Love Yourself

Woman hugging herself in front of wooden structure

Young girl, you’re going to have to love yourself. You’re going to have to know your own worth in a time when other people are going to put a price tag on you. You’ll be labelled, bar coded, and put on a shelf with your expiration date clearly marked for discerning consumers. You will become a commodity for other people to examine, speculate on, and haggle over. Young girl, you’d better know who you are and stay firm in that knowledge, despite others trying to redefine you.

I was once you, young girl. I couldn’t have anticipated how all of the lessons I had learned, all of the skills and education I had acquired, and all of the friendships that I had made didn’t really make a difference in preparing me for dating. There seems to be two different sets of self-esteem in a woman’s life – one in her life apart from men and one in her life among them. Girls who grow up in a female centric world are unprepared for the emotions and vulnerability they face when they enter the world of dating. The tools needed for non-romantic relationships, often aren’t the necessary equipment required for romantic ones.

Part of this is because of the buildup. Most little girls don’t grow up with the elders in their lives opining, “Someday, Im Yirtzeh Hashem, you’re going to make a friend!” The end goal of your life isn’t described as being single with many close family ties and female friendships to enrich your existence. Even though I didn’t grow up frum, I grew up with a set of old fashioned values and expectations that didn’t differ much from the orthodox world.

As a young girl, I had a list of accomplishments I wanted to achieve. For example, I wanted to graduate from high school, I wanted to graduate from college, I wanted to write a great novel, I wanted a job to make my own money, I wanted hair that didn’t frizz in humidity, and I wanted a boyfriend. There were lots of other things I wanted, but those are the ones that come immediately to mind.

My mother only seemed to have two main objectives for me – to get married and have babies. Any other pursuit I engaged in was just biding my time until I achieved the ultimate status of “wife” and “mother” (God forbid the “mother” come before the “wife”). When it came to sex, my mother only had one piece of wisdom to offer, “Good girls wait until after marriage, bad girls don’t. The best girls continue to wait even after marriage.” I added that last sentence in myself for the benefit of my daughter.

The point is that even though I didn’t grow up in the orthodox community, and additionally I had other cultural examples of dating from my non-Jewish friends, at home I was given a very strict upbringing when it came to boys. My parents only allowed me to date when I was old enough to consider marriage prospects, and of course, those prospects had to be Jewish.

With all that waiting for dating (going through public high school without ever going out on a real date is a rare thing), I was more than ready to start dating in college. I had no idea that the people skills and maturity I thought I had developed over eighteen years would not even begin to prepare me for the vulnerability and judgement I felt upon entering the dating world.

Maybe it was the unintended message I received that this was “the big show.” While I wasn’t part of the shidduch world, where 23 years old is over the hill for a woman, I still had the sense that college was going to be my only chance to meet my future husband. When you live in the secular world as a Jew, it’s sometimes like being on a lonely deserted island, at least if you have the goal to marry another Jew. The only Jews I knew were overwhelmingly a good 40+ years older than me – relatives or friends of my family. Where did all the young Jews hang out? In my case, they were at the Hillel on my college campus.

At the first Hillel gathering I attended, there was a bevy of bespectacled Jewish near sighted hunks. Bingo! While there were more kippot than I’d ever seen in one room outside of shul, they were guys my own age and of my own tribe – it was an anthropological wonder for a girl usually known for being the only Jew in the room among her other friends. Additionally, I met some great girls who became my closest friends in college, and who turned out to be much steadier companions than the boyfriends who came and went like a revolving door.

I was ill prepared for how my self-worth seemed to become totally dependent upon how whatever boy I was dating at the moment saw me. If he liked me, I liked me. If he didn’t like me, I didn’t like me. All through my childhood and teen years, I had been given subtle messages that the sign of a woman’s worth is her husband. A valuable girl will get a valuable guy – smart, handsome, educated, white collar, financially well off. A lesser girl will get a lesser guy – not so handsome or smart, a blue collar job that doesn’t pay well, possibly abusive.

Basically, a woman’s status in life is determined by her husband’s position in life – her individual worth is developed from a young age for the purpose of eventually getting the best mate, and after that, her ultimate value is determined by who picks her. As in the orthodox world, in the secular world, a girl who comes from money can use that asset to compensate for other areas in which she may be lacking (e.g. beauty, thin figure, middos, charm, and intelligence). I didn’t come from money.

