It is the age-old question for a bachur and his parents. When to enter the “parashah” of shidduchim?
In the American yeshivah world, the answer for many years has been the same: when he comes back from Eretz Yisrael, typically around age 23.
Now, slowly but noticeably, the winds of change are moving the marker. It is more common for bachurim to learn in Eretz Yisrael for a shorter period of time; to forgo learning in Eretz Yisrael before marriage; or begin entertaining shidduchim while still learning in Eretz Yisrael. And the trend is incrementally continuing in that direction.
“I find that there are now more 22-year-olds learning in America, open to shidduchim, than there used to be, and fewer 23-year-olds,” says Rabbi Asher Weiss, shlita, Rosh Mesivta at Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Monsey. “That is now seen as a ‘normal’ age.”
Noted shadchan Tzodek Katz sees this across the board. “There hasn’t been a U-turn,” he cautions, “but it has become acceptable to date while younger. The stigma has been removed.”
What’s Behind the Trend?
There has been lots of publicity in recent years regarding the “age gap” between the average age of boys and girls getting married. It has been statistically shown that this gap is the primary reason why there are unfortunately so many older single girls in our circles. There have been several pronouncements from leading Gedolei Yisrael encouraging boys to enter shidduchim at a younger age.
There are a variety of other factors at play, as well.
Bachurim today are very independent and “out there” at a young age, explains Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, shlita, Rav of Khal Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin. “They are ready to establish their own home earlier,” he says. “They are eager for ‘more’ in a life; for a real relationship, to build a home.”
Rabbi Lieff contends that the negative enticements that permeate contemporary society, especially for the youth, is an additional aspect to consider. Being happily married and settled while younger can be a powerful antidote. A younger couple also often has more energy and motivation to grow spiritually together. “I honestly don’t see a downside to it,” says Rabbi Lieff. “We need to move with the times, all under the guidance of daas Torah, of course.”
Some shadchanim and mechanchim also contend that younger bachurim are typically easier to red shidduchim to, without the unrealistic expectations often displayed by older bachurim.
Analyzing the Individual
However, as independent and capable a bachur may be, his emotional maturity must be considered, too. “We need to remember that in addition to a shidduch crisis, there are also lots of shalom bayis and divorce issues around,” says Rabbi Weiss. “While a bachur who is ready to get married shouldn’t delay because of some artificial ‘societal norm,’ a bachur who isn’t really ready shouldn’t be pressured to rush due to any societal factors, either.”
Rabbi Weiss stresses the importance for parents and rebbeim to adequately prepare a bachur — of any age — about the commitment and maturity necessary for a entering a healthy marital relationship and building a Torah home.
Mechanchim and others say that the longtime societal norm of going to learn in Eretz Yisrael for a defined period, at a defined age, before entering shidduchim, placed a harmful roadblock. It would raise eyebrows whenever a bachur would deviate from this roadmap, and virtually everyone avoided that as a result.
This is, thankfully, changing and Rabbanim and mechanchim urge that we work toward even greater individualization. Every aspect of a bachur’s path — the yeshivah he goes to, at what age, and when to enter shidduchim — should depend on his individual needs. “I don’t believe that an American bachur is inherently different from a bachur in Europe or Eretz Yisrael and ‘can’t’ get married below age 23 or 24,” says Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua Hoberman, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Mesivta of Long Beach.
Parents and rebbeim should make an honest assessment about each bachur to determine what is the best path forward for him, says Rabbi Ephraim Berger, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva Ruach HaTorah in Lakewood. “A bachur needs to know, honestly, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I looking for?’ before actively looking for shidduchim,” he implores.
Many bachurim are ready and eager to get married at a younger age. Others could use an extra year or two before entering shidduchim so that they can be mature and committed enough for marriage. For others, yet some additional time in yeshivah alone won’t do much. “A bachur who isn’t mature enough at 21 will usually be immature at 23, too,” says one longtime mechanech.
Rethinking Eretz Yisrael
Decades have passed since learning in Eretz Yisrael for two years or more became a standard item on a bachur’s shidduch résumé. On the ground, this turns out to be a very thick barrier preventing younger bachurim from entering the shidduch market. Although it is increasingly common for bachurim to entertain shidduchim while in Eretz Yisrael — shadchanim Shlomo Lewenstein, Meir Levi and Tzodek Katz take a trip there at the end of each winter zman — the typical shidduchim age for a bachur who learns in Eretz Yisrael is still older.
Speak to bachurim and mechanchim on this topic and you’ll get diverse perspectives, but the conclusions are essentially identical: Many bachurim grow in learning, maturity and yiras Shamayim in Eretz Yisrael, in ways that they could not grow back home. Eretz Yisrael offers unparalleled kedushah, and the ability to interact firsthand with major Gedolim and countless others who forgo the pleasures of the world for a more ruchniyusdige life. Other bachurim, unfortunately, significantly regress in ruchniyus in Eretz Yisrael, to the point that they’re unrecognizable from when they originally went. And there are many bachurim somewhere in between.
