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The ultra-Orthodox journalist Hilla Phalach is one of the few women in Bnei Brak who was not preoccupied with getting her home spick-and-span during the frenetic days before Pesach. The day after the free weekly paper she edits and produces single-handedly went to press, Phalach allowed herself to while away the morning at her leisure until her meeting. As she leaves the house, elegant and fragrant, while her younger sisters brush the sofas, shine the floor and grumble that she is not pulling her weight with the household chores, she snaps, "When you were little, I took care of you and did all the housework. Now it's your turn."

Her parents are more understanding. Phalach, who has been a producer and editor for the religious radio station Kol Hai and a chain of Haredi local newspapers, comes and goes as she pleases. No one says anything or tries to interfere. She notes that even though working in the media is incompatible with her father's worldview - he belongs to the rigorous Lithuanian stream of Haredi Judaism and is the head of a kollel, a yeshiva for married men - he respects her choice. Phalach even has a driver's license, which is highly unusual for a woman in her community, especially for one not yet married. In a society in which a woman of 22 is an "old maid," if you are around 30 and still single you should at least get some sort of compensation from society. In the case of Phalach, it comes in the form of her relative independence.

What is wrong with the situation of this go-getter, in comparison to her secular counterparts, is not the fact that there is no man in the picture but rather the fact that she still lives at home. Phalach has 11 siblings, only two of whom are married. She shares a room with one of her younger sisters. Her brother Yinon, 25 and a journalist, also still lives at home. But, as she says, "There is no comparison between my situation and his. He is, after all, a young man, and there is no pressure on him to marry."

"There are days when I find my lack of privacy very difficult," Phalach admits. She considered renting a place near her parents - with a female roommate, of course, to prevent gossip - but decided it was not for her. That is how it is in Haredi families: living alone, at any age, is out of the question.

"A woman alone," Phalach explains, "raises questions. Our home might be crowded and intense, but it is a living home, vibrant. I have it good here." Phalach says she is willing to sacrifice a little freedom in order to enjoy the warm family feeling. Thus, for example, she does not connect to the Internet from home, working at friends' homes instead, because her father is opposed to the Internet on principle. She dresses more conservatively than she would if she lived alone and tries not to stay out too late. "I understand my father," she says with resignation, "There are young children in the house and he doesn't want them exposed to such things."

No hurry to marry

Phalach is representative of a wider group of Haredi women who are in no hurry to marry and whose lives are shaped by the conflict between independence and dependence. She "began hearing" - that is, to meet men via shidduch (matchmaking) at the age of 19, but balked at accepting the yoke of marriage: "I have a girlfriend who married young and now has five children. I saw what a marathon this entails, and the economic distress, too. I am the eldest daughter. As a girl, the burden of the home fell on me and I didn't want to get into it prematurely."

Later, when she was ready for marriage, she could not find a suitable partner. "It took me time to put my finger on what bothered me about the men I was meeting," Phalach says. "What's most important for me in a guy is that he be smart. For me, it's essential that he have a head for study. I believe that Torah builds the man. But he also must be connected to the world. When a young woman progresses and sees the world - and women, after all, mature more quickly than men - a gap is created. And it's hard to find that combination in a young man."

The issue of spinsterhood generates considerable tension within the Haredi community. A sea change is taking place. Chaim Walder, a former matchmaker who is now a Haredi writer and the founder of a family counseling center in Bnei Brak, says there are hundreds of single women like Phalach. "The Haredi public is growing, and in the last five years the situation is crying out to the heavens."

"It is the fate of a generation," the rabbis say. "Nothing can be done about it," says Raheli (who asked that her last name not be used), 30, a social worker from Bnei Brak. She is studying law at the Haredi campus of Ono Academic College, which is situated in Kiryat Ono, a Tel Aviv suburb. The women they are talking about are between their mid-twenties and mid-thirties, graduates of teachers' colleges, and overwhelmingly from the Lithuanian Haredi stream. They did not find someone they wanted in the accepted time window, from 19 to 24, and are then "stuck," to use the common Haredi term.