The best thing I ever did was to take an almost two year break from dating during college to get my head together. Not only did I start soaring academically, but my friendships began flourishing. I had a more active social life than when I had been dating and revolving my life around being available “just in case he calls.” When I decided to take my break, I honestly didn’t even know who I was anymore. All I knew was what different failed relationships had told me about myself – and that wasn’t me. I let people outside of myself tell me my flaws and my attributes. I let people outside of myself tell me I wasn’t good enough.

I can only imagine how much more painful this judgement is when it’s not being brought down by just one person (the guy), but by an entire committee (the shadchan, the guy, the guy’s mother, the references). I had been asked out by a few guys who I would never have considered going out with for various reasons. However, when someone unsuitable asks you out on random impulse, it doesn’t necessarily say anything bad about you that this type of person asked you out (e.g. my freshman year, a non-Jewish guy in my English class who wore combat boots and a mohawk asked me out. No offense to him, he was a sweet guy, we just weren’t a match). He was just trying his luck on a whim.

However, when it’s a committee that makes a cold and calculated decision that you only deserve to be set up with the “lesser guys” because you are a “lesser girl” that can be soul shattering. What are the reasons for being lesser? The reasons can range from being poor, having a health condition, having parents or siblings with a health condition, getting on the wrong side of an influential rabbi or school administrator, any hint of scandal surrounding your family, being any shade darker than a Miami tan on New York winter white skin, being Sephardic instead of Ashkenazic – any of these reasons or more could be why a girl’s resume is placed in the subbasement of Shidduch Central Inc..

Add into the mix that ultimately, the girl usually takes a passive role in dating proceedings with a guy she likes. Sure, a girl can put the kibosh on future dates with a guy she didn’t enjoy going out with. However, it’s usually the guy who has a stack of resumes to choose from, and initiates a date. Even if a girl wants to go out with a guy a second time, all she can do is indicate her interest to the shadchan, but it’s his final decision to call again or not.

Many orthodox guys in the shidduch system could have several different dates per week if they wanted. Many girls can go months waiting by the phone for a shadchan to call them with a suggestion. The girl has the right of refusal, but if the girl hasn’t had a dating opportunity in months, she will feel compelled to go on the date, even if he doesn’t sound ideal. The boy doesn’t feel this pressure of having few options to choose from. It’s not as big of a deal to him to pass up on one date as it is to her.

In my day, dating was like that in the secular world too. Sure, there were some aggressive girls who took the bull by the horns and asked guys out, but for the most part, if you liked a guy who didn’t seem to notice you, all you could do was throw hints and hope he caught them. Even if he did ask you out once, the proper etiquette was for him to say he would call you as you said your goodbyes, and all you could do was hope that he actually would. To call him before he called you reeked of desperation.

Young girl, you’re going to have to build walls, be chutzpadik, and fight for yourself. If you want a type of guy that you’re not being set up with, you need to wander outside the system. Girls need to band together and form unofficial networks, sharing basic information about guys that didn’t work out for them, but might be well suited for another. Don’t underestimate the number of people who have simply dropped out of the shidduch system in disgust, but who are still single and looking. Girls need to find mentors who volunteer to make matches not for money, but for the mitzvah. There are people in almost every community who devote chesed hours to setting up singles, hosting small events, and spending time getting to know the singles they are trying to set up.

Part of the problem is that some matchmakers have such an overabundance of female resumes, that the personal touch is lost. Don’t take an impersonal system personally. You are more than a dowry, or a dress size, or your mother’s gallstones, or where you went to camp when you were 10. Know yourself – don’t let others introduce you to who they think you are. Decide for yourself, and defend yourself if others try to change your truth. Love yourself and you will find another to love.

Is the Orthodox community suffering from compassion fatigue?

compassionThis is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. The first time I heard about an incidence of child abuse in my community was over twenty years ago. Being an idealistic newbie to the Orthodox neighborhood, I was absolutely shocked to hear allegations (for abuse committed many years back) against a seemingly gentle old man. Apparently, this man (now deceased) had caused untold harm to young children back in his younger days, but was never held accountable for his actions.

Moving forward, the internet provided an underground grapevine of whisperings that before passed between families through word of mouth, but now passes through online bulletin boards, blogs, Facebook, and phone apps. Social media gives people the opportunity to openly share accusations to the world either under their own name or a pseudonym.

