Daniella’s Story: Single and Self Actualized

daniella-featured

When Daniella first reached out to me, I knew right away that I wanted to tell her story. She was articulate and had a very clear vision about her own healthy boundaries. She was concerned with self actualization. She wanted to be happy, regardless of how the norms of society dictated to her that she could “find that happiness.” I found talking to her inspiring and refreshing, and I felt she was the perfect person to begin with for our new Singles Series.

I asked her to start at the beginning of her story. “I was convinced that I would start dating as soon as I possibly could, and I did when I was 19, living in Israel. I was exposed to my teachers, as couples, who set really good examples of married life. Dating in Israel, for me, was really healthy. Everyone from the random woman you meet on the street, to your best friends, wants to set you up.”

In the end, Daniella decided to come back to New York, because her passions for Jewish Education she felt were better suited teaching outside of Israel. “The reaction that I got when I told people that I was going to be going to Stern and moving back to America, was very often, “Oh you are moving back because of dating. Because you couldn’t find someone in Israel.” It was actually the opposite. Daniella was nervous about what dating would be like in New York.

“In New York there was so much pressure. Everyone you know is on a date, getting engaged, married and having their first babies. Even though I always believed in getting married at the right time, rather than soon, the pressure exists. It was so much of the atmosphere of my experience at Stern and I felt a pressure to figure out what was going to differentiate me from everyone else. What was going to make me stand out? I felt there was a sense of underlying competition that was so unhealthy for me.”

When she first got to New York, someone had reached out to set Daniella up with a guy. Before she could be set up with him, she had to meet with a woman who was going to be the go-between. She asked Daniella to bring a “shidduch resume,” and she didn’t have one. Daniella’s cousin who was more familiar with this dating scene made her one quickly so she could go to this meeting. “We were supposed to be talking about this particular boy, but instead, she was marking off my resume- telling me how to fix it and what to do. She asked me what I did in the summers, and I told her about this awesome program working with Jewish teens in a High School in Sydney, that I loved and was proud of. She looked up at me and said, ‘Wow, that is so marketable.’”

Daniella was devastated. “I left in tears, furious- the thing I loved doing, that I did because I enjoyed it and found it meaningful, was now reduced an item on a checklist. I felt that all my good qualities and experiences were a part of a checklist, instead of just organically being a part of me.

I didn’t realize how unhealthy this seemingly normal mentality was for me until I left.”

Daniella explained that the mentality didn’t only come from the shadchanim. The feeling of being single was exaggerated by the culture and society amongst friends (both married and single), strangers, and co-workers. “It sometimes felt that I was considered ‘half a person’ – incomplete until I found my man to complete me. I was frustrated by this (and still am). Where did this idea of ‘half a person’ come from? Before you are married you aren’t half a person, you are a whole person. When you get married you are joined with a second person. You are not two incomplete people who complete each other, you are two complete people that compliment each other.  A single woman is whole on her own.”

Daniella continued to live in Washington Heights and was enjoying living with her friends. She was in no rush to get married, and was working in a school in New Jersey, as a teacher’s assistant, and was looking for a high school position for the next year. She was looking in the tri-state area because that’s where “all the single people” lived.

“In December time, I got a call from a yeshiva high school in Dallas, and they wanted to fly me down for an interview for a full-time teaching job in the school. This was my dream job. I told them that at this point in my life I couldn’t go because of my stage in life, but I would love to one day. They told me to come anyway and check it out, no commitments- and figuring it was always good to network- I went. I fell in love with the community and the school.

I came back to New York to tell my friends all about it, and they told me I was crazy for even entertaining it. ‘Of course you can’t go now- you are single- how do you think that would work?’”

But Daniella had begun to consider her options. This position in Dallas would be teaching full-time Judaic studies, programming in the school, Gap year/Israel Coordinator- this would be her dream job. When she started to tell her friends, family, and mentors that she was considering it, she got varied responses. Some of her single friends said that they were happy for her and living vicariously through her, they wished that they could do that but they as they are single, they need to be in New York. “Because that’s where everyone says they need to be.”

“My mentors said that I was signing away my marriage if I was going to move to Dallas. I would never get married.

Both reactions upset me. For my friends, I was not the only one who had been offered my dream job somewhere outside of New York, and I always believed that if you want to do something- just do it! I understood their mentality, and initially, I too was affected by it. But if I said no to this, Washington Heights would just feel like a waiting room for me. Waiting to move on professionally and personally with my life.”

Daniella was frustrated because she felt there is no recipe for getting married. “Just being in a certain radius does not guarantee marriage.”

“For my mentors- these are the people that taught me about emunah (faith) and hishtadlus (effort). But basically, they were saying that if I left, God wouldn’t help me.

