Three years ago, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University took a good look at the dating process for observant Jewish singles and was troubled by what he saw.
Realizing the importance, and urgency, of trying to reverse the situation, Chananya Weissman, then ‘4, launched a spirited campaign to reintroduce a sense of perspective to the whole issue of finding a spouse. From his efforts, EndTheMadness was born.
"There are thousands of Jewish singles," says Weissman, "but the problem of not finding a spouse is just a symptom of the overall problem, which is that values have been skewed."
"Singles should be looking at character, personality, and values," he says. "Now they’re focusing more on externals. We have to begin at the ground level to change the system."
ETM began with a Website (www.EndThe Madness.org) created by Weissman and, he says, "advertised by fliers plastered around the YU campus." The first event attracted some 300 people and volunteers who work with Weissman to this day. While the group has definitely succeeded in spreading its message, it remains "without a budget, office, or staff," says Weissman.
According to the Website, which includes a statement of goals, a covenant, and a challenge, ETM seeks to "alleviate the needless stresses and hardships of dating in the observant Jewish community" by "tearing down stereotypes and encouraging observant Jews with different backgrounds and personal customs to consider one another as viable marriage candidates."
"Labeling" (e.g., "modern Orthodox," "Yeshivish," "Heimish," etc.) comes under particular fire, and the group asks that members "refrain from using labels, any labels, in thought, speech, or writing, for an entire week no matter what."
To further its goals, EndtheMadness has sponsored some 30 events since its inception, according to Michael Feldstein, ETM’s volunteer marketing and PR person and former Teaneck resident. Feldstein has been with Weissman "almost since the beginning." He says he knew this was a group he wanted to support because "it spoke to something I felt was important."
Feldstein says the group’s goals are twofold: to create more opportunities for observant singles to meet in a comfortable, natural environment, and to change some of the attitudes that currently exist toward dating and the dating culture.
"We want to help change attitudes toward dating and marriage," he says. "Some singles think the only way for observant singles to meet is through a shadchan. Sometimes they’re asked crazy questions. There are lists of criteria and labels it’s like choosing a mate by using a checklist."
Feldstein says the group’s first event attracted over 300 people, and the average draw for an ETM gathering is 50 to 100 participants.
"We don’t call our activities ‘singles events,’" he says. "They’re open to non-singles as well. There’s so much pressure to find a suitable mate. If you put less pressure [on singles], they’ll have more fun and good things will happen."
Beila Freed, ‘6-year-old Passaic resident and organizer of an upcoming ETM Passaic Shabbaton, which begins this evening, says those are the precise principles guiding this event.
Freed has been to four of these weekends and says, "Even if you don’t meet someone, you have a great time."
According to Freed, the Shabbat events integrate non-singles and greatly reduce costs by having single participants stay with host families. While davening and other social events this weekend will be centered at Tifereth Israel in Passaic, the 48 participants (‘4 women, ‘4 men) will be housed with synagogue members.
"A hotel can be very expensive," says Freed, "sometimes as much as $300. This is only $’5."
"The Passaic community has been very welcoming," she adds. "The rabbi’s wife gave us names of people to call about hosting and they were wonderful. Everyone wanted to help."
Freed spoke in advance to each of the singles who wanted to attend, discussing with them what they were looking for and what they hoped to get out of the weekend.
"I try to get people away from using labels, one-word phrases," she says, adding, "It’s important to give people an opportunity to meet other singles in a laid-back way."
The attendees, who range in age from ” to 33, will eat Shabbat meals in groups of six (three men and three women) at the homes of community hosts. Joint events will include an oneg Shabbat at the synagogue as well as a social hour on Shabbat afternoon.
Freed points out that "even people who are not attending the Shabbaton can join us after Shabbat at Bryant Park in New York for ice-skating. It’s pay as you go."
According to Freed, host families are encouraged to "stay away from dating topics. They [the singles] don’t want to hear thousands of dating stories and have the whole dating thing thrown in their laps. They just want a relaxing Shabbos."
Weissman, who has written a wide range of articles posted on the group’s Website, urges that singles avoid judging one another on "non-halachic externalities, like head-coverings, Shabbat tablecloths," and other factors. He points out that in today’s shadchan culture, "pre-date questions often reflect inappropriate biases and assumptions."
As for dating, Weissman points out that "a short date can involve much less time and stress than thorough preliminary research, and even a few minutes with a live human being can lend much greater insight into the potential for a relationship than a litany of questions."
Freed has been involved in ETM for several years and has helped organize other events for the group. She has definite opinions on the current "shidduch crisis."
"It’s infuriating, insulting, to judge a person on things that are not very important," she says. While she and her friends have not been subject to what she calls "irrelevant" questions, she knows someone who cannot get a date because she lost her father.
"It’s sad what people have come to," she says, noting that she heard a young man saying that in choosing a match, you should look at a girl’s mother to find out how the prospective bride will age.
"This is a problem in our general culture," she suggests. "It’s been taken to an extreme."
Weissman has a message for observant singles: "First, come to events. Don’t wait to be ‘set up.’ Don’t be afraid to do something ‘out of the box’ or worry too much about what others might think. And most of all, things will only change if you become part of that change. It starts with you."