To Be Young, Gifted And Orthodox — And Divorced
Tue, 12/07/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
“It’s been hard, because I’m just learning the rules of the game,” says Michael Zand. photos by michael datikash
“It’s been hard, because I’m just learning the rules of the game,” says Michael Zand. photos by michael datikash

Cheerful and determined, Cynthia Galimidi is ready to find her soul mate — again.

At 29, the Hillside, N.J., resident has started dating again after more than seven years of marriage. Many people are just getting married or starting a family in their late 20s. Galimidi has four daughters — ages 8, 6, 5 and 3.

She knows that’s a daunting prospect for potential suitors.

“I’m 29, I have four kids,” said Galimidi, who works in sales for a clothing company. “But then again, someone who’s scared of that, they’re not going to be compatible with me either.”

Then there’s Michael Zand. Married at 22 to the second woman he ever went out with, the Washington Heights lawyer and father of two is navigating the unfamiliar world of dating.

“It’s been hard, because I’m still learning the rules of the game,” said Zand, 36.

These stories are not atypical in the Orthodox community, where marriage and several children by age 30 are common. For some, a young marriage is followed by a young divorce. And while dating after divorce can be frightening, exhilarating, exhausting and invigorating, for divorcés in the Jewish community — particularly in the Orthodox community — the experience comes with unique challenges and opportunities.

Dr. Michael Salamon, author of “The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures,” estimates that the divorce rate for Orthodox marriages is 30 percent — far higher than some other estimates.

“The bulk of divorces are among people who were married less than seven years,” said Salamon, founder of the Adult Developmental Center, a psychological consulting practice in Hewlett, L.I.

“They didn’t get to learn the proper skills to find the right person. They were reliant and dependent on others, and not listening to their own needs.”

Needless to say, not every Orthodox divorcé fits this description. Galimidi said she enjoyed a healthy dating life before meeting her future husband at 19, and falling in love. “I was never pressured from my parents,” she said. “I was ready to embark on the next step.”

Zand, though, regrets marrying at a young age. “Too young,” he said. “Don’t let kids get married so young. They can’t teach that in yeshiva, it’s terrible. I feel a lot of anger toward my rebbes. I was a very good student, I was very obedient, and I actually listened to what they said.”

Reuven (his name has been changed), a Long Island graduate student, felt a sense of relief when he married in his mid-20s. “I was interested in getting married, but I would get very anxious – talking to people I don’t know, and having to make plans and contingency plans, and the various things associated with dating,” Reuven recalls.

“With her” – his future wife – “things just clicked from the beginning. There’s that feeling — Thank God, I never have to date again.”

But things didn’t turn out the way Reuven had planned. His wife, he said, began to struggle with mental illness, and then asked for a divorce.

“Emotionally, this was something that was sudden. We had had a good relationship,” said Reuven, now in his early 30s. “For me, it was a weird mixture of being divorced and being widowed. The person that I married is not here anymore.”

After the trauma of divorce, Salamon said, many Orthodox divorcés try a different approach to dating.

“They are less likely to go the shidduch route [through a matchmaker] and more willing to take the time to get to know the person that they’re dating,” he said. “They have more realistic ideas of what a relationship should be.”

Rather than exclusively going to singles events, Salamon said, these divorcés will go to clubs or friends’ houses, trying out new, “secular” ways of meeting people.

For those like Zand, who had only gone on dates through matchmakers before marriage, post-divorce dating is akin to traveling in a foreign country.

“I don’t know certain rules — like putting the credit card into the plastic thing at a restaurant,” he said. “I’ve learned recently that you can tell the waiter to bring food back to the kitchen if you don’t like it.

“Or as far as speaking on the phone before a date, if it just started through an e-mail conversation on JDate; or as far as when you could hold hands and all that. I’m learning.”

Complicating matters, Zand has gone through his own religious evolution. Once strictly Orthodox, he no longer affiliates with the community.

Conservative and Reform divorcées, he said, tend to be in their late 30s and early 40s, having married later in life. Some are reluctant to date a younger man, albeit one just a few years younger than they are.

Relatively speaking, a larger number of Modern Orthodox divorcées are on JDate, Zand said, but he no longer maintains Orthodox practice. And younger single women across the denominational board are often reluctant to date a man with children.

“I’m in this Twilight Zone,” he said. “I’m in this strange category where things don’t line up well.”

Even non-dating experiences can be difficult, as Zand discovered when he tried to sign up with Shabbat.com, a Web site that helps connect guests and hosts for Shabbat meals around the world.

When he set up his profile, Zand said, he wrote that he has two children — and was then blocked up from signing up as a guest.

But like many divorcés, Zand shares custody of his daughters, and was, in fact, not planning on spending that Shabbat with them.

“I had to delete my children” from the profile, Zand said, in order to register as a guest.

“I would have felt better if the site had been designed to take into account single parents, who have children sometimes. They just assumed you’re either married with children, and that you’re a host, or that you’re single and without children, and therefore you’re a guest.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Cynthia Galimidi, who said divorce has only strengthened her commitment to Orthodoxy and her connection to the community.

Despite enduring divorce at a young age, she said, “My kids have never felt that void. My community has treated me like a sibling.”

When she’s not hosting Shabbat meals at her home in Hillside, Galimidi said she visits other communities, “making new friends that I really wouldn’t have made otherwise.”

She relies on websites such as SawYouAtSinai.com to meet people, as well as set-ups through friends, and hopes to find a “really compassionate person, or someone who themselves have walked in those shoes of being divorced – anyone who clicks with me, who wants to embark on my journey.”

For his part, Reuven said he’s had no shortage of offers from friends to set him up on dates – and he’s doubtful that divorced women are presented with as many options.

“It really seems to be that divorced men are in much better shape than divorced women,” he said. “I recognize it as a gross imbalance. I have people all over the place wanting to set me up. I know it’s much harder for divorced women. I kind of won the lottery at birth on that one.”

That said, Reuven hasn’t actually started dating since his divorce.

When he goes out with someone new, he said, “I want to be able to focus exclusively on her, and not have the ghosts of the past on my mind.” It’s a challenge that any divorcé, Jewish or non-Jewish, could certainly understand.