If I moved to Dallas, there is 100% chance I have my dream job (teaching Torah to children). 50% chance that I would not get married. In the heights, there would zero percent chance I would have my dream job and 50% chance that I would get married. According to the Gemara- you go with what is certain. So I decided that logic, plus emunah that God could find me a husband outside of New York one day, I should move to Dallas.”

Moving to Dallas, Daniella felt that she needed to put in effort to date, as she was leaving the scene where it was supposedly “easier.” She made a deal with her new school in Dallas that she wouldn’t officially work on Fridays so that she could travel into New York to date on the weekends. “The school truly valued my happiness and respected my needs as a person despite my marital status.”

She even had made friends among the Dallas singles community, a wonderful group of people who diversity she would not have encountered in New York circles.

“While I was in New York the question I faced was, ‘what constitutes being a whole person?’- in Dallas the question raised was, ‘what constitutes being an adult?’ Sometimes when I went for shabbos meals, the hosts made comments/jokes, ‘Oh, we weren’t sure if we should put you at the adult or kids table.’ The jokes were all made in good humor, but it got me thinking about why they would ask. It wasn’t because I was young- I was clearly adult enough to be responsible for teaching their children. It wasn’t because I was the children’s teacher. If I had been married and their children’s teacher, there is no way that anyone would have made that comment to me. Is it age? Marital status? Becoming a parent? Turning 30? How I look? What constitutes being an adult? Am I always going to be at the kid’s table until I’m married?”

As a single person in Dallas on the whole, Daniella feels welcomed into the greater community. “The community members are so invested in my happiness, always secretly being ‘on the hunt for Daniella’s husband.’ It’s so sweet how warm the community is.” Being away from New York, really gave her the space to realize how competitive and challenging the dating scene can be. “I barely went on dates this past year but I figured, better fewer dates with people who may be more right for me, than a lot of disappointing dates that are just tiring. On my own, I was able to develop my self-confidence, know who I was and what I wanted.”

There were certain mindsets that were also changed for Daniella when she moved to Dallas. “In New York, I was very shy and almost ashamed of my age (at the time 24) because I knew when I would say how old I was, I would get the pity or nervous looks from people that I was on the brink of being an “old single.” When I moved to Dallas and was asked my age, I timidly responded 24 and the reaction I got was, “you’re so young! Enjoy life! You have plenty of time to be young.” They were right. I am young! And so are people in their 30s – our age should not dictate when our marital status should change. I started to feel more comfortable with myself and my opportunities and less like I was a time bomb.”

Daniella was also living alone for the first time. “I always think about the cliche that people say about Ikea, the furniture store. ‘When you go to Ikea with a significant other, it’s a real test of the relationship’ (because of how overwhelming and large the store and options are). When I moved into my own place, I went to Ikea and joked to myself- ‘Ok! Let’s see if I make it out of here still liking myself’ (I passed).”

She loved her roommates in a shared room in the heights, but she felt she was ready to live alone when she moved to Dallas. “I really enjoy living by myself. It’s nice to be able to watch my shows without headphones, invite people who I want for shabbos without having to ask permission. I live in a two bedroom duplex, one of the bedrooms literally just has my printer. The community helped furnished it for me, which was so generous and thoughtful.

I love people, and sometimes it does get lonely and I sit on my couch and wish I had someone to talk to at the end of the day. While it gets lonely, I don’t feel sad and alone. My New York friends are amazing long distance friends, and I socialize all day long at school. I’m a person who enjoys my quiet time, and so I am enjoying that independence.”

Daniella loves to visit her people in New York, but get uncomfortable by that “return to pressure.” The stress of the environment where everyone is wanting to be set up and waiting to move on. Where everyone is always talking about dating. “When I’m home in Dallas, I don’t feel that same pressure, because there is not many people who talk about it. I find I’m much happier in that low key environment, and I honestly believe that the only way to find someone, is when you are happy. I would much rather be, and be with, a happy, secure person.”

She shared with me the good advice that she had received, “If you want something, you should understand how much you want it, and what you will do to achieve it.’ If you want it until you have to put yourself out there on a dating site or you want it-unless- x,y, and z, you’ll never work hard enough to get it. If I was committed to date and have a fulfilling professional career- I had to do whatever I could, to put myself in situations where I could meet someone. Enough hishtadlus, to the point that I could say, ‘I am actively working towards the goal of meeting someone.’”

Daniella got Jswipe, something that was outside of her comfort zone, and set her location to the whole world. “Eventually, I ended up matching with someone who does live across the world. We are now still together and Thank God, it’s going really well, and it would never have happened had I not took chances on myself, and stepped outside the box. My beshert was not living in New York. Had I let my fears based on communal expectations and pressures get to me, I would have missed out on this amazing relationship, and the potential of beautiful future.”

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.