Yaakov*, a bachur currently learning in an American yeshivah, who decided to forgo learning in Eretz Yisrael, is candid. “Like every bachur, the idea of learning in Eretz Yisrael was very appealing to me and most of my friends went there,” he relates. “But I was honest with myself, and felt that a lot of what I shteiged over the past few years could be lost.”
Realities for American bachurim in Eretz Yisrael have changed significantly in recent years, just like everything else. The accessibility of dangerous technology, coupled with the unmatched freedom and independence that bachurim have in Eretz Yisrael, can be a dangerous combination.
Bachurim are separated from their parents and immediate communal circles by a great distance, physically and psychologically. For the most part, yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael offer talmidim a great deal of independence. It is a lot easier for a bachur to miss minyanim or sedarim without consequence. It is not uncommon even for good bachurim to have internet access on phones or in their diros, for instance, or to spend time at less-than-ideal attractions.
Yaakov believes that he is doing better in his current yeshivah than he would likely be doing away from home. Though he is still in the minority, Yaakov says that even many of his friends who did go to Eretz Yisrael give him a thumbs-up. “Many times when I told bachurim who did go to Eretz Yisrael that I stayed in America, I got the same response: ‘smart move,’” he relates.
Determining whether a particular bachur is likely to do better in America or Eretz Yisrael is very complex and individualized. There is no single set of criteria that could give a clear answer. This can only be made when assessed honestly by the bachur, his parents and a rebbi who knows him well.
Some of the more common advice is that Eretz Yisrael is typically most ideal for a bachur who is very self-motivated; does not require a strong structure, small setting or close relationship with a rebbi; or a bachur who can benefit from the independence and maturity gained by being on his own and running a dirah. Of course, within Eretz Yisrael itself, there are different options; some yeshivos are more suited for particular bachurim than others.
The simple advice offered by Rabbi Berger is that the decision must be very well thought through, with all options weighed. Of particular importance is how strong the bachur can be expected to be in light of the unique spiritual nisyonos. “Know your son and do your homework,” Rabbi Berger advises parents. “It is not enough to just tell him, ‘Be careful.’”
Yaakov believes that perhaps the most important factor is for a bachur to honestly think about who his chevrah will be in Eretz Yisrael. Will they bring him up, or bring him down? When in Eretz Yisrael, it is particularly difficult to resist the peer pressure of “Let’s have blast” or “Let’s daven late.”
Broadening the Options
The ability to make the best decision of whether a bachur should go to Eretz Yisrael or not requires that there be an adequate array of alternatives in America if the decision is that he’s best off not going. Here, too, there has been a clear, albeit incremental, change on the ground.
“There used to be nowhere in America for a bachur in third- or fourth-year beis medrash to go to,” says Rabbi Berger. “Now there are several good options, and we can expect more to be added, im yirtzeh Hashem.”
In addition to the yeshivah that Rabbi Berger founded and leads, there are other thriving mosdos in America that cater to older beis medrash bachurim at all levels, including metzuyanim. These yeshivos can be good options for bachurim to go to before Eretz Yisrael; after Eretz Yisrael; instead of Eretz Yisrael; or even for kollel. The broadened array of options makes it easier to decide on going to Eretz Yisrael and starting shidduchim whenever the bachur and his parents feel that it’s right for him.
“It is important to realize,” says Rabbi Hoberman, “that even if a bachur is doing ‘OK’ in Eretz Yisrael, he is not necessarily doing better than he’d be doing in a suitable yeshivah in America. Let there be more options.”
Rabbi Hoberman stresses that all changes and new options to the longtime norms of the Torah world that were set forth by Gedolim of previous generations need to be done with the unified encouragement of today’s Gedolei Yisrael and marbitzei Torah. He adds that in order for these mosdos to succeed, they should have a solid continuity — where bachurim could remain for several years, not just during the shidduch stage.
With less stigma and more options, we may finally be watching the slow reduction of the artificial societal norms that have hampered the individualized chinuch and shidduch decisions for all too many bachurim in past years.
One path that is perhaps becoming increasingly common is one that many believe offers the best of both worlds: Remain in America as a bachur, and learn in Eretz Yisrael after marriage. This arrangement offers bachurim the ability to entertain shidduchim when they feel it is right for them, and avoid the challenging nisyonos. At the same time, they can also benefit from the elevated level of Torah and ruchniyus of Eretz Yisrael.
“I am confident that when I will, im yirtzeh Hashem, be married and settled, and move to Eretz Yisrael with a wife, I am much more likely to shteig and not fall,” says Yaakov. “When talking to younger friends, I am hearing this plan a lot more often.”
* Name has been changed.