When The Cues Don’t Come Naturally—How Special Needs Orthodox Daters Learn the Game

Rivka Blumfeld and Joel Friedman have been dating for two months. And not to be rash or speak too soon, but things seem to be going well.

On Sundays, Rivka and Joel, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy, meet for coffee in a Brooklyn café, and then head to a park to talk. They can spend hours quibbling about Pokemon Go hacks, menga graphic novels, and whether or not the upcoming Aquaman movie will suck (consensus: probably, but it might be cool to see his telepathic powers on screen). They seem at ease in each other’s company, though this is the first time either of them has been in a relationship. The prospect of dating had previously seemed too intimidating, if not impossible.

Rivka and Joel, both in their 20s, have bipolar disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. They met at a Brooklyn-based program called Ohel Bais Ezra, which provides an expansive range of social services to Jews—including many from the Orthodox community—with psychiatric and developmental disabilities. After getting to know one another during social events and support meetings, Rivka and Joel were nudged together by Sarah Kahan, a social worker and Ohel’s resident love guru.

As facilitator of the Simcha Program, Ohel’s dating initiative, Kahan acts as a relationship coach and matchmaker for a population that would normally be consigned to the bottom tier of eligible singles. Mental illness and other disabilities are regarded with heightened stigma in some Orthodox communities—in part due to lack of understanding, in part due to widespread concern over the transmission of adverse genetic conditions.

Orthodox Jews place tremendous emphasis on marriage and child-bearing; a 2013 Pew study found that fertility rates among Orthodox Jews are twice as high as the overall Jewish average. Because several devastating diseases tend to run within Jewish populations, the community has become vigilant about preventing matches that might yield sick children. Among certain sects, it is the norm for potential couples to undergo genetic screening before their first date.

This preoccupation with transmittable medical conditions makes it hard for people like Rivka and Joel to break into the dating scene. In many Orthodox communities, couples do not meet at parties, or bars, or through mutual friends. They are instead set up by a shadchan, a professional matchmaker, who will weigh information about each person and suggest an appropriate match. Disclosure of any sort of disability can mean getting relegated to a class of undesirables—a reality that Rivka knows all to well.

“If I were to go to a shadchan, and I tell them, ‘Oh, I’m bipolar’, that automatically puts me down [on the] list,” she said. “Because bipolar means that the family must have stuff. And if the family has stuff, that means that your kids are going to have stuff. That’s basically just downhill from there.”

On the day after Yom Kippur, Rivka and Joel sat in a classroom at an Ohel facility in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to a large Orthodox population. Joel wore a Superman sweater over a Batman T-shirt. Rivka had a pair of thick, black headphones clamped around her neck, and a bundle of yarn in her hands. She was crocheting a yarmulke for Joel, because he bought her an Eevee Pokemon doll when he went to New York Comic Con in early October. Joel didn’t tell Rivka of his plans to attend the convention; he wanted to surprise her with a present. She appreciated the gesture, but was a little miffed.

“She said she would have suggested [a different gift],” Joel explained.

“It’s still sweet,” Rivka interjected.

“I guess I learned the hard way,” Joel said with a bemused shrug. “There are some things you just cannot keep a secret.”

Relationships are hard. Incorporating a new person into one’s life can be a strange process for everyone, regardless of ability. But the challenges of dating are amplified for individuals with disabilities that make socialization difficult. At Ohel, Kahan conducts sessions to guide romantic hopefuls through the vicissitudes of the process.

“We talk about how to make small talk, how to deepen a relationship, where to go out, how to make that phone call to initiate the date, how to treat the person on the date,” explained Kahan, a soft-spoken woman with wide eyes and long, honey-colored hair. She also organizes speed dating events, singles’ dinner parties, and practice dating sessions, during which participants visit a restaurant and run through the motions of a typical night out.

If Kahan senses that two people within the program might be compatible, she will make introductions and provide pre-date coaching. She weighs all of the factors that a regular shadchan would take into account when suggesting a match: age, physical attributes, personality traits, career and family goals. But Kahan must also consider how people with diverse diagnoses might compliment one another.

“Someone with Downs Syndrome I would match with someone with a developmental disability: not necessarily another person with Downs Syndrome, but someone with a developmental disability or retardation,” she said, as an example.

Often, Kahan acts as the architect of romances from their inception: she listens to singles describe their hopes and desires, brings people together, and guides them through the dating process. Sometimes, potential couples only need a bit of gentle prodding.

