Picture This — Part II

How Nix the Pics Is Fixing the Shidduch Scene

Few areas of Jewish life can be as far from picture-perfect as that of shidduchim. But the recent advent of pictures in the shidduch process has become so widespread that it has totally changed the dynamics of a system already fraught with challenges.

In an effort to mitigate the damage, Mrs. Lisa Elefant, a New York shadchan, pioneered what has quickly become a global project. Dubbed “Nix the Pics,” the campaign encouraged fellow shadchanim to sign a 30-day commitment to honor the memory of the 45 korbanos of Meron by forgoing the use of pictures while redting shidduchim.

The initiative acknowledges the need to change “what’s become the norm in redting shidduchim” and states the intended hope of “encouraging our singles to judge a resumé based on the written information given and the verbal information offered by references, rather than by a photograph.”

In Part II of this series, we will hear from Rabbanim, Mrs. Elefant’s colleague, a mother of daughters, and a single boy. In the interviews, they share with us their thoughts on the initiative.

Harav Elya Brudny, Rosh Yeshivah in Mir-Brooklyn and member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America, speaks with heartfelt concern about the use of pictures in shidduchim and ardently supports the initiative opposing it.

“Many young ladies feel that giving a picture with a resumé is undermining their standards of tznius, which they have worked hard to maintain in a permissive world. This practice has almost become like a form of silent blackmail and girls feel that if they don’t give a picture, it’s going to be very problematic. And some of the young shadchanim — even in yeshivah communities — are pressuring people to go along with giving a picture.”

Harav Brudny empathizes with the plight of these girls. “I see the tzaar of girls, good girls. Frankly, some of the girls are very presentable. They don’t have ulterior motives, but they just feel helpless. This goes against how they were raised and brought up. I feel that it’s really wrong to encourage a culture that almost forces them to do this, which goes against their sensibilities. It bothers me very much.”

The problem, according to Harav Brudny, is exacerbated by its lack of control. “Once these pictures go around, the girl really has no control anymore over her picture — who’s looking at it, who’s showing it, which guy is showing it to his friend, which girl is showing it to her friend. And the girl becomes a reshus harabbim. It’s uncontrollable.”

Harav Brudny does not think it’s “terrible” for a prospective mother-in-law to want to see a picture of a girl and suggests feasible means for doing so that will protect a girl’s privacy. “If a boy’s mother wants to see a girl’s picture on terms of privacy, I have suggested to have the girl’s mother or someone else show the picture and then take it back. I don’t know if it’s a bad thing per se if a lady wants to see a picture, as long as the picture remains under the girl’s control. But any time you give a picture out and it goes into someone else’s reshus, you’ve just left the ‘kol kevudah bas melech penimah.’ Chazal teach us that ‘kol kevudah’ — the entire dignity of a woman — is ‘penimah.’ The minute she leaves the ‘penimah,’ her dignity is on the line.”

Might this initiative be enough to reverse the practice of using pictures?

“The initiative is a pushback and may give pause to people who do it because it’s the style. It raises an eyebrow and causes people to say, ‘Look, these Rabbis are not appreciative of it and think it’s wrong.’ So that might make a difference. Although definitely there are people who don’t care what Rabbanim say, Rachmana litzlan. But in a little way, shidduchim have become very commercial, and [we] have lost the chashivus for the dignity of a bas Yisrael.”

In response to a question about whether the use of pictures in the current shidduch system reflects a possible downward trend in the general value system among frum communities, Harav Brudny is not quick to condemn.

“When I was young, there was a vort going around, I think from the Tchebiner Rav’s Rebbetzin or mother, on the passuk, Lo yei’aseh chein bimkomeinu laseis hatze’irah lifnei habechirah’ (Bereishis 29:26). They made a play on words that ‘hatze’irah’ is similar to ‘hatzurah,’ meaning a picture — we don’t give a picture before we choose. If that was said by a Galicianer Gadol 70 years ago, then obviously it’s not only the modern age that’s struggling with it. But I’m involved on a much more fundamental level, with the undermining of the dignity, kavod and tznius of bnos Yisrael. Pictures have commercialized shidduchim, and bachurim show them to one another. It turns a bas Yisrael from a subject to an object.”

What about the challenges of shidduchim today?

“It’s a big nisayon. The crisis of shidduchim is a big problem. It’s not fiction; it’s real. There are a lot of older singles. The majority of them are girls, but there is a very sizeable minority of boys that are already over the age of shidduchim and struggling in shidduchim. It’s hard.”

