Want to make a quick $2,500? All you have to do is match a Baltimore Jewish woman with a Jewish man anywhere in the world - no matter the denomination - and, should they make it to the chupah, you'll get a check from the Baltimore-based Star-K Kosher Certification corporation. Any Tom, Dick - or Harriet - can apply.
Sounds easy enough, but officials with Star-K, which conducts kosher supervision of hundreds of products and food facilities around the globe, are quite adamant that finding successful matches in today's Jewish world is no small feat, or they wouldn't be shelling out such a hefty sum for each couple hitched. In the Orthodox world of Baltimore, for example, single Jewish women outnumber their male counterparts. And, they say, Jewish women in other parts of America are waiting longer and longer before getting married.
To be sure, the dispersion of America's Jews tells part of the story. As young men and women have broadened their horizons, they've inevitably moved farther and farther away from traditional ethnic locales, namely, the Eastern seaboard, and certain Midwestern and West Coast urban centers. They go for educational purposes and then for their work; in the process, they find it harder to meet like-minded singles.
Sure, the rapid growth of the Internet has provided one notable salve: The up-and-coming consultant from the Tri-State area who gets a company transfer to Wichita, Kan., might find hope only in the form of online personals. Still, sooner or later, distances need to be bridged - all the more so if Ben lives in Anchorage and Jen calls Atlanta home.
"Many bemoan the fact that there are single women in Baltimore that are becoming older, looking to get married and finding it very difficult to even meet eligible young men," illustrates Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, whose marriage initiative has awarded nearly 30 grants since 2003. "Women here are looking for a certain type of young man who's gone to study in yeshivas in Israel and New York. But for the man who's ready to date, it's easier for him to look to Israel or New York" because he's there.
If finding spouses is becoming problematic in the Orthodox community, then it's increasingly arduous in the larger Jewish world. Recent surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest what's being observed in Maryland mirrors the national reality: Across all demographics - education, socioeconomic status, place of birth, denominational affiliation - Jews are getting married later in life, if at all.
When coupled with the phenomenon of intermarriage, such statistics point to substantial challenges ahead for Jewish institutions and identity as a whole, according to professor Jonathan Sarna, an expert in American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
"We've witnessed in America one of the most extraordinary rises in the age of marriage that we've ever seen in a short period of time," explains Sarna. "Today, many people will go 10 to 15 years after graduating college before they settle down and marry.
"I recently went to a marriage of someone who married for the first time after the age of 50.
"People are most likely to join a synagogue when they have children," he continues. Consequently, "synagogues have very little knowledge of how to draw in" this ever-growing class of professional singles.
Culling data from the "National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01" and the annual General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago from 1972 to 2002, Tom Smith - director of the annual surveys - concludes in Jewish Distinctiveness in America: A Statistical Portrait that since the 1970s, Jews have increasingly married less and at progressively later ages.
Some more bad news: Once wed, the younger set is more prone to divorce than in previous generations.
"More people have experienced divorces, and fewer adults are married than before," writes Smith in the report, published in April 2005 by the American Jewish Committee, issuers of the annual American Jewish Year Book. "While only 8 percent of Jews had been divorced in the 1970s," more than one-fifth - a full 20 percent - of the Jewish community is currently divorced.
Despite being the most married ethnic population in the United States - 64.6 percent of Jews are wed, compared with 57.2 percent of everybody else - fewer Jews are becoming betrothed today than 30 years ago, when 75 percent of Jews paired off in marriage.
It's a demographic picture that's not surprising, attests Hasia Diner, an American Jewish history professor at New York University. Given the social revolutions witnessed over the past three decades - from women's rights to sexual mores - marriage today just isn't what it was during the Nixon administration, which itself wasn't what it was during Eishenhower's.
Diner phrases the current reality in terms of the increasing control by women of their own destinies: "Women are no longer dependent on men financially," she asserts. "It's part of a long-going tendency, but certainly, the rise of feminism in the 1970s was kind of the pivotal moment."
The timeline Diner establishes begins at the turn of the century, and the high value placed on education by Jewish immigrants. That made it possible for women in the postwar era to achieve a level of education not seen by their non-Jewish peers. Some 20 years later, a "large cadre of educated women, many of them Jewish, said, 'Why are we getting less pay than men?'
"Jewish women became far out-educated from other women - and early on - so it's not surprising that we see among the leaders of second-wave feminism so many Jewish women," she goes on.
The result is that there's no "anti-marriage sentiment," per se, but that "they're marrying because they're falling in love. It's about companionship, and not because of economics."
Such thinking, though, may be directly contributing to the rising divorce rate, argues Linda Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the recent book The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier.
How Late Is Too Late?
Taking a position counter to that established in 2002 by a report from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control - which concluded that "higher education and income are associated with a lower probability of marital disruption" - Waite contends that the quest for financial stability is making people less likely to commit themselves to a lifelong relationship.
If and when they do commit, they're less likely to value the marriage, as the rise of no-fault divorce has eliminated the substantial fiscal barriers that once prevented the primary breadwinner from skipping out, she says. That has caused women to become more financially independent, which has further devalued marriage into a kind of snowball she says is wrecking the notion that an individual need get married at all.
These days, college graduates are "still figuring out who they are. For lots of people, they don't get established in their careers until the late 20s and early 30s," says Waite.
In the 1940s, "my parents got married very early in life," she recalls. "[My mother] dropped out of college to get married and put [my father] through medical school. Today, because it's harder to become established, why would any woman commit to a guy who's not financially stable?"
Moreover, with all the high-level female achievers out there - a whopping 59.4 percent of Jewish spouses have a college degree, compared with 25 percent of non-Jewish spouses, according to Smith's research - who has the time to commit early on to anything other than a career?
That may explain U.S. Census data of two years ago. The bureau found in its 2004 Current Population Survey, which did not break the results down by religion, that the median age at first marriage for American women rose to 26, from 20.8 in 1970.
(Men followed a similar trend, upping the age from 23.2 to 27.)
Perhaps not coincidentally, alongside a decreasing marriage rate and increasing divorce rate is the ever-prominent life choice of co-habitation. In the salad days of the 1950s, personified by "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver," shacking up was downright taboo.
Fast-forward to the '80s, where living (and sleeping) together proved commonplace - think "Dynasty," "Cheers," "L.A. Law."
Again, Census data bears out this trend: From 1960 to 2000, the number of unmarried couples sharing a roof increased tenfold.
The birth-control pill, which the Food and Drug Administration approved for use in 1960, sparked the sexual revolution by knocking down the first barrier to premarital sex: the danger of having children from an illicit union. It didn't take long, claims Sarna, for the rest of society to catch up with the times.
"The availability of easy contraception meant that one of the prime barriers to premarital sexuality disappeared, and within an astonishingly short time, much of the stigma that had once prevented co-habiting disappeared with it," he says. "Indeed, it became extremely normal, a regular part of a relationship outside the Orthodox world, to move from dating to co-habiting, to maybe marrying."
It's the "maybe" part that has people like historian Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wondering whether or not "Jews are delaying marriage to the point where it may be too late."
In an October 2005 article in Commentary, Wertheimer pointed out that "late marriage means lower rates of fertility." Even more so, "at no point do Jewish women … bear children in numbers sufficient to offset population losses from natural causes."
In short, according to Sarna, while Jews may already be reflecting the surrounding populations in their marriage and divorce behavior, it's only a matter of time before they decidedly blend in to the background of American life.
So, has the death knell been sounded?
"Our ideal image of the Jewish family - two parents, several children - is now a minority of all Jews," affirms Sarna. It's somewhere in the area of "40 percent or less."
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