The impression, however, is that these young women are not stuck at all. They long to marry, but do not waste time bemoaning their bitter fate. They advance at work, study and also enjoy the single life to some extent. Perhaps that is what is so threatening to their parents and the rabbis, keeping them up at nights worrying.

Sorrowful press

This concern is reflected in articles in the Haredi press lamenting the situation, in interviews with matchmakers who offer advice on dating behavior and also on the Internet. There are two new Haredi forums on the popular Israeli site Hyde Park. Shidukhei Haredim focuses on the phenomenon of being single, while the closed forum Rivakot is for single women.

The almost universal acceptance that greeted the establishment a few months ago of Binyan Olam, a new matchmaking organization, provides the strongest evidence that the Haredi leadership views the problem as a threat - a catastrophe, even. Founder and director David Katzberg (who is married) says he became involved in matchmaking because of a relative, a 40-year-old single woman and established Binyan Olam to address "the plague of single Haredim," of whom he says there are thousands.

The organization uses a team of matchmakers and a computerized database to find suitable partners for clients, in a throwback to the era before Internet matchmaking sites. Katzberg says there is a constant flow of requests, from thousands of people, and he is in dire need of volunteers and donations. "What has caused this situation?" Walder asks. Personally, he takes a pragmatic approach: "It's all a matter of supply and demand," he says. In his view, if even one or two variables are off, the usually efficient Haredi matchmaking machine goes awry. While men are not restricted to women in terms of age and often marry much younger women, young Haredi women prefer men around their own age. Walder says that a respected rabbi he consulted about creating a matchmaking organization told him there was no point because there are only about 20 bachelors over the age of 30 in the Haredi community. The numbers are much higher for women.

"The creme de la creme," Walder calls these women. "The best and the brightest. Only they are not willing to compromise." The education they received in the Bais Yaakov school system, he says, makes them all want to marry religious scholars. "A guy gets married in no time. The girls are more selective. They want the best the yeshiva has to offer. The tzaddik, the serious scholar, 'or else I will die.'

"Forty or fifty years ago, a young man who didn't work had no chance of finding a worthy bride," Walder says. "Parents wanted a son-in-law who could provide for their daughter. Today it's the opposite, thanks to the revolution fomented by the Hazon Ish and Rabbi Schach." Their revolution led to the emergence of "the society of scholars," where the Haredi ideal is for men to study rather than work.

Unwanted side effect?

A few years ago, says Prof. Tamar El-Or, head of the Lafer Center for Gender Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a similar phenomenon also occurred within Israel's Sephardi community. "This was when the phenomenon of Sephardi Torah scholars had just started. The Or Hahayim teachers' seminary in Bnei Brak was founded, with the idea of educating Sephardi girls who would grow up to marry graduates of Sephardi yeshivas. The seminary expanded and was so successful that there weren't enough yeshiva boys to marry these excellent girls, who found themselves facing a problem."

Is it possible that, even though no one in the Haredi community will say so directly, the very success of the Bais Yaakov schools, which guide their students toward being able to support the yeshiva students they marry, has an unwanted side effect? Has the well-known elitism of the Lithuanian Haredim led them to saw off the branch on which they are sitting?

It no longer works to threaten girls who refuse to find a husband, Walder complains: "This is another myth that has been shattered. There is no such thing in the Lithuanian community as parents imposing their will on their children when it comes to marriage. Young people who do not want to enter the matchmaking process simply opt out these days. In general, they manage their own matchmaking. They talk to the matchmaker. And in any event, from a certain age there is far more openness toward the possibility of a girl calling a boy to check him out before they meet for the first time."

Single women report that they sometimes take control of the first date, in contrast to the situation in the past, suggesting the meeting place or topics of conversations. Society, too, is changing. It is now acceptable for a young woman to get married before an older, unmarried sister does.

