Few areas of Jewish life can be as far from picture-perfect as that of shidduchim. But the new and increasingly widespread use of pictures in the shidduch process has totally changed the dynamics of a system already fraught with challenges.
In an effort to mitigate the damage, a New York shadchan pioneered what has quickly become a global project. Dubbed “Nix the Pics,” the campaign encourages fellow shadchanim to sign a 30-day challenge forgoing the use of pictures while redting shidduchim.
Mrs. Lisa Elefant began urging fellow shadchanim to join this campaign four weeks ago to honor the memory of the 45 kedoshim lost in Meron. With over 250 shadchanim signing on, along with the endorsement of many prominent Rabbanim, Mrs. Elefant’s brainchild has succeeded way beyond her expectations.
The initiative acknowledges the need to change “what’s become the norm in redting shidduchim” and its success has spread beyond the participation of shadchanim. In a brief period of time, many parents and children have also signed the 30-day pledge.
With the completion of the 30 day challenge this week, I spoke with Mrs. Elefant, one of her fellow shadchanim, and with several of the Rabbanim who lent their names to support a cause whose time they felt was overdue. I also spoke with mothers and a few singles. In part I of this series, we will hear what a sampling of those interviewed had to say.
Mrs. Lisa Elefant is a highly successful shadchan in New York and the founder of Adopt a Shadchan.
Mrs. Elefant is no stranger to strategizing in the world of shidduchim, but the issue of pictures has bothered her for a long time. “Gedolim and Rabbanim have been speaking about this for years. It’s not in our mesorah. Most Jewish magazines and publications don’t have pictures of women and there’s a reason for that. We are tznius and it’s not appropriate. So why is it appropriate for mothers and boys to have an endless supply of pictures on their phones?”
The horrific tragedy in Meron galvanized Mrs. Elefant to action. “Everyone was concentrating on what individual thing they can take on in the memory of those kedoshim as a zechus, and I decided to take this project on.”
Mrs. Elefant drafted a letter outlining the reasons necessitating the initiative and stated its goal. “In our desire to see more singles dating and ultimately married,” the letter reads, “we decided to change what’s become the norm in redting shidduchim. We have taken it upon ourselves to send resumes to singles sans the shidduch picture in hopes of encouraging our singles to judge a resume based on the written information given and the verbal information offered by references, rather than by a photograph.”
One of the single girls Mrs. Elefant works with suggested the catchy name, and then reached out to other shadchanim. “It caught on and over 100 shadchanim signed on in minutes. In a matter of days, it grew to over 250 shadchanim, with many more anonymous. This project is truly changing the mindset of the dating world by opening up minds and hearts to change. Already we have had those singles who are agreeing to give a ‘yes’ to a shidduch idea that they had previously said ‘no’ to.”
The initiative has been guided and endorsed by many Rabbanim, shlita, including Rabbi Shlomo Miller, Rabbi Elya Brudny, Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rabbi Yaakov Forcheimer, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst, Rabbi Boruch Hirschfeld, Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, Rabbi David Ozeri, Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Rabbi Ephraim Eliyahu Shapiro, Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, Rabbi Yosef Elefant, Rabbi Shlomo Churba, Rabbi Chaim Zvi Senter and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg.
According to this veteran shadchan, times have changed. “It used to be that a mother would check out a girl at a wedding or her place of work, often without the girl knowing. And the mother saw her as a real, live person. All of a sudden, pictures emerged and people wouldn’t even consider a resume without one. Peer pressure grew so that shadchanim had no choice. They’re easier, but not everyone is photogenic and a picture isn’t reality. Seeing someone all made up and dressed up isn’t how a girl looks in real life. You don’t see her chein or all the other beautiful things about her. And often a picture isn’t updated or accurate.”
Mrs. Elefant acknowledges the growing prevalence of boys’ pictures too. “Boys are providing head shots and we don’t feel comfortable with that either. But people are now requesting full-length and casual pictures of girls. It’s become very unhealthy. Mothers too are getting very frustrated with the bombardment of multiple pictures. And most boys’ mothers are also mothers of girls and know they’ll be going down the same road.”
