Single and Still Worthy

According to Jane Eisner’s recent editorial, “For 2013, A Marriage Agenda,” I am a failure. So are the hordes of other young, unattached Jews who have committed significant time, effort and resources to enriching the communal life of the Jewish people. Our fatal sin: being single and childless. And yet without us, the Jewish world would be a bleaker, more boring, place.

Let me offer some examples.

There’s my friend the immigration policy expert, who volunteers for an organization that aids Jewish immigrants, helping them find homes, teaching English and connecting them to potential employers. He attends a Friday minyan, where another unmarried friend of mine also davens. She’s a journalist who reports on politics and Israel. When we lived in the same city, she was often my conduit to events, concerts and gallery openings put on by various constituencies within the Jewish community.

These are not Jews floundering at the fringes of Jewish communal life, but the very people supporting it.

There are the professional Jewish educators, in formal and informal settings — the day school teachers, Hebrew School principals, Hillel directors, camp administrators and Pardes/Hadar/Drisha faculty. Off the top of my head, I can count at least a dozen of these pedagogues who remain single in their late 20s and 30s — even as they go about their daily work among potential shadchans and yentes who claim to want to marry off their friends, grandchildren or friends’ grandchildren.

Outside of Jewish institutions, single Jews engage in professional service work, tikkun olam in its most obvious and expansive ways. They work as public defenders, organize unions, direct humanitarian efforts in war zones and provide medical services to indigent Americans. They also create independent minyanim, host Passover seders, make shiva calls, and organize Hazon rides.

And what should we make of the single rabbis who steward large, metropolitan congregations or serve as itinerant clerics for small, rural congregations? Does their unmarried status negate their knowledge and leadership?

According to Eisner, my single friends and I constitute dangers. We imperil the future of liberal, egalitarian, progressive Judaism. True, we are unmarried, and some of us aren’t currently dating anyone. We don’t have children. We have pursued graduate training and fulfilling careers, and we have not oriented our days around finding mates.

But the choice to live meaningful lives, in and outside of the Jewish world, does not represent a negation of marriage. There is no deep pool of readymade matches we’ve collectively rejected. Indeed, there are plenty of people who have acquired degrees and cultivated rich professional lives while meeting life partners and getting married (when legally allowed). The lament about low marriage rates insistently ignores a critical variable: luck.

But Jewish communities don’t like to hear this point. It goes against the grain of the middle-class American-Jewish injunction to work hard — because success will surely follow. Love is different; desire and persistence are insufficient. Finding a life partner with whom to build a relationship involves luck.

Eisner’s editorial also plays into the cultural rhetoric of the single life as easy, carefree and anti-communal. Never mind that all of the single people I’ve referenced live their lives as progressive Jews, committed and contributing to the Jewish community (and the non-Jewish world, too).

In other words, we — unmarried but communally-oriented Jews — are not the target audience for Birthright trips or yearly Yom Kippur sermons. We received excellent Jewish educations. We are conversant in Jewish tradition and culture, and we make thoughtful, deliberate decisions about religious practice. We’ve elected to remain within Jewish communities even when they don’t cater to us — we’re not in Hebrew school and have no kids in Hebrew school — or even acknowledge our existence. Except, of course, to berate us for being single.

If marital status is the condition of belonging, if our value hinges on being married, why should any of us stay in the Jewish community at all?

Before admonishing us for being inadequate, single adult Jews, it would be helpful to consider what makes a community egalitarian and progressive. A robust version of that community is inclusive. It respects and sustains single people as much as married couples, the childfree as well as the child-rearing, the old and the young.

As Free to Be…You and Me concluded the Atlanta story four decades ago: “Perhaps someday they will be married. Perhaps they will not. In any case it is certain they are both living happily ever after.” Single Jews may get married. Or possibly they won’t. But both unmarried Jews and married Jews can live happily ever after, because contra Eisner, marriage isn’t the foundation of an enduring Jewish culture. Community is.

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