One of the greatest challenges facing idealists is inducing the community to admit and face up to the fact that there is a problem, any problem. This is nothing new. How many of our holy prophets succeeded in inducing the Jews of their time to address their flaws, despite generally being recognized and accepted as bearing the word of God? If those who possessed objective, unadulterated Truth were unable to get through to the masses, the rest of us who try and fail in this endeavor have no reason to be ashamed.
The challenge of awakening and improving the community is perhaps harder today than ever before. With observant Jewry (not to mention the rest of it) so infinitesimally fragmented by sinas chinam masquerading as other things, it is nearly impossible to convince any segment of the community to admit that it has a problem; after all, any admission of imperfection or insecurity makes the other guys look better. True progress is thereby stymied and impeded by external, political considerations that should be secondary, if not entirely non-existent. All of Jewry is guilty of this, and all of Jewry suffers greatly and without end as a result. I do not need to provide tragic illustrations, as every reader can provide his own.
Fortunately, there is good news to report. Despite our tendency to ignore or downplay our problems, it is no longer radical to publicly admit that all is not right in the realm of dating and marriage. One can even criticize the "system", albeit in general terms, with minimal fear of retribution. (Most likely this refreshing willingness to admit communal imperfection is only an aberration due to the widespread severity of the problem. Perhaps, against all odds, we can use this sliver of introspection as a springboard to right our floundering ship.)
Even more encouraging, this communal self-examination, trifling though it is, is slowly leading to proactive efforts to improve the situation. In recent times we have seen a proliferation of singles events even in communities that generally frown on the idea of men and women crossing paths outside the context of a marriage interview. Such events are far from common, as they once were, but they are no longer completely unheard of, either. Brave Rabbis have publicly encouraged singles to meet one another without a middleman, and brave singles are favoring the potential benefits over the risk of stigma by mean-spirited, gossip-mongering neighbors.
However, as encouraging as it is to see positive energy to help singles, not all who wish to help are up to the task, and their well-meant efforts can cause tremendous harm. For example, people often boast that a certain shadchan "made" x number of shidduchim, and thus is quite successful at it. But few bother to ask how many terrible matches the same shadchan suggested, how much pain and damage this shadchan caused along the way, how many hundreds or even thousands of people may have suffered as a result of carelessness, thoughtlessness, and even malice. We don't ask if a monkey setting up people purely at random could have produced superior results. No, a few shidduchim were made, so the shadchan must be doing something right.
Similarly, we see a proliferation of Internet dating sites for religious singles. They proclaim that x number of members met a match through the site. But they don't tell you how many tens of thousands of people have received no benefit through the site, how many terrible experiences resulted from various flaws in the system, how much unnecessary collective suffering transpired so that a minuscule percentage of people could benefit. No, it worked for them, so sign up and spin the wheel yourself.
Now, once again, we have singles events. Weekends! Getaways! Cruises! Sumptuous food! Inspiring lectures! Hundreds of singles! Shadchanim will be present! Chassidishe shechita! Endorsed by Gedolim! Only $300 early bird special! Two shidduchim last year! Bring your résumé! You might be our next lucky winner!
Most of the organizers surely mean well. They put a tremendous amount of time and effort into these events, and some of them barely break even on costs. Their mesiras nefesh should be recognized and applauded. But when all the niceties are concluded, we must also recognize that these events are helping virtually no one, and only adding to the frustration and hopelessness of everyone else. Now that we recognize the need to do things differently…now that people have the drive to make an effort…let's do things right. Let's maximize the chance for success and minimize the potential for pain.
There are two models for singles events. The first is the "throw singles into a room together and hope some of them get married" model. This generally manifests itself as a shiur or some other formal program followed by refreshments and "mingling". Everyone knows that the program is a charade, a poor cover for the fact that singles are there for one reason only: to find someone to marry. If you manage to find a spouse at the event, you've won; if you don't, you've lost. Roughly one percent of people win, everyone else loses, and no one enjoys the experience.
How singles are supposed to find someone to marry is not included with the instructions. After the formal program they meander their way to the refreshments and wonder what to do next. They walk aimlessly around for a while, make halting attempts at conversation with a few total strangers, and pretend to be enjoying themselves. It seems absurd when you think about it, but not enough people have been thinking about it.
Which brings us to the second model. Since even the most outgoing and garrulous people have difficulty making normal conversation with complete strangers in such a pressurized, date-or-bust atmosphere, a new model developed. Rather than hope the singles will interact, we force them to interact. Speed Dating, which is like a game show, is the best example. Yes, it's worked for some people, but it sure isn't a solution, and it sure isn't pleasant for anyone.
