their own community. Each Shabbat, dozens of meals are coordinated by singles for singles throughout the Upper West Side, Washington Heights and other single-heavy neighborhoods.

Every Sunday, Maury, a twenty-nine-year-old medical resident who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and his roommates sit down to plan the following Shabbat—do they make it an “in” Shabbat, where they host male and female guests, or do they go out to a singles meal? “If we stay in, we plan the menu and divide up the shopping, cooking and baking,” he says.

When he first moved to the area, Maury deliberately sought out roommates who would share his priorities: “All three of us have careers that are time-consuming. But we love Shabbat and need one another to make it happen.”

They make no secret of the fact that through the Shabbat meals, they are scouting for potential dates in the hope of finding the “right one.” Has it worked? So far not really, admits Maury. “But we are meeting new people almost all the time, and through the new people, we are meeting more new people.”

Ensuring Shabbat is an enjoyable and spiritually uplifting highlight of the week requires work, self-knowledge, planning—and a budget. Hosting meals for large groups of people is not an inexpensive endeavor. But for Maury, the cost of Shabbat entertaining is something which he factors into his life.

“It costs to entertain. But that expense goes a long way in ensuring that Shabbat is a meaningful experience.”

Shifra makes a point of inviting families who have hosted her so she can “repay them” for their ongoing hospitality. “I don’t want it to be a one-way street,” she says. “Nine out of ten times my married friends are hosting me; why can’t I host them every now and then?”

And since some families with kids don’t get invited out much, Shifra says, they really appreciate the invitation! “They enjoy coming to me. It’s something different for them.”

When Ronit, the attorney from Los Angeles, had a “big” birthday, she wanted to celebrate with single and married friends alike. She opted to host a Shabbat luncheon in a shul social hall with over 120 people.

“It was wonderful to give back to others on a Shabbat for all the Shabbatot I had received,” she says.

Home Again
Needing a break from “being on” all the time, some singles will try a different, if somewhat socially unpopular, option: staying home.

“I’m not interested in the let’s-meet-at-a-singles-meal, which abound on Shabbat,” shares Miriam, an actuary in her fifties who resides on the Upper West Side. Since Miriam and her roommate are good friends and enjoy each other’s company, they often spend Shabbat together. “We elect to make Shabbat ourselves, attend shul and then have our Shabbat seudah with the food we have prepared together.”

Shifra, who has lived for decades in the same apartment building in Brooklyn and has lots of social connections there, admits that there are times she just wants to stay home alone. She will sing Shalom Aleichem, make Kiddush and read a devar Torah to herself at the table. “People are horrified when they find out I ate the meal by myself,” she says. “But why should I have to go out all the time? I’m a family of one. Of course, I’d rather be married, but that’s the reality of my life right now.”

And then there is a small segment of singles who, tired of making plans week after week and unable to deal with figuring out where to go yet again, are resigned to having a Shabbat-less Shabbat. They purchase minimal takeout, light candles, daven (not necessarily with a minyan) and then spend Shabbat holed up in their apartments.

On his blog, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, of the Boca Raton Synagogue, recently addressed this very issue in a piece entitled “Being Single Should Not Have to Mean Eating Alone”:

As a result of an event in the parsha last week, we refrain from eating the sciatic nerve, the gid ha’nashe. Why? Before going to meet Esav, Ya’akov Avinu went back to retrieve “forgotten items” and he ended up wrestling [with] the Angel of Esav the entire night. We commemorate the injury Ya’akov sustained by abstaining from eating from the place where he was wounded. Normally, when our people triumph over an enemy, we commemorate the event by eating, not by abstaining, so why the prohibition of gid ha’nashe?

The Chizkuni explains that this mitzvah doesn’t correspond to our triumph, but rather reminds us how Ya’akov got injured in the first place. “Vayivaser Ya’akov levado, Ya’akov was all alone,” and as a result he was vulnerable and exposed and ultimately attacked. The mitzvah not to eat the gid ha’nashe reminds us of our obligation to make sure a Jew is never alone again.

The “Shabbat-less Shabbat” phenomenon reveals more than just the solitude of single life. “It points to a certain level of communal indifference to singles,” says Batsheva. “Yes, there are families in every community who will reach out to singles and include them in their Shabbat and yom tov plans. But more families in every community need to do this.”

Jewish Action invites you to send your suggestions for helping the singles population to ja@ou.org.

Leah Lightman is a freelance writer living in Lawrence, New York with her family.

Yosef Itzkowitz is an artist, author and poet. His published work can be found on Amazon, under the name Yosef Paper. He is currently studying illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and can be reached at yosefitzkowitz@gmail.com.

 

What We Can Do To Help
Shouldn’t the Jewish community play a greater role in making sure Shabbat is a joy and a blessing for everyone, marrieds and singles alike? Below are some tips we can all try to incorporate into our shuls, our communities and our lives.

Each shul can:
– Engage in some kind of introspective process, and assess: Are we doing enough for this target population?
– Sponsor programs for singles to help them network and make them feel part of the community.
– Offer monthly meals for singles. “This should happen even if singles have to pay and even if it is only once per month,” says Batsheva. Why? Because it is an important way to communicate to singles, “We are thinking of you. Here’s an option for a Shabbat meal that is comfortable, warm and inviting.”

Each individual can:
– Think: is there a single I should be inviting over for a meal?
– Keep singles in mind—in the workplace, in shul and in other social settings.
– Become a singles advocate: each single should have one individual—a close friend or relative—who “advocates” for him or her. In other words, the advocate sees it as her role to help get the single married—to that end, she networks for that single, finds new suggestions and opportunities for him or her and overall takes on a sense of achrayut to help get that individual married.

Some of the suggestions above are from Singles Uniting Network (singlesunitingnetwork@gmail.com).

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This article was featured in the Summer 2019 issue of Jewish Action.
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