Rivka and Joel’s romance began with an Ohel speed dating session that Kahan organized. After a dizzying rotation of four-minute dates, Rivka and Joel were paired up. They mused about the romantic whirl-a-gig that is speed dating, and laughed about one of the racier questions on a list of talking points that had been provided to the group (“What turns you on?”).

After the event, a few of Joel’s friends told Kahan that a potential romance was brewing. During dinner that night, Kahan pulled Joel and Rivka aside, and recommended that they go on a date.

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence. Rivka filled it.

“This got awkward,” she said.

If the situation was a little forced, it was also helpful. Rivka and Joel make for an intuitive pair. They like the same nerdy hobbies. They understand each other’s idiosyncrasies and struggles, because they are dealing with the same diagnoses. Without Kahan’s intervention, however, their relationship may have never progressed beyond a casual friendship. Joel had never tried to date; his parents told him he wasn’t ready. Rivka was simply “not really the type to initiate any sort of romantic thing.”

Kahan didn’t set out to become a one-woman Tinder for marginalized Jewish singles. She trained as a social worker, with a specialty in relationship and sex therapy, and established a private practice for marriage counseling. She started working for Ohel as a case manager 15 years ago. In 2006, Kahan heard that the organization was looking to hire a social worker to help facilitate its dating and matchmaking program. She jumped at the opportunity.

“I was really passionate about wanting to help individuals with these goals that they have,” she recalled. “This was a frontier, in a way … I wanted to be part of that new frontier.”

Ohel’s dating service was launched 20 years ago, after two of its members struck up a romance and expressed a need for support. The organization had never before offered dating assistance, but staff stepped in to provide premarital counseling to the couple. Recognizing the need for this type of service, Ohel created a dating program that today includes coaching, counseling, and matchmaking.

Ohel also seeks to show the wider Jewish community that people dealing with psychiatric and developmental challenges deserve the chance to build loving relationships. “The whole success of this effort … is trying to break down the stigma in the community,” said Derek Saker, Ohel’s director of marketing and communications. “There’s obviously a tremendous area where we can, and should, and do further the breaking down of stigma so that people with disabilities are given more opportunities.”

Yet the program stops short of trying to integrate members of Ohel into the broader dating pool. Though Kahan and her colleagues are optimistic about the romantic potential of Ohel’s patrons, the truth remains that individuals dealing with persistent medical challenges are likely to be swiftly dismissed by a traditional shadchan.

“We are all for matching someone, let’s say, with a psychiatric disability [to] someone with no disability,” Kahan said. “But they’re going to be set up for disappointment.”

That reality may seem harsh and unfair. But there are benefits to pairing up two people who share similar medical conditions. Akiva Kuper, who asked for his real name be withheld due to privacy concerns, has bipolar disorder. In 2010, after 20 years of marriage, he got divorced. All of his children had moved out of the home, and he was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and anxiety. He reached out to Ohel for help. Now, after six years of working to get his condition under control, he’s ready to date.

In Akiva’s modern Orthodox community, the use of shadchanim is less prevalent than in ultra-Orthodox circles. He himself is not interested in relying on a matchmaking service. He also does not want to confine himself to romantic partners with psychiatric disorders. But delving into the wider dating world has forced Akiva to consider some uncomfortable situations. At what point in a relationship should he bring up his mental illness? How should he broach the subject in a way that isn’t disarming? Dating a woman who has dealt with a similar mental health issue, he says, could alleviate those concerns.

“In some ways, I think it would be comforting, in terms of being able to be less defensive and worried,” he explained. “The key to me is not what your diagnosis is, it’s where you are today in your recovery from that. So I would be more interested in where they were at today than in what they were diagnosed with in the past.”

Of course, relationships between two people with psychiatric or developmental disabilities can also yield challenges. If Rivka and Joel go forward with their relationship, finances will likely be concern. Rivka used to attend college, but had to drop out because of issues related to her mental health. Now, she occasionally freelances as a cartoonist. Joel works in a Best Buy warehouse. His parents are very nervous about their son’s first romance. They ask Joel how he plans to support a wife, if and when he gets married. They tell him that he and Rivka talk too much about superheroes and fantasy worlds, that they need to place more focus on intimate conversations about their long-term compatibility.

Kahan is on hand to help the couple work through some of these issues. “I will speak to their support system and try to link them to a therapist that will try and work on pre-dating coaching,” she said. “How does [Joel] feel about his parents pressuring him to take it to the next level? What does that mean, ‘next level’? Maybe they just want to be friends.”

If so, she concluded, “That’s OK.”

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