When asked about the origin of the practice, she is quick not to cast aspersions. “I’m not blaming anyone. No one person started it. But it’s almost at the point where we can’t push back. Seminaries are trying to discourage use of iPhones and yet it’s okay to do a whole studio photo session? That’s sending mixed signals.”
Mrs. Elefant acknowledges frum communities “across the board” are impacted. “Some shadchanim claim not to have caved, particularly some in Lakewood. But to be fair, they have access to the most boys and can get away with it. For the majority of shadchanim, we often feel pressured by parents and are left with no choice if we want a shidduch to go forward. It creates an unfair cycle and shadchanim get unfairly blamed. It’s reached a point where a girl is looked at askance if she refuses to give a picture. Without a picture, odds are 96% the resumé goes to the bottom of the pile. Maybe it will resurface, maybe it won’t.”
Some circumstances, however, warrant pictures. “I deal with a lot of older singles who have dated five-plus years and are burned out or disillusioned with the process. I totally understand their frustration of not wanting to ‘waste time.’ Sometimes the picture is necessary. But the intention here is to ultimately raise awareness and try to stem the tide going forward for the younger daters, in hopes that this becomes the new norm. A shadchan should send a resumé and discuss the merits of the person without the picture.”
The campaign met with mixed reviews. “Obviously, girls and their mothers were very happy because for a long time they have felt dehumanized and demeaned. The first week there was a lot of backlash from the male side and boys’ mothers. Some boys’ mothers said, ‘Okay, we’ll sit out the 30 days.’”
This only emphasized the extent of the problem. “It proves that the pictures have become a total crutch. But the negative reactions demonstrated that we’re doing the right thing. If you take on something with little or no reaction, no ripple effect is created. This really hit nerves. I got hate mail. Someone put out a video personally attacking me. I took that as a message from Hashem that I’m doing the right thing and encourage other shadchanim likewise.”
Asked to point to any concrete results, Mrs. Elefant says, “I have never gotten more ‘yeses’ in one week and I hear the same from other shadchanim. At a Shavuos program, several boys thanked me, although they admitted they were initially annoyed. One said, ‘I realize that it’s not my hishtadlus to look at pictures but to look at the resumé, make calls and come to a decision.’ Another boy conceded that it helps him focus on what people say about a girl without having a picture in his head.”
With the campaign gaining momentum and publicity, Mrs. Elefant points to the help of her fellow shadchanim. “I am humbled and grateful to Hashem but I’d be nowhere without their support. This has been tried before by many individuals, but I believe that the missing key was actively recruiting shadchanim. Working as a group sends a powerful message. I think Hashem is propelling us forward precisely because of this achdus.”
Based on his wide experience dealing with boys in yeshivah and in shul, Harav Yisroel Reisman, Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Rav of Agudas Yisroel of Madison, believes Nix the Pics is a “good idea” and that hopefully this effort is “certainly a first step in the right direction.”
The drawback of pictures goes way beyond the idea that “pictures don’t convey the essence of a person.” Harav Reisman feels that “from a boy’s perspective, pictures distort the whole shidduch process. It distorts his whole priority by having a picture as the introduction to a shidduch. A boy comes to me to talk about a shidduch and he starts by saying that he likes the way the girl looks — this attitude puts looks on equal value with everything else. It’s an unfortunate distortion of the value system and it definitely affected the young men by placing attractiveness on the top of the list.”
Harav Reisman sees no merit in pictures, regardless of differences in hashkafic backgrounds. “I’m shocked that some people who claim to be frum defend this type of practice.”
And in answer to whether it might be emblematic of a decline in Torah values, the Rav counters that he feels it’s a cause rather than a result. “When you start putting a priority on these things, it causes a distortion of Torah values.”
Harav Reisman hesitates to project whether this campaign to raise awareness will succeed. “Sometimes things work well; sometimes they don’t. But the initiative is worth making the statement even if it changes nothing.”