"I was absolutely delighted when my younger sister was married. I was happy for her," Phalach says. "But I have heard about a case where a twin who was just minutes older than her sister wouldn't allow the twin to skip over her."

Another explanation for the growing number of unmarried women in the Haredi community is the increasing opening of the gates of higher education and growing professionalization within Haredi society, which is affecting the age of marriage.

A study of the national-religious community conducted in 2001 and commissioned by the feminist religious organization Kolech found a high correlation of higher education among women and the postponement of marriage. True, there is no comparison between the national-religious community, where everyone is expected to obtain higher education, and the Haredi community, where the phenomenon remains quite limited. Nevertheless, Haredi community leaders have a sense of foreboding. A few months ago Haredi teacher-training schools for women were barred from granting a B.Ed. degree (which means they can teach only in Bais Yaakov schools and cannot continue on to a master's degree). One reason was concern about the deferment of marriage.

"The girls have internalized the change more than the boys," El-Or says, "because they are exposed to more general knowledge and that affects their decisions on marriage. Haredi society is now less fearful about its future and less driven to be in control, so women no longer subordinate themselves to everything."

The groundbreaker

Raheli, the law student, agrees. The fact that she has engaged in a lengthy search for self-fulfillment - not necessarily within a Haredi framework - and is nevertheless accepted in her community, points to changing social norms. "The course of my academic career parallels that of Haredi society," she says.

Raheli is a true groundbreaker, but makes a point of remaining within the framework. She lives in the heart of Bnei Brak and her father teaches in a kollel. She has a seminary teaching certificate and had begun teaching kindergarten in the Haredi independent education system. But she wanted a new profession, and enrolled at Orot College (which is identified with the national-religious community), in the West Bank settlement of Elkana. After obtaining a degree in social work she began M.A. studies at Bar-Ilan University, in an area that is controversial for Haredi women: Talmud.

Her M.A. dissertation was on medicine and Jewish religious law, with an emphasis on an analysis of "Tzitz Eliezer" (an encyclopedic work by Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, who died last November), which is studied in yeshivas but which Haredi girls never so much as glance at. "My father and brothers mobilized to help me in studying Gemara (Talmud) and in writing the thesis," she relates. "After all, I had never opened the Gemara before and genuinely needed help. It was a new language for me."

Asked how it was that she was not ostracized, Raheli smiles. "When I was at Orot my brothers thought it was the end of the world. Anything I did after that was already not considered exceptional. My family trusts me." The surrounding society, though, was less tolerant. "They didn't know what to make of me. Once, when I was being checked out for matchmaking, the neighbors said I was a 'Mizrahistit' [Mizrahi national-religious]. But it wasn't important to me. Now things are easier because I'm studying at a 'kosher' place. We are on the edge: Society has just begun to modify its attitude toward education. I see that girls of 24-25 who are studying law already have far fewer problems."

Still, Raheli's academic degrees impede her search for a suitable partner. She admits this without an iota of bitterness. "Generally speaking, there is a disparity between men and women. We'll start with the fact that the women work, the men don't. When a person doesn't work, his thinking is narrow. We were like that, too, when we just came out of the seminary hothouse and began working. Suddenly you have to fend for yourself with your boss and stick up for your rights."

Nevertheless, Raheli wants a yeshiva boy who studies Torah regularly. Because men began attending Haredi colleges after the women, she says, there are no Haredi men her age with academic degrees. She is aware that an educated woman is threatening to a yeshiva student. "The fear is that she will take control of him, and there is no recognition of her needs. That is where the short circuit lies. They don't read her right," Raheli says. "A woman who is self-realized expects to receive, but also has a great desire to give."

Still, she recognizes her complex situation: "Men are sometimes suspicious of me. One time I asked to postpone a first date and the man said, 'Sounds like you are busy with your career.' Or they ask, 'Do you even want to get married?' Of course I do. I don't know how I will work it out with the studies, but there is no doubt that the home will come first."