Revisiting JSinglesSpace and the Continuity Cafe
The piece below originally appeared as part of the Jewish Week’s “Big Ideas” Issue in December of 2006 and decried a lack of research on Jewish singles and suggested a center for research of single life which could double as a young community center and living space for single Jews.
Very recently, researcher Steven M Cohen produced “Uncoupled: How Our Singles are Reshaping Jewish Engagement,” a study about unmarried 20-somethings and 30-somethings and their habits regarding connection to Jewish life. (He’s speaking at the PresenTense Institute this Thursday at 1pm, and I’ve been invited to comment in response. See here for directions.)
But the more I think about it and write about it (on JDatersAnonymous and in the creation of a book proposal on the subject of Jewish singles), and the more I see of the communal approach of the PresenTense Institute, the more relevant I think a proposal like this is–people have their own projects and interests, but the spirit of the collective inspires individuals and their creativity. While this piece was written for the Jewish Week and therefore centered on New York City, the truth is that such an institute could exist in another major city somewhere–Chicago, LA, San Francisco or Jerusalem–and would yield interesting research as well as perhaps some interesting friendships and relationships.
So here’s the piece again for your re-consideration. Looking forward to the discussion. (And yes, the piece is available for reprints–reasonable rates, just ask.)
JSinglesSpace and the Continuity Cafe
by Esther D. Kustanowitz
Each year, a new crop of idealistic Jewish twentysomethings moves to New York City in an attempt to forge romantic futures and financial fortunes in the city that never sleeps. The number of people crammed into Upper West Side two-bedroom apartments that were converted to three to accommodate each year’s immigrant singles thematically recalls Lower East Side tenement days. 10024 has so many single Jewish women that they may not even all show up in a JDate zip code search (a true story from JDate customer service). And many of those twentysomethings stay uncoupled until they’re thirtysomething or fortysomething, clustering in tribes of the seemingly-eternally single. But despite all of these fascinating trends, academic studies have yet to focus on Jewish singles anywhere, let alone within the borders of New York City.
Perhaps this is partly because the community would rather focus on “desingling” singles—fixing what’s broken by fixing us up—than ask us if there’s anything it can do to help provide a structure that would make Jewish life more meaningful for us while we are single. Or maybe the community thinks that we’re not motivated to “move on” to the marriage and children stage that institutional Judaism is much more comfortable with because we’re happy with our single status. One look at the regular Upper West Side scene would support this—people going from one party to the next; never two nights in the same venue or under the aegis of the same Makor or JCC or synagogue; throwing huge Shabbat dinners where everyone just comes and meets and eats and drinks.
While this enthusiasm for the single life certainly exists, the excitement wanes. The longer a Jewish man, or especially, a Jewish woman, is single, the more acutely s/he realizes that traditional, institutional Judaism itself is meant for families. The singles events begin to lose what little appeal they might have had to begin with, and as listlessness and tedium set in, “the scene”—which for the observant or traditionally connected Jew or Jewess, includes synagogues, community centers, fundraising initiatives, outreach institutes and any number of “events lists” sent by friends and community machers—becomes another pathetic obligation, fulfilled because of family guilt or because our married friends are urging us to “put ourselves out there.” At this point, companionship is still a major drive. But when affiliation with the traditional structures of Jewish life holds little appeal to some singles, they can find themselves marooned in spiritual and social solitude while others have gone on to find fulfilling relationships.
It seems clear that the Jewish communal world needs to better understand its singles. But for all the discussions of Jewish demography, Jewish continuity and Gen-X and Y identification with so-called “hipster” Judaism, there seems to be surprisingly little effort applied to understanding what makes singles tick—socially and spiritually.
Columbia has its School of International and Public Affairs. Penn has Wharton. Brandeis has numerous academic institutes, including five centers relating to Jewish concerns (and not even counting their Middle East Institute). But nowhere is there an academic Institute on Jewish Single Life, a serious analysis that would treat singles as a demographic vital to the constant conversation on Jewish continuity rather than a phenomenon or, as some organizations have decreed, a catastrophe.