Even if the accused is never charged with a crime (often they are not), exposing the alleged perpetrator is one way for victims or their supporters to get some form of justice and also put out a warning to others who might encounter the individual in question. The global nature of the internet also means that someone who commits a crime in one part of the world, and tries to flee to another part of the world, can’t escape their notoriety by changing locations.

As online participation grew in the Orthodox community, so did websites and online publications devoted to unearthing maggots who committed heinous crimes under the guise of piety and under the protection of powerful leaders who felt that protecting the community’s reputation trumped getting justice for those irreversibly injured by human fly larvae sporting kippahs or wigs.

In the beginning, when online allegations would be published, there were mixed reactions. Some people were outraged that good people, who had never been charged with a crime, were being slandered. Other people were outraged that the accused escaped justice and the victim left to rot in the depths of the trauma they endured. Cases that were reported to police and received wider news coverage divided the camps within the community even more. Offline rallies were organized in some instances; those in Camp A railing against abuse being covered up and allowed to continue, those in Camp B defiantly defending the accused, speaking out against the victim, and organizing fundraisers to pay the accused’s legal expenses.

The comments on abuse articles on some popular Jewish blogs sometimes outnumbered the comment sections of major newspapers. Vicious fights took place between opposing sides, and sometimes even more poignant insights to the frum world could be found in the comment sections than in the original post.

The complex reactions that people have to finding out that they have been betrayed by someone inside their “circle of trust” is mind boggling. For some the revelation is met by determined denial and defense of the construct they’ve always believed in. For others, the news is met by distrust and rejection of the entire system. Still others will take a more pragmatic view of individual situations, and blame the perpetrator, but not necessarily the leadership that allowed the person to continue living among the community, perhaps under supervision. Pragmatists will allow that there is room to acknowledge that the high rate of recidivism among sex offenders wasn’t fully understood by those of us without a background in criminal psychology, and that the leadership did their best with the information they had.

Today, 10-15 years out from the early days of social media sharing, the lurid stories sometimes pour out at a dizzying pace. Additionally, in a positive move forward, abuse survivors are stepping forward and speaking directly to the public in their own voice, defying those who would dare tell them to hide in the shadows and deny their own truth. Conferences with panels of abuse experts and testimonials from survivors attract generous audiences, and are usually captured on video for wider viewing. There is now an open public dialog in the Orthodox community about child sexual abuse and sexual abuse in general. The next phase, which is happening in some progressive Jewish day schools, is classroom education geared for children to speak to them about abuse in language they can understand.

This new openness is a good thing, as victims now have a better chance to be seen as the wronged party and treated accordingly. The shame factor for survivors has diminished significantly with public discourse, although, I will say that many of the victim testimonies I have listened to online are from those who are safely married and no longer in danger of not finding a marriage partner due to their activism. It still takes an extra dose of courage to come forward as a single person and share a sexual abuse story with the world.

However, I have to wonder, as with any tragedy reported in the news that at first is shocking, but becomes just another headline to skip over after the thousandth report on the topic, are we suffering from compassion fatigue? Compassion fatigue is lessening of compassion over time due to constant exposure to traumatic situations. Health care professionals, first responders, family members caring for seriously ill loved ones, and others, report feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, fatigue, and other negative symptoms due to burn out. There are those who have suggested that our constant exposure to shocking news items has dulled the emotions and expected compassionate response of readers. It’s all too much.

These musings came shortly before the announcement that Shmarya Rosenberg is leaving his Failed Messiah blog after 12 years. Failed Messiah was a blog of guilty interest that probably prompted more Rosh Hashanah resolutions before Yom Kippur (in the coming new year, I will give up….reading Failed Messiah) for Jews, than the number of Catholics who give up candy for Lent before Easter.

Love it or hate it, Failed Messiah was one of the first blogs to openly publicize accusations of child abuse, the whereabouts of accused molesters who had evaded justice, and the identities of those who assisted such perpetrators. Whether he left his blog to pursue other interests, for financial gain, or simply because of burnout is something only he knows. However, there is still work to be done. Protecting our children from predators and spreading awareness only works as a relay race. Child abuse activists often burn bright and burn fast, so being able to pass the baton to others is imperative. It will be interesting to see if new faces will step up to fill the void.