Harav Brudny commends the many shadchanim who volunteer to be osek b’tzibbur in this very important mitzvah. “There are initiatives of people who work hard to try and help with shidduchim. There are people who are doing it only l’shem Shamayim.”

Harav Moshe Tuvia Lieff, Mara d’Asra of Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin in Brooklyn, NY.

Harav Lieff is a big believer in Mrs. Elefant’s initiative and bemoans the advent of pictures in the realm of shidduchim.

“It sprouted out of nowhere,” Harav Lieff says, “and it doesn’t seem proper. The word for face is panim and panim really means penim, the inner core of a person. But a picture is not the actual panim. It is only a very superficial reflection of the penim and cannot convey the real essence of a person. If you don’t see the person in action, the movements, the smile, the charm, and the chein, then you don’t see anything. You’re looking at a picture that’s meaningless.”

Pictures have also diluted the system. “Honestly, you need a little mystique when you start a process in shidduchim — where neither one knows how the other is going to look. You work on yourself for a good presentation and everything starts from ground zero. Of course, the parents have done their due diligence, but this concept of a picture seems to fly in the face of sensibility and tznius.”

The problematic issue of tznius has intensified with the introduction of full-length pictures in addition to head shots, and Harav Lieff is outraged. “Is that proper?! That seems to me to be counter halachah. Pictures can get out and bachurim can share them like baseball cards.”

Just like bachurim ask many she’eilos of a Rav or Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Lieff encourages them to do the same with pictures and not go along with the trend just because “everyone else is doing it.”

While the Rav does not negate the importance of attraction in marriage, he laments the lack of priorities emblematic in the use of pictures before a shidduch even begins. “The Gemara says it’s assur to marry a woman without seeing her first. But that doesn’t mean you need a picture. You want to base at least the initial encounter on the basics — is the person a mentch and a baal middos? How does the picture convey mentchlichkeit? And why is it not a two-way street? Why Bnos Yisrael? What happened to kol kevudah bas melech penimah?”

Harav Lieff also addresses the role of mothers in the process and urges them to reevaluate the use of pictures that they have come to rely on. “A mother might discover a flaw in a girl’s appearance, but she should be much more concerned about whether the girl is accommodating, whether she angers easily or is stubborn, whether she is compassionate and if she has real and not superficial Yiddishkeit.”

According to Harav Lieff, pictures seem to be counterintuitive and actually inhibit the shidduch process. “Whatever happened to the anticipation and looking forward to going out and thinking this might be the one? Eighty percent of it is thrown out even before you get to the starting gate. Psychologically you look forward to something and you put your energies into it. It’s not just a face you’re looking into; it’s a person. There’s more than just the guf — we have a neshamah, seichel, intellect, wit, kindness and sensitivity. How does that come out in a picture? It doesn’t. We’re selling ourselves short.”

When asked if the concept of pictures has become so entrenched in shidduchim that it might be impossible to reverse, Harav Lieff seems hopeful and compares it to the internet. “It’s here to stay, but Rabbinic intervention created a revolution which has led to limited access and strong filters. It’s the same thing. You need a groundswell. This initiative, with 250 shadchanim refusing to redt a shidduch with a picture, is a fantastic start. I believe everything can be changed in Yiddishkeit. Maybe it’s time to have a soft revolution concerning this.”

Harav Lieff also points to the resistance that met Mrs. Elefant’s initiative. “We have a big klal in Yiddishkeit — every time you do something and there’s great resistance, it means that it’s good.”

And while Harav Lieff concedes that pictures aren’t the “worst” thing in the world, he emphasizes the need to work to eradicate them and highlights the connection to the tragedy in Meron. “I think that if we as a whole make changes in our lives and are more sensitive to issues, particularly when it comes to shidduchim, the kedoshim on high will intercede with Hashem. Especially the youngsters who weren’t zocheh to shidduchim. We’re honoring them by doing something l’ilui nishmoseihem, and in kind they will help us.”

Harav Shlomo Churba is Rav of Congregation Shaare Rahamim in Brooklyn, NY.

Harav Churba has witnessed the harmful effects of shidduch pictures taking root in the Sephardic community and signed onto the initiative in an effort to stem the tide and discourage the practice.

Asked about how the shidduch landscape has changed with the introduction of pictures, Harav Churba begins with the shidduch resumé. “Resumés today are a new item. Thirty years ago, there was no such concept. We knew a shadchan and the shadchan would recommend someone, and they would try it out. More recently, resumés became part of the whole shidduch industry. The resumé in itself is not so terrible. But it could be misleading, doesn’t provide the full background and can be a little exaggerated. It doesn’t give a real picture of who they are; much more comes out on a date. We shouldn’t look at the resumé as a bible.”

