Singles and the shul: Perfect together?

Singles and the shul: Perfect together?

Integrating singles into the synagogue community — making them feel comfortable in institutions that are heavily programmed to serve the needs of families — is both vital and challenging, according to area rabbis.

At Shabbat services last Friday night, Rabbi Mark Kiel of Emerson’s Cong. B’nai Israel spoke to his congregation about the relationship between singles and the synagogue.

"We don’t have a critical mass of singles in our synagogue," Kiel told The Jewish Standard, noting that the evening, organized by three singles in his congregation, drew some ‘5 singles from other communities.

Kiel said that after his talk, singles sat together at the oneg Shabbat, getting to know one another. "We need more of this kind of meeting," he said. "We have to find a time and place for singles to get together."

"Some are looking to get married, some are not," he said. "The synagogue has to adjust to reality, not make people adjust" to fit the synagogue. "We’re looking for good Jews and good ‘temple-goers,’" he added.

Kiel said that singles should join synagogues for the same reason married people do. "It deepens the meaning of one’s life," he said, and "makes you part of a community of people sharing a sense of where we come from."

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah said that his synagogue, too, has only "an isolated number of singles."

"We integrate them as best as we can," he said, "but some [singles] say they feel it is difficult" to be a single in a family-oriented congregation.

"The issue of singles continues to present a critical situation," he added, noting that he has helped instigate discussion of the issue in the Orthodox movement. "Singles are waiting longer to marry," he said, and large singles communities such as those on the upper west side of Manhattan are becoming "self-perpetuating communities."

"The challenge is how to make singles comfortable [in the congregation]" while letting them know that "we are not comfortable with that choice," he said, adding that there is a tension between welcoming singles as valued individuals and making it clear that Jewish tradition stresses the importance of marriage.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, said that in his community, unlike a suburban neighborhood, "being single is not [so] unusual."

He pointed out that while the number of singles in his synagogue has generally been stable, families with very young children now constitute the largest demographic group in the congregation.

That rabbi noted that his shul offers very few "singles-only programs, as we have found that many singles — especially singles in their ‘0s and early 30s — are less interested in [them]."

"Singles — of all ages — don’t want to be stigmatized or pathologized," he said. "They do not necessarily see their single status as a defect to be overcome. We are blessed with a non-judgmental community where people can be themselves and are respected for who they are."

In addition, he pointed out, "it is very hard to create a community feeling that is specifically for singles." For example, he said, "if someone starts dating someone else, do they have to stop coming to events?" For this reason, he said, the synagogue has a variety of young adult events geared to singles, dating couples, married couples, and others.

According to Scheinberg, "Singles tend to be well-integrated into most arms of the synagogue," although, he said, "it is perhaps not surprising that there are fewer singles involved with our pre-school, learning center [and] children’s activities."

Cong. Gesher Shalom, The Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, also has a sizeable number of singles. Bruce Prince, the synagogue’s director of synagogue growth and development, noted that the shul has had four singles Shabbat services, "and we are growing each month," with some 70 singles attending the most recent service.

The average age of participants has been in the mid-50s, he said, "and we are already seeing a new community developing. We have seen the same faces each time, and new ones checking us out."

Prince said the services have drawn "an unusually high percentage of men, perhaps 30 percent to 35 percent. "Esther Mazor, our JCC-co-sponsor, believes that the service creates a non-threatening environment that men are more inclined to attend," Prince said, adding that attendees hail "from north Bergen County to Wayne" and come from as far away as Queens and Rockland. "Interestingly," he said, "only a few dozen singles are from Fort Lee and Edgewater."

Because the synagogue’s funding is limited, he said, "at the last session, we had people volunteering to send donations, bring food, and help out in various ways, as they now feel a connection to the service."

The synagogue has tried to be innovative in creating singles programming. "We have tried speed dating, but without success," he said, "[and] we are holding a bike ride in July for all ages, although we assume the average age will be about 45 to 50."

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