Two-By-Two?

A new initiative aims to challenge the “Noah Syndrome,” our tendency to treat couples as the social norm and marginalize singles.

by Lisa Kogen

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When God instructed Noah to take animals into the ark in pairs – male and female – the implication was clear. The pairing of male and female perpetuates the species, a pairing that was institutionalized early on by the rite of marriage.

To many minds, and certainly within the Jewish community, marriage is the social gold standard. This is best exemplified by the blessing made for an infant at his brit milah or her naming ceremony when parents are wished: “May your child be raised to a life of Torah, chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).”

In its year-long focus on the changing complexion of the Jewish family, Women’s League has chosen to venture into new – and sometimes controversial – terrain with its Mishpachah: The Modern Jewish Family initiative. A conversation on diversity, welcoming, inclusion and celebration, one of the initiative’s most resonant topics is the Noah Syndrome, which addresses the fastest growing demographic in the Jewish community, Jewish singles.

Today the marital gold standard has a lot of scuff marks. An amazing, recently released statistic says that by the year 2020 almost half of people over 50 will be single, and with nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce, social expectations and prescriptions need to be reassessed. There are those who maintain that marriage = procreation, a formulation that Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan challenged during arguments about the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. But marriage and family, and even reproduction as we know it, are undergoing radical transformations. Single parent households, same sex partners, single mothers by choice, and single member households rapidly are changing the social terrain.

For the Mishpachah project, we asked members to discuss their experiences as singles living in an environment that regards them as different at best, and at worst, deserving of pity. In addition to comments about inequality in taxation, healthcare, and even synagogue dues structures, the stories of social inequalities are particularly troubling: assertions that singles are more self-involved; assumptions that they have more time on their hands; that they have more money to spend, and that they experience less stress.

One of the most frequently raised issues involves their discomfort when attending events with social dancing. Those who have no partner feel they are being asked to dance out of pity or social obligation, or they are consigned to the “singles” table. These events often underscore their sense of solitude.

Read our members’ own stories in ‘‘Conversation Pieces” on the Women’s League website, www.wlcj.org (in the Mishpachah section). They are honest, revealing and poignant.

One woman writes: “I felt uncomfortable when I joined other couples at dinner, because instead of splitting the bill as we did when I was with my husband, they always insisted on treating me. They meant well but it made me feel like they felt sorry for me – that alone I could not take care of myself.”

Another writes about the challenges of single parenthood: “I would constantly explain that I could not attend evening committee meetings or adult-only programs because I did not have a spouse who could stay at home. When it was suggested that I find a babysitter, I would be in the awkward position of explaining that as a single-income family, babysitters were a treat reserved for special occasions.”

As members of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, we have undertaken the challenge to promote social environments that do not regard couples as the expected unit of measure. We can begin with some accommodations to single-hood that might be as simple as asking caterers to set tables in odd, rather than even, numbers. We could also engage in social advocacy, supporting the repeal of civil laws and benefits that favor married over single households.

Admittedly, many of these issues are not easily resolvable. But the first step is to identify them and begin an open dialogue. With the Mishpachah project, Women’s League is taking that first step

Lisa Kogen is Education/Program Director of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.