When asked if he feels shadchanim might be complicit in using pictures in an effort to clinch a deal, Harav Reisman exonerates them. “People who blame the shadchanim are obviously making a mistake,” he states. And when asked for who might be behind the new practice, he suggests it might be the mothers of boys.
In addition to pictures, I ask the Rav about challenges in the current shidduch system and how to alleviate them. “The challenge is the priorities of what people are looking for in shidduchim. The old priorities are not there. People used to look for a good wife and a good mother. Sometimes a boy will come to me after dating a girl five or six times and I ask him, ‘Will she make a good mother?’ He has to stop and think about it. He relates whether he enjoys spending time with her but he’s surprised by my question. It didn’t used to be that way.”
Pictures are playing a major role in this change in priorities and Harav Reisman believes that this initiative is crucial. “It can’t just come from Roshei Yeshivos. The fact that it is coming from shadchanim is very significant. It is an incredible act of courage on the part of every one of the shadchanim. Mrs. Elefant and the other shadchanim are getting a lot of flak over this. I told her it’s fine; it just proves the point that it has to get done. People should be ashamed. They trussed it up with some sort of righteous statement of why it’s good, which is totally absurd.”
As the Rav of the biggest shul in America’s Southeast, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rav of Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS) has long experience in shidduchim, particularly in “fielding reference calls.” And he has grown concerned over what he sees to be harmful procedures in the shidduch system.
“I believe that Rabbanim, Rebbetzins, shadchanim and parents have to work together with courage and conviction to break some of the molds and practices that have risen that are hurting, not helping. The inclusion of pictures isn’t supported by any Gedolei Yisrael, was never the practice of Klal Yisrael, and we should reverse the trend.”
Rabbi Goldberg says that insistence on pictures “can violate halachos of tznius and the pressure to include them places unfair expectations and demands.”
He relays an incident to illustrate the “often misleading” nature of pictures. “A shadchan in a major yeshivah who represents several thousand bachurim told me that he takes a picture of each one for his personal file. He met with a very shy, introverted young man who, when it came time to take his picture, had the most infectious and vibrant smile. He realized that if someone would look at his picture, he would draw entirely incorrect conclusions. And the same is true in the opposite direction.”
When asked if there are certain circumstances, such as with older singles, that might warrant the use of pictures, Rabbi Goldberg answers with some questions of his own. “What did we do before pictures were so easily available? Why do no Gedolim endorse the practice of including them?”
The Rav also laments how the shidduch system has devolved over time, reflecting a deterioration of values. “Attraction has always been a critical element of shidduchim but as people got to know one another, they became more attractive. Now we want instant answers, to draw instant conclusions and to have all the information we seek on demand. Unrealistic expectations of other people’s looks and physical appearance are causing people to hire professional photographers and to Photoshop [edit the pictures]. This emphasis on appearance even before meeting someone and becoming attracted to their personality was never our way and is only hurting, not helping.”
When asked if the trend has become so commonplace as to preclude its reversal, Rabbi Goldberg is optimistic. “It is not too late at all. If those involved and invested in the shidduch process simply refuse to participate or cooperate with pictures, the trend can be reversed.”
And while he doesn’t see any direct connection between the initiative and the memorial of the 45 kedoshim in Meron, Rabbi Goldberg does see a merit. “Anything we can do to promote Jewish continuity and to promote Torah values in their zechus is worthwhile.”
In response to the question of what more can be done to alleviate the overall challenges singles face in shidduchim today, Rabbi Goldberg proposes going back to the basics. “Uncomplicate things, go back to simpler times, don’t rely too heavily on shadchanim. Rather, if everyone would get involved in trying to think of shidduchim among people they know, it will all go a long way.”
Mrs. B., who currently has a son in shidduchim, is open and honest regarding this initiative. “I’m personally conflicted, because inherently I can’t argue with the fact that pictures are a terrible thing. It makes me ill to know that they are being passed around, making girls into a commodity. I wouldn’t be happy if it were my daughter. She’s a person and so much more than a picture. Yet, looking back to when my married son was dating, when pictures were not prevalent, I think it would have saved us time.”