Pictures have only aggravated the process. “The pictures are very misleading. There are times when singles look prettier than they are or, conversely, they can have a tremendous amount of chein that doesn’t show in the picture. And that’s all part of the attraction between chattan and kallah. I think it’s a deterrent to some good shidduchim. Many good shidduchim are not even being tried because of misleading resumés and pictures.”

More than that, Harav Churba points to the demeaning aspect of pictures. “I think it’s very insulting for a young girl to show her features. It’s not respectful for the young girl nor is it respectful for a young man to get a picture.”

The Rav agrees that pictures of boys are also “absolutely” problematic, and he cautions against preconceived opinions based off them. “One should not judge from a picture. It’s enough to know a person’s background and her parents’ background in order to form a good idea of what they represent. To go beyond that is very insulting.”

Asked about differences between shidduchim in the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, Harav Churba asserts there is a “major difference” between them. “In the Sephardic community, being that it’s close-knit and most of the people know each other, much is already known about the parents. If not, they can find out whatever they want to know in one phone call. In the Ashkenazic world, it’s much more common for suggestions to be “blind” because most parents and singles have never heard of each other. The groundwork starts at the very foundation and often there’s very little to go on unless they both come from the same community and the resumé then becomes a bible.”

Both communities seem to share an uphill battle in reversing the trend of pictures. But Harav Churba feels that it is not an insurmountable task. “It’s possible to reverse this if the parents on both sides don’t respect the idea. Boys and girls want to get married and have to follow the system. If the system insists on no pictures, then both the chattan and the kallah will have to acquiesce.”

Mrs. Ruchie Giberstien has been involved in shidduchim for over 20 years and is a lead shadchan and coordinator for Adopt a Shadchan in New York.

According to Mrs. Giberstien, shidduch pictures have long been a thorn in the shadchan’s side. “Things have spiraled out of control in the shidduch world. People are considering their next date according to the picture. Sending a picture with a resumé is expected now, but often they don’t even look at the resumé. They look at the picture, which determines whether they should look into the idea. It’s so unfair to the girls. The ones that have the great pictures are getting ‘yeses’ every other week and the ones who don’t, unfortunately, are really struggling.”

She agrees that the growing prevalence of boys’ pictures is also problematic. “It’s becoming more common and I find girls are caring more about looks. In speaking with mothers, we feel that engagement pictures also pressure girls into envisioning what their engagement pictures will look like and it causes them to overly concentrate on looks too.”

There are some situations, however, where Mrs. Giberstien feels there might be a benefit to pictures. “Sometimes a girl’s resumé can reflect a family situation or doesn’t list the ‘right’ seminaries. Then a good picture might get them in the door. Age also plays a role. Older singles who might be more burned out definitely want the pictures more.”

Asked about the different attitudes among those from different hashkafic backgrounds, Mrs. Giberstien responds that “usually those from more yeshivishe and sheltered backgrounds are not asking for it as much. And I do find that the ‘old-fashioned mothers’ or those who have been doing this for a while without pictures are not asking to see one. But maybe they’re one in every fifteen; it’s not so common.”

While agreeing that shadchanim might also be complicit in the problem because a “great picture gets the person to look at the resumé,” Mrs. Giberstien asserts that this initiative has forced her to hold back. And it’s not just shadchanim. “I’ve been finding that so many people are really open to this concept, even people who favored pictures or have sons in shidduchim. They are open to it even though this system makes it harder for them because it demands more initial checking. Most people are complying with this as long as we all stay strong.”

When asked about the long-term goals of this initiative, Mrs. Giberstien would like to see the 30-day period extended but emphasizes that it’s a process that involves placing more trust in the shadchan. “The long-term goal is changing the way people now choose to look at resumés based on pictures. At the end of day, they will get their hands on a picture if they really want to — through a yearbook or friends. And many girls prefer that the picture they choose is the one that people see. It’s okay if they eventually see a picture, but let them first look into a shadchan’s suggestion as a person, find out if it’s shayach and then, if everything is good, a picture should be the last step.”

Mrs. Giberstien concurs with Mrs. Elefant that there is strength in numbers. “Both girls and boys are really frustrated with the shidduch system. By banding together, shadchanim are trying to make changes and improve that system. Obviously, it’s all in Hashem’s hands and everyone will find their right zivug at the right time, but the frustration is real and we are trying to alleviate some of that.”

