Stop trying to get Jews to date each other and start focusing on nurturing friendships
An Atlantic article about people who prioritize friendship over romance went viral a few years ago. “Intimate friendships,” wrote Rhaina Cohen, “can be models for how we as a society might expand our conceptions of intimacy and care.”
As someone who has spent 15 years helping people connect more deeply to one another and to Jewish life, the Atlantic piece struck close to my heart.
In the Jewish world, we have placed great emphasis on matchmaking. Many organizations focus on engaging young families and young couples. As a mother of three, I know how important these programs are.
But they fit into a particular model that is outdated and unnecessarily exclusive. When we invest only in programs for youth engagement, then engagement of single young adults, and then engagement of young married couples, we imply that there is one “natural,” legitimate, linear progression to ensure strong Jewish identities and families.
How did we get here? Our Jewish leaders came to understand “Emerging Adulthood,” the years when a person is roughly 18-30, as a developmental phase. Introduced by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in 2000, the category went more mainstream a decade later. We also referred to this stage as “post-college pre-family.” Jewish organizations such as Birthright Israel, OneTable, Moishe House, and others began focusing on additional ways to engage people in meaningful Jewish life during this life stage. GatherDC, the organization I lead, was also born during this era.
But today the data show that more and more people are staying uncoupled longer and an increasing number of young adults will not get married. Those who do or don’t will also likely not have children (some do want children and are single parents by choice.) We also are a community in which about nine percent of U.S. Jewish adults “identified as LGBT” in 2020. And, importantly, conversations about family estrangement and an “ethic of care” beyond the nuclear family are widening. Leaders in the Jewish community thought that the milestones of marriage and children were simply happening later. Now we understand that for many people those milestones may never happen, whether by choice or not.
Jewish community cannot center nuclear familial Judaism at the expense of alienating, ignoring, or flattening the identities of people who live their lives in meaningful nonromantic relationships, with friends and chosen family who nurture, love, and care for them in equal and other ways. Embracing a wider definition of family and connection to Jewish life requires a more expansive and rerouted way of thinking about the relationships that will drive and shape not just Jewish life, but future society as a whole. A vibrant, inclusive, and holy Jewish future depends on our ability to do so.
In fact, the holy nature of friendship appears in many sources — from Maimonides’ take on Pirkei Avot (“the ethics of our ancestors”) asserting that we must acquire friends for virtue and not for transactional purposes, to the Honi in Talmud Ta’anit 23a who declares “either friendship or death.”
More modern sources also assert the holy essence of friendship. The concept of “queer chosen family” has been a bedrock of the LGBTQ community for decades, including among LGBTQ Jews; as the Atlantic article on centering friendship, not marriage notes, “In LGBTQ circles, placing a high value on friendship has long been common,” even essential, to survival.
In her 1991 book “Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship”, Mary Hunt contended that our goal should be to teach people how to love well, and that we can do this by challenging old assumptions of what love can look like. Hunt instructed the reader “to pay attention … What a community does when it names and claims ordinary human experiences as holy.” Hunt offered friendship as a useful theological construct and called on us to develop new models — both mental and lived — that bring friendship into its rightful place and significance.
More recently, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman wrote the book “Big Friendship”, which chronicles the work and investment they put into their own relationship — including going to couples therapy together. “Friendship,” Sow says, “is the place where we are able to have more imagination and more freedom for how we want to organize our lives and how we want to organize society.”
I believe that facilitating and supporting Jewish friendships is not just relevant or necessary. It’s holy work. Collectively, we need to attune to the trends and realities of today’s Jewish landscape, and also tomorrow’s. We need to center friendship as a focus of Jewish communal experiences — not dismiss it as lacking or superficial — to harness its power to build the Jewish life we seek.
To contact the author, email [email protected].