Teaching the Ex-Orthodox How To Date in New York

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 27 2012 1:33 PM

Hey Baby, What’s Your Sinai?

Teaching ex-Orthodox Jews how to date in New York.

Israel Irenshtain

Photo courtesy Israel Irenshtain.

“If I could work magic in your dating life,” Israel Irenstein says, “what would you have me change?” We’re sitting at a table at Pret A Manger in Union Square, and Irenstein, a 35-year-old dating coach dressed neatly in a pale green Tommy Hilfiger button-down, is talking with Sam, a 29-year-old ex-Orthodox Jew. Sam looks terrified behind his wire-rimmed glasses. Clutching the strap of his bag under the table as if it’s the leash of an unruly dog, he displays an impressive commitment to deflection—responding to Irenstein’s personal questions by spouting perplexing theories, including, “A major aspect of the notion of getting better at dating is not about increasing the total numbers, but increasing the yield of the process.”

Irenstein tries a new angle: “Who do you think wants sex more,” he asks Sam, “men or women?” Sam concedes that this may not be a universal truth, but in his experience women totally want it more.

According to Irenstein, lack of self-confidence pervades the recently ex-Orthodox, who refer to themselves as OTD, or “Off the Derech” (derech is Hebrew for path). Once they’ve gone off the path, for a variety of reasons including loss of faith, distaste for the lifestyle, and longing to educate themselves beyond the Jewish texts, OTD’ers are like immigrants in the secular world, unsure of the language and customs of dating, battling the voices of their parents and rabbis, who warned them that touching the opposite sex before marriage would incur God’s wrath.

Advertisement

“There are three problems specific to the ex-religious when they first try to date,” Irenstein says. “Inexperience, having no identity, and having no understanding of the opposite sex.” That makes sense when you consider how insular the Orthodox communities are. Premarital sex, even premarital touching, is prohibited. And there is a rule for everything, including which shoelace to tie first and what to do with one’s facial hair. OTD’ers who come to Irenstein never had the awkward, albeit formative, experiences the rest of us had—slow-dancing with some height-inappropriate partner in seventh grade, locking braces with someone in the back of a movie theater, getting to “second base.” Their questions for Irenstein range from the peculiar such as, “Is it OK to pay a girl $80 to go out with me?” to the commonplace concerns of men on the New York dating scene: “How many dates before I should allow her to split the check?”

Irenstein doesn’t just answer their questions about the game; he shoves the men out onto the field. By the end of his session with Sam, he’ll have Sam approaching girls, trying to score a phone number, or at least to touch an elbow during some flirtatious banter.

At 29, Irenstein was married with two daughters, living in the Hasidic community he’d grown up in. He remembers his 6-year-old coming home from school and telling him that non-Jews existed solely to witness the good deeds of the Jews. He’d wanted out of Hasidism for a while, but that was the day he pulled his kids out of school and laid plans to move. “I would have done anything,” says Irenstein, “even given up my own life, to make sure my kids weren’t forced into cult living.”

Having grown up in Israel and Brooklyn, Irenstein landed in secular New York with a third-grade-level education and a mediocre grasp of English. When he and his wife divorced, he found himself on foreign ground. “I had no idea how to talk to women,” he says. “I’d never even looked one in the eye.” Irenstein’s former Hasidic community, Gur, is one of the strictest sects, as well as one of the most sexually squeamish. Even married couples aren’t supposed to kiss, and they’re allowed sex only for purposes of procreation.

Frustrated by his own cluelessness, Irenstein turned to pick-up artists and dating coaches, including New York Dating Coach, as well as to self-help books, Tony Robbins’ confidence-building seminars, and therapy. He was less interested in learning pickup lines and routines than he was in retraining his brain; he wanted to project self-confidence. Today, that’s what he teaches—that if you feel good about yourself, you’ll have an easier time with the opposite sex. It sounds basic, but to many OTD’ers, it’s not.

A naturally outgoing person, Irenstein learned quickly and his dating life began to thrive. He, became a dating coach himself, sometimes freelancing for New York Dating Coach, other times taking on private clients. But he doesn’t charge for the one-on-one coaching he offers people like Sam and the dating seminars he conducts at Footsteps, a nonprofit that helps OTD’ers assimilate. “People helped me,” Irenstein says, “so I make it a point to help others.”

“At Footsteps, the men come in wondering, ‘If I go with someone to a movie, how do I know if it’s a date or if we’re just friends?’” says Lani Santo, the group’s executive director.  “‘Where can I meet people to date? Can I only meet people in bars? That’s what I’ve seen in movies.’ When people are segregated by gender from a young age, learning how to navigate dating and relationships is an enormous challenge.”

Ryan Pollack, a 35-year-old Footsteps member,  reminisces about his early days in the secular world. “I met girls,” he says, “but I was constantly in the ‘friend zone.’ I had no clue how to take things to the next level.” When he met Irenstein at Footsteps, Irenstein invited him to a pool party. Pollack brought a girl with him and Irenstein pulled him aside to say, “She likes you. Kiss her.” Never having kissed a girl, he was scared, but with Irenstein’s encouragement, he went for it. “That changed my life,” Pollack says. Soon after, Irenstein took him shopping. Since growing out of baby clothes, Pollack had worn nothing but the requisite white button-down shirt and black pants. “He showed me Calvin Klein,” Pollack recalls. “He showed me blazers! I started wearing blazers with jeans and the response I got was incredible. People started looking at me. Girls would say, ‘You look so handsome.’”

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The Ludicrous Claims Women Are Pitched at “Egg Freezing Parties”

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 1:11 PM This Company Wants to Fight World Hunger With Flies 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 1:01 PM Can Activists Save Reyhaneh Jabbari?  
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 1:13 PM The Essence of Gender Roles in Action Movies, in One Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 12:01 PM Rocky Snow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.