Mrs. T. As a mother of several daughters who have recently gone through the shidduch system, Mrs. T. is a fierce opponent of girls’ pictures. “I feel that for a society that is trying so hard to be makpid on tznius and halachah in so many aspects, including not having pictures of women in our publications, to send around pictures of girls that both mothers and boys are trading on their phones is wrong to the core. Mothers make such inappropriate comments, and the level of critique and judgment on 19-, 20-, 25-year-old girls is so offensive. And then they show the pictures to their sons. It is so wrong on a foundational level, and we are overlooking this and pretending we don’t see this ill in our society.”

In addition to the injustice, Mrs. T. points to the deception in pictures. “They are just not accurate. You can see a picture of a girl and then meet her and she’s nothing like the picture. A picture holds so much clout in the decision-making and it’s off so many times. There’s an argument that it will save a girl time and rejection if the boy feels she’s ‘not his look.’ I don’t agree with that because after sitting down with someone for three hours, an initial impression based on looks can change. It might not always happen, but it’s not right to use a picture to nix someone before getting to know their personality. Judgment is being made over a one-dimensional picture without the smile, the chein.”

Worse, Mrs. T. finds that many mothers are independently nixing shidduchim for their sons based on a girl’s looks. “Some boys are involved, but I think many mothers will just look at pictures on their own and decide. If they don’t like the picture, the suggestion doesn’t even get to the son. All in the name of ‘I know my son’s look’, instead of having the boy meet a girl and decide on his own.”

The situation seems to be worsening with mothers demanding more and varied pictures, with some insisting on full-length pictures. And Mrs. T. feels that, in addition to being “insulting and off-putting” to girls, the practice of having them be photographed by a professional photographer is “wrong and unfair.”

In answer to whether this campaign will have an impact, Mrs. T. says, “There is a difference between what impact it should have and what it could have. It should show that dating can exist without pictures of girls and we can reset to a more normal standard than what we’re allowing here. It’s not aligned with all the other things that daas Torah demands of us in terms of tznius. What could it do? I don’t know. I’m wondering if shadchanim are getting pushback and if mothers are waiting out the 30 days and then asking for the picture.

“It’s very upsetting. I have a boy too. But if you have principles, you know it’s wrong.”

Eliyahu has been dating for over two years and is adamantly opposed to the idea of girls sending pictures. However, he concedes that he is in the minority. “My impression is that there are circles where pictures are widely accepted and almost a given, but there are definitely pockets of different chevrahs where it’s the other way around. Within my close group of friends, it’s actually a given that the boy does not want a picture and that the shadchan shouldn’t send one.”

There are several damaging aspects of pictures that Eliyahu enumerates. “First and foremost, I think it’s a very big breach of tznius. It’s way too intimate. It’s bad enough that we throw around girls like pieces of paper; we don’t need to throw around their faces too. I myself have little personal experience with pictures other than the rare times that a shadchan has assumed I wanted one and accidentally sent it to me. But my involvement with other guys and my siblings has shown that often it’s a big misrepresentation of what’s actually there — mitov u’mira. It could be better or it could be worse.”

Personal experience has taught him that “there are many more aspects to a shidduch and hopefully many more reasons you’re trying to marry someone other than what they look like. There are times when a shidduch doesn’t look like someone I’d be attracted to at first glance, but by continuing to go out, I find other aspects of the person that are attractive. Of course, things often won’t work out because human beings are wired to be attracted to certain looks, but more than once I have found myself getting more into a shidduch as it progressed than I thought I would be able to.”

Eliyahu is opposed to boys sending pictures as well, but he does admit that boys may put more of an emphasis on looks than girls, which leads to more boys requesting pictures than sending them. I think boys put more of a premium on looks because it may be innate, but there is a range of boys. Some are more makpid on looks, some less makpid. But I do think that range is more extreme with boys than girls.”

To the question of who might be behind this practice, Eliyahu ascribes equal blame to shadchanim, mothers and boys. “In my experience it’s all three. Some shadchanim push an idea through looks. I’ve also seen some mothers who are looking for a trophy piece and demand pictures. And looks are also a very high priority for some guys.”

According to Eliyahu, those involved in the shidduch process might have to adjust their expectations if they want this initiative to succeed. “I think to eradicate it completely would take a lot of work, because you’re still going to have that underground network of people using pictures. But I think the strong statement coming from Rabbanim will make a big difference. A lot of it is lack of awareness. Many boys who aren’t attuned to the sensitivities and nuances of tznius, or who don’t have siblings or friends who are dating, don’t have proper awareness. If there is enough pressure against it, I think that definitely can go a long way.