Ideally, such an Institute will be religiously independent and academically multidisciplinary. A team of top-level demographers, professors, rabbis, educators, social workers, dating coaches, sociologists, anthropologists, matchmakers and lay leaders will meet in cross-denominational task forces to determine the Institute’s areas of focus, such as demographic trends and population statistics, how single life affects spiritual practice, and whether economic background plays a role in what people look for in a spouse. All efforts will be made to ensure that the teams include people of varying marital status. Teams will also begin a comprehensive assessment of community structures and programs, beginning on the local level and then expanding studies to the national level in partnership with existing academic research institutes.
While the Institute will aim for national impact, the building itself will live in New York City. Some might complain that such a plan is New York-centric. But an Upper West Side location is key, because it allows for access to the most intensive cross-section of singles from across the range of Jewish religious observance. Nearly every apartment, kosher market, subway platform or street corner is an instant focus group. Additionally, it geographically positions the institute between major institutions of Jewish learning, with HUC-JIR downtown, YU in Washington Heights and with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and JTS as neighbors. Hopefully, these institutions will also find common ground; engaging in partnerships that conduct an honest investigation into single Jewish life, they will propose a plan allowing for increased roles for single people within the framework of the Jewish community and tradition. Or at the least, they’ll agree to disagree, maybe even respectfully.
Another thing that will distinguish the Institute is its physical location: it will be located in a building which, depending on living capacity, will also house between ten and thirty singles of varying professions, family backgrounds and religious affiliations. In exchange for subsidized rent, residents will function either as research and programming assistants or as “product testers” and members of focus groups. This will provide an on-site living laboratory for research. For example, if a study is assessing the projected generalization that people misrepresent themselves online—with men claiming three more inches of height and women three pounds fewer in weight than reality indicates—house residents will be asked to assess the online dating profiles of their fellow residents to determine whether these generalizations are true. Residential amenities will include in-house counseling services by RAs (Relationship Advisors), an extensive Jewish and relationships-themed library, and a laundry room.
The Institute will also house an events space suitable for up to two hundred guests. The space (JSingleSpace-NYC) will be available to any Jewish young professionals’ organization at a low rental fee as long as events cater to the Jewish 20s-40s population and provide the participants with an opt-in email list to become part of future online and in-person focus groups. Event organizers will also submit a program assessment to the Institute within a week after the event. This will provide an ongoing pool of human resources for the Institute and also create a Jewish singles events archive, with each event assessed for its efficacy in creating a productive environment for singles. The Institute will also house The Continuity Café, a coffee bar and cocktail lounge with good coffee, a fully stocked bar, fresh kosher baked goods and sandwiches, and free high-speed wireless access, providing singles with a casual, friendly place to hang out and meet dates for happy hour.
What remains, as often does once Big Ideas are proposed, is the question of funding. While the idea of having an academic partner makes sense, an affiliation with one particular funder (or even a group of funders) could carry a bias or an expectation that certain studies would be pursued or results reported. Perhaps the best approach would be to center the financial burden of the Institute on the business that anchors the academia: JSinglesSpace-NYC. Relying on The Continuity Café to live up to its name will allow single patrons of the Institute to re-invest their drinking dollars in themselves and mingle with their peers, while freeing the Institute from dependence on foundations and their organizational priorities. Creating individual “memberships” would offer a longer-term level of commitment to the mission of the Institute. It could even provide an opportunity for observant Jews to rent JSinglesSpace-NYC for new indie minyanim, or to pay in advance for refreshments at The Continuity Café, so the space could host a Shabbat afternoon oneg without violating the Sabbath.
To be sure, there are details to be worked out—a location needs to be secured, staff needs to be interviewed and hired, and there’s still the matter of trying to run a business in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City. But by using eventual business profits instead of demanding grants from the Jewish community, the Institute, JSinglesSpace and The Continuity Café will to make a difference in the qualitative life of Jewish singles, making a palpable impact on contemporary Jewish life while providing a service vital to the pace of this energetic city. By recommitting to caffeine, the community will be funding the Jewish future. Consider it coffee for continuity.
Esther D. Kustanowitz has agreed to direct The Continuity Café, but only if it comes with a decent salary, benefits, and a cappuccino machine.
This entry was posted by Esther Kustanowitz on July 14, 2008 at 4:39 am, and is filed under First Person Singular (Jewish Week Singles Column), How to Solve the Singles Crisis, The Single Life. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.