Another popular example is the mingling over refreshments model, but with "hosts" (married people) in attendance to "facilitate". After the mingling, the singles can ask the shadchan to ask someone out on their behalf. That's what it amounts to, anyway.
Of course, now that a shadchan is in the picture, even this pithy attempt at socializing is often avoided. People who should be introducing themselves to one another stand in line to meet the shadchan instead. The presence of a shadchan provides an escape option, a shaliach to spare the unpleasant potentialities of introducing yourself to someone new. The fact that this only substitutes different unpleasant potentialities seems to be lost on people. After all, the short-term gain of passing a difficult task onto a third party is hard to resist. People will even invent excuses ("it's more tzniusdik this way", "this is how frum Jews have always met", etc.) to mask their diffidence. The presence of a shadchan at an event prevents natural meetings that would otherwise occur.
So we have two models: hope the singles meet, and force them to meet. One provides more autonomy to the singles, but the atmosphere is awkward and highly pressurized, with no actual meetings guaranteed. The other guarantees a minimum number of meetings, but is really nothing more than glorified shadchanus, with all its many faults and unnecessary complications.
Yet organizers continue to emulate these two models, and singles continue to submit to them. The vast majority of singles leave each event more disillusioned, more frustrated, with more tales of woe…yet they continue to return to the same empty well, wistfully hoping that next time they will be among the handful of lucky winners. And people wonder why singles rush to get married after just a few scripted dates. The first emotion they feel when they find someone to marry is not joy, but relief - relief that they finally found someone superficially compatible and no longer must endure the torture of the search. (For many this rush to marriage comes back to haunt them, and the relief is short-lived indeed.)
This is what dating and marriage has become for religious Jews of all types and stripes.
There is a solution. Between the contrived mingling of the first model and the suffocating structure of the second is a healthy middle ground. It is possible - almost easy, in fact - to create events that facilitate comfortable, unforced interaction that will naturally lead to quality dates. I know this is true because I have organized such events and witnessed success with my own eyes.I present the following tips on how to improve singles events with the hope that others will put them into practice.
The goal of the program is not to make shidduchim! Success will be determined not by the percentage of people who get dates, which is not in your hands, but by the percentage of people who have a genuinely good time. The litmus test is the following question: "If you could do it over again, would you come?" If singles would gladly have come despite knowing in advance that they wouldn't get a date out of it, you've got yourself a winning program.
On Tu B'Av I organized a game event for young people, most of who were looking, with no mention made of singles or dating. The purpose was simply to have good fun in good company. Only one game was even played; people were too busy socializing and meeting new people. Most of them stayed until I chased them out, and of those who returned feedback surveys (with the option of remaining anonymous), 100% stated that they would do it again. You can be sure that phone numbers exchanged hands as well.
The previous Tu B'Av I organized an arts festival, which drew a wide range of singles and a few married folks as well. Nearly half of the singles arranged a date through the event, they didn't need help from a matchmaker, and no Halachos were compromised. No singles event in history saw half its participants get a date, and certainly not in such a low-pressure fashion. The cost of each event was less than ten dollars per person.
Age ranges are optional, but if you have one then stick to it! Younger singles, particularly females, shy away from events because they expect to be placed in uncomfortable situations. Make it clear that your age limit will be strictly enforced, and don't budge or make exceptions. Also make it clear that those who attempt to deceive the organizers will not be welcome at future events.
Older singles are just as deserving of our help as younger singles, but it is unfair for older singles to hijack events created specifically for a younger group. The one time I set an age limit, several young singles expressed gratitude for my sticking to it, and said they would not have come otherwise. Once you make an exception, it is impossible to draw the line anywhere, and the purpose of the age limit will be defeated.
Now that people seem more willing to think outside the box, it's time to step outside it. If people are willing to subject themselves to interrogations and investigations to get a first date…if they are willing to post a profile on the Internet for all to see…they should be willing to try a normal, low-pressure event. All I ask is that you try it once. If you're like more than 90% of those I've encountered, you'll find it refreshing.
I urge Jewish communities all over the world to give these ideas some serious thought, and invite shuls, community leaders, and concerned individuals to contact me. In the coming days I plan to organize more events, but the success can increase exponentially if even a few more people get involved. Again, all I ask is for anyone who isn't satisfied with the current shidduch "system" to give this a chance. The risk is minimal. The potential benefits will reverberate for generations to come.