Mrs. B. believes it should go both ways, and she presents her son’s picture if requested. She also maintains that there is some merit to a visual. “Some pictures save me from even making phone calls. For me, it’s certainly not about whether the girl is pretty. One picture I received showed a girl wearing a loud dress, with heavy makeup and wild hair. If this reflects her judgment then she’s not for my son. Honestly, I am uncomfortable asking for a picture but we have eliminated names this way.”
No picture demands more background checking. “I’d almost have to go to the girl’s school or work and stalk her. That’s what we used to do. My married daughter remembers people pointing right at her at a wedding and it was a horrible feeling. I’m not sure what’s really better.”
Mrs. B.’s son would never look at a picture, but she knows that a boy who wants one will get one anyhow, and it might be a compromising one. And while she feels that a shidduch can work with no picture if you trust the shadchan, “If people randomly suggest ideas, asking too many questions might lead to lashon hara.”
Despite these concessions, which Mrs. B. has made “with a heavy heart,” she hopes this initiative will succeed. “Maybe this is the best way and only shadchanim should have a picture and use their discretion. People should be encouraged to speak to references and find out about a girl. At the very least, this will bring awareness and make people feel guilty asking for pictures. For that alone it’s worthwhile.”
For herself, Mrs. B. is cautiously inspired. “I might have to revise how I feel about not getting pictures. They can’t sufficiently convey a sense of refinement or character. It’s not our way and certainly not a tzniusdig way to go about it.”
Tamar, who comes from a balabatish family in Queens and attended Michlalah seminary in Yerushalayim, has been in shidduchim for over a year. From a girl’s perspective, she is disheartened by what she sees as an inherent double standard. “It is absolutely the norm for a girl to send her resumé and a picture, whereas for a boy the norm is just to send the resumé. Whether or not one should get pictures, it should be the same process for both.”
Asked how she feels about the process, Tamar replies, “It’s very uncomfortable to have to find a picture that you feel you look the best in and send it out to random strangers, knowing you’ll be judged based on it. Not everyone comes out great in a picture, and it doesn’t reflect someone’s chein or character. I don’t think I look my best in any picture, but it’s not worth refusing to send one because I would get rejected off the bat most of the time. If a boy has 20 resumés, why would he pick the one that doesn’t have a picture? I have to conform to the rules if I want to be part of the system.”
Tamar is disturbed by what she sees as the hypocrisy of that system. “The boys I go out with are against social media and the idea of a girl putting herself publicly out on display, but then I realize that this is the same thing. Here I am, expected not to use social media, which I don’t, but on the other hand I am sending my picture out to shadchanim and mothers, knowing that it gets passed around.”
Tamar accepts that she may not have much of a choice, but she points out the necessity of “drawing a line” between mothers looking at pictures and boys viewing them.
“I am aware of many boys who have pictures of girls on their phones, which is so inappropriate. And who knows who’s looking at them? They would never have pictures of girls on their phones otherwise. Everyone is working on shemiras einayim but when it comes to shidduchim, it seems like it’s an easy pass. It’s very uncomfortable because I would never send a picture of myself to a boy.”
There is also the realization that if a girl does not send a picture, chances are the prospective boy or his mother will get a picture elsewhere. This leads Tamar to conclude that “if they are getting a picture, I would rather it come from me than some other source.”
From her own experience, Tamar emphasizes the importance of concentrating on personality over looks. “Why shouldn’t a boy go out with a girl if she seems his type hashkafah-wise and personality-wise, instead of basing a decision on a picture that might not even be the way she looks? Sometimes I’ve hesitated after seeing a picture of a boy, but his looks didn’t bother me at all after talking to him and getting to know his personality. When you meet someone, you get a different impression, as opposed to just seeing a face in a picture.”
Asked whether she thinks this campaign will succeed, Tamar thinks it can have a positive impact. “If the whole system changes where everyone’s on board, including shadchanim, mothers and boys, then it will have an impact. I think the problem is that if an individual takes a stand against the shidduch system, he’s the one who loses out. But when there’s a whole movement with shadchanim and the norm becomes not to ask for a picture, then it really could change.”