By Rabbi Yonah Bookstein – Pico Shul, Shabbat Tent and USC Hillel
One of the not-so-secret crisis in the Jewish community today is the challenge people have finding a life partner and starting a Jewish family. We are seeing a real and painful trend of wonderful people becoming successful in many areas of their lives — except love and marriage. With family life such a fundamental part of Jewish life and values, struggle in this area makes some leave the Jewish community altogether, or feel marginalized and less-than. It’s an unsustainable trend that is impacting every segment of the community, albeit in different ways. This crisis will impact the future vibrancy of Jewish life in America.
As singles relate to us, they go to event after event, or go through relationship after relationship, and feel that they are getting nowhere. They are no longer optimistic saying that each date that isn’t the right person, is one step closer to the right one. They register reluctantly for events, sometimes already thinking to themselves it’s a waste of time — but they have to be there just in case.
After organizing events to build and strengthen community for young adults in SoCal over the last twelve years, we never stopped asking ourselves, “What is the best way to help those who seriously want to get married?” We created literally hundreds of events, dozens of people met their match, but we always felt that there was another part of the equation missing.
After a myriad of conversations with singles, both those who have or have not been married, with relationship coaches, psychologists, rabbis and shadchanim, and the guidance and encouragement of Deanna and Allen Alevy, we embarked last year on a two-fold effort to help marriage-minded singles: urban retreats to work on the emotional and psychological factors that may be stumbling blocks and upcoming wilderness retreats focusing on spiritual growth and community building.
Thanks to generous financial support from the the Alevys, and together with local partners, we organized two “Relationship Revolution” urban retreats in the past year at Pico Shul aimed at helping marriage minded singles to revolutionize their approach to relationships. The most recent retreat, co-organized with Breakthrough Worldwide, featured two speakers whose approach to the subject is not what you find on Buzzfeed. There were no classes on “5 Tips For Dating Dummies” or workshops on “How to Make a Guy be a Man”. Rather, we featured two non-nonsense speakers: South African clinical psychologist Leonard Carr, and Chana Levitan, an American-born author and teacher from Jerusalem. Together with these speakers and our partners, we created an entire weekend dedicated to self-discovery, connecting, and challenging people’s own narratives and stumbling blocks.
The most recent urban retreat, March 11-13, 2016, included over two hundred young professionals in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, from around Los Angeles, across California and included participants from seven other states. At Pico Shul, in the heart of the Pico Robertson “hood”, participants gathered for a lively Friday night service, a delicious Shabbat dinner. Together with my wife Rebbitzen Rachel Bookstein, co-founder of Pico Shul, we introduced the weekend’s philosophy, approach, speakers, and co-producers, Shira and Yossi Teichman from Breakthrough Worldwide. After a lively dinner, dozens more people packed into Pico Shul for a special dessert oneg, where Carr spoke at length about re-envisioning one’s approach to relationships. His message that night of people’s need to “look inside” and “not let people negatively define you, but rather let your own talents, strengths, and uniqueness shine through,” resonated with the attendees.
One of the most profound things Carr offered participants was the idea that “working on yourself” can keep people stuck in a cycle of negativity as the are constantly saying to themselves “I have to heal my trauma, get over my fear of abandonment or ridicule.” His Appreciative Psychology approach urges people to displace this kind of self-talk of negative reinforcement to the periphery as they use place their strength and talents at the center of their conscious thought. As a clinician with 30 years of experience, Carr isn’t telling people to ignore real issues, rather to allow themselves not to define themselves by them exclusively, thereby broadcasting exactly the negativity they say they want to uproot. “I have never heard anyone say anything like that to me”, said one your woman participant, “It was very real and not at all what I expected…I think it was the most important thing anyone has ever said to me, because everyone else is always pointing out the things that are wrong with me and think it is going to help me.”
On Shabbat Day, more than one-hundred and fifty people filled Pico Shul for a gourmet Kiddush Lunch and afternoon workshops. Carr and Levitan spoke to hushed crowds who passed on the beautiful afternoon in order to learn about how they re-view their world and themselves, both from the perspective of their unique personality issues and from opposite sexes. Shabbat ended with a musical Havdallah I led accompanied by the talented composer and guitarist Seth Glass. Following Havdallah, participants had the opportunity to socialize at a exclusive cocktail party hosted by Pico Shul members Lisa and Richard Polak. Sunday’s seminars, on campus of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, delivered a more in-depth exploration of relationships, and helped participants to leverage their personality traits to maximize their relationship success. Sessions included workshops, and lively talks by the presenters as well as meditation and focusing exercises led by Marcus Freed.
After lunch and afternoon sessions, Carr led participants in role-playing exercises that allowed participants to be vulnerable and supportive of each other. “Watching Leonard make people feel safe enough to access and reveal their true thoughts and feelings was amazing. I was honored to be a part of the group making a safe space for them,” said a young man participant.
One participant from last year told us, that they realized that they were dating for over ten years with misguided beliefs about themselves and others. Other participants reported that they were able to make a breakthrough, a real shift, that has changed their approach to being single completely.
Shira (Strassman) Teichman, who introduced us to Leonard Carr and has organized many programs with Carr in the greater New York area, remarked that, “our programs were created to address a fundamental need in the Jewish singles community — breaking down barriers in order to create real emotional connections between eligible, marriage-minded individuals.” Teichman, as well as others who work with Jewish singles around the country, know that the answer to the crisis is not just more events, but a much smarter approach.
My wife and partner in these efforts here in Los Angeles — and the only Oxford educated Rebbitzen I know — is the key to making these retreats work. Rachel creates the programming and ambiance, and designs the catering and visuals for these programs. She told me, “After organizing hundreds of events for singles, we realize that some people need more than just chances to meet. People get blocked by bad experiences and need help navigating back to their best selves. To show that they are people that others want to get to know and ultimately to marry they have to believe it. Sadly, there are people who waste thousands of dollars a year on dating web sites and matchmakers, but never identify the real reasons they aren’t finding success.”
The impact of a program like “Relationship Revolution 2” takes time to mature. Participants have to process and internalize the lessons they learned. Most importantly, they begin to repattern their approach and change their attitudes. The next time they meet someone they have the opportunity to start the conversation in a new way and that may make all the difference that is needed.
What are the consequences of this crisis for Jewish singles and why should every Jew in America who cares about the future of Judaism and the community be concerned? Studies have shown that assimilation is gathering speed. Jews are disaffiliating at a historic rate. With intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews nationwide at seventy percent, according to the Pew Study, the Jewish community is facing demographic cliff. While some intermarriages do result in families that identify as Jewish and raise their children as Jews, statistically the children of an intermarried family are less likely to identify as Jewish or marry Jewish. Therefor, the Jewish community needs to prioritize creating and supporting Jewish families. Without Jewish families — the viability of many federations, legacy organizations, synagogues, temples, and Israel advocacy organizations is at risk. We cannot afford to abandon a Jewish single that wants to marry and raise a Jewish family.