Photo Credit: www.sefiracreative.com
Art by Sefira Lightstone for The Jewish Press.

Nix the Pix, an initiative started by well-known shadchan Lisa Elefant from Lakewood, New Jersey, began as a 30-day strike against sending out photos as part of the formal shidduch process. Before the initiative, a longstanding conversation was taking place among a group of shadchanim about whether photos help or hinder the shidduch process.

The push to act came after the Meron tragedy. “After any tragedy, we have to think about how we can better ourselves, and many of us have felt sending out pictures was wrong,” says Elefant.

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Currently, the initiative is being renewed every 30 days, after which shadchanim can choose to continue or to remove themselves from the pledge. In the initial 30-day round, 250 shadchanim signed on. As of July 12, Elefant reports, 150 dates have gotten off the ground with no photos sent initially, and at least three engagements have resulted. The shadchanim who signed on to the initiative, now about 180, typically believe that photos are, while not the only factor, a prominent factor in people misjudging the value of the prospective shidduch and unjustly rejecting shidduchim – as well as involving major breaches of tznius.

Pictures have always played a role in shidduchim. Years ago, and even today in communities where Internet and social media aren’t widely utilized, people looked for a girl’s yearbook picture, and mothers and grandmothers would carry pictures of their children in wallets to show shadchanim at weddings or other events, says Baila Sebrow, a shadchan and dating and relationship coach in various Jewish communities for over 35 years who also runs her own singles events.

But Elefant believes there’s been an uptick in the widespread use of and emphasis on photos in the shidduch process, with their centrality due to increased use of technology, which creates greater accessibility and therefore demand for pictures.

“A common argument for the initial inclusion of shidduch pictures with resumes was: If someone can Google me to see what I look like, at least let me give them a nice picture I want them to see,” Elefant says.

There’s no clear trajectory of an exact point in time when pictures became necessary and standardized, but Nechama Sherman, a shadchan in Chicago, says that these days “if you don’t send a picture with a resume, you’ll automatically get a ‘Where’s the picture?’”

Whether photos are a rule or a preference in the shidduch process has practical ramifications for those who feel uncomfortable sending out their picture. Many who feel uncomfortable may send a picture anyway out of fear they would otherwise get fewer suggestions or be put at a disadvantage.

Florida shadchan Ruth Saloff

Ruth Saloff, a shadchan in Florida, relates that she had a girl beg her not to send her picture out because it felt so un-tzanuah (immodest) to her. Noting that all trends can get out of hand, she says, “At this point, some shadchanim or boys’ mothers even ask for a full body picture.” Elefant believes that sending out girls’ pictures is “hypocritical [in relation to] how we raise our daughters: we raise them to be tzanuah and to believe they have value beyond their appearance, and then once they start dating they have to push themselves to take nice pictures to be sent around to strangers?”

Beth Guterman, a shidduch photographer in Monsey, suggests that for those who feel uncomfortable sending out their picture, one option may be to send a low-resolution picture, which is clear but inherently small so it cannot be enlarged to scrutinize. Additionally, she notes that a more modest option can be to send out a headshot similar to one that would be included as a LinkedIn image or in an employer’s directory.

Shadchanim interviewed for this article say that the majority of rejected shidduch suggestions are declined – by both male and female candidates – because of pictures seen beforehand. This is because the photos are generally looked at before the rest of the resume. “This is not just in Jewish shidduchim,” Saloff explains. “Think about how JSwipe or similar apps work: People swipe through pictures, and once they see a picture they like, then they’ll decide to read about them.”

Although it can be argued that pictures should not necessarily be eradicated from the shidduch process but rather downplayed as just one aspect of the person, Rebbetzin Dr. Efrat Sobolofsky, director of YUConnects, a matchmaking service for those in the YU community and others, sounds a cautionary note.

“We can’t underestimate the impact that the picture has on people, even if we try to say it’s not so important,” she says. “It can instantly make a person less excited about a date before they even meet the other person, or simply reject the shidduch.”

Because photos are one-dimensional and cannot convey the full context of the person, including their body language, tone of voice and personality, they are of limited use in determining whether someone will be attracted to the person or not, Sebrow points out. “Do you know how much time I spend just telling people the way a person’s picture looks is not necessarily how they look, or how you will perceive them, in real life?”

In some communities where Internet and social media are not as widely used and therefore finding a picture is not as simple, the mother may go to shul to see the prospective girl, and the father may seek out a glimpse of the boy. Although the primary goal in this case is still to see the person, in real life you see a more complete “image” of the person, including their body language, posture, and style of dress, says Sebrow. “When you see a person in person, that one physical trait that got emphasized in the picture de-magnifies itself in the larger context.”

Saloff notes that while we are visual beings, and it is natural to want to see how the person looks, the problem is that when you see the picture before you meet the person, you create a single image of who the person is. To combat the lack of context that a picture can create, while still trying to accommodate the interest in seeing an image of the person beforehand, some shadchanim who signed onto the Nix the Pix movement set the boy and girl up on a 20- or 30-minute Zoom date instead of sending their pictures.

“What this does is allow them to see each other, but as a whole, and without having to take the time to pick a location and drive out if one determines the other is really not their ‘look,’” Saloff explains.

Similarly, Guterman notes that she has heard of some people sending videos talking about themselves and sharing other information that would typically be on a resume. “This appeals to some people because you really get to see a 3-D image of the person and see them in action.”

Leah Namdar, a Chabad shlucha in Sweden and founder of ShluchimMatch.com, which helps shluchim with shidduchim for their children, relates that with her own shidduch, the shadchan showed her future husband a few seconds of a video where she was teaching a class. “I don’t think it was because of looks – but because the class being taught was one of his favorite sichos!”

Photos play a necessary role in certain contexts. Rebbetzin Sobolofsky explains that most online databases or matchmaking sites today, such as YUConnects, are geared toward serving thousands of people around the world, and therefore photos are used along with profiles to give members and matchmakers a “feel” for the person they are trying to match.

“If you’ve never met the person, it’s difficult to describe them to another person, not necessarily on an aesthetic level, but just to get a sense of who they are,” she says. Because sites use a combination of algorithms and matchmakers’ oversight, pictures and profiles help facilitate targeted match ideas for as many people as possible.

When you’re trying to match people from different states or even countries, often more information is needed to set up that shidduch because you need to give the person more motivation or reason to travel, Rebbetzin Sobolofsky says. Where a picture is necessary, it’s possible to utilize it but de-emphasize it – “It may not be completely realistic for a database, or for shadchanim working with certain populations or communities, to not use pictures, but it is realistic for the people behind it to be encouraging to not place so much weight on the picture.”

For those who have been dating for many years, pictures can simplify and speed up the process. Elefant says that much of the backlash she has gotten from the Nix the Pix movement has been from older singles who often feel that they already know what they are looking for. But even in those situations, she says, pictures can be misleading.

Saloff, who primarily works with older singles, did not sign on to the Nix the Pix movement because she felt it was not practical with the population she works with. Although she sends pictures, typically she tries to have her singles read the resume first, speak to references, and then look at the picture. (Nix the Pix now has an exception allowing signed-up shadchanim to send photos to singles ages 25 and up.)

For others, a picture is about more than just an image, and acts as a piece of information just like the school the individual attended.

The Nix the Pix logo

“A good picture shows more than a face: It shows a bit of personality, chein, a bit of who they are,” says Guterman, the shidduch photographer. Her goal is to bring out the natural aesthetic strengths of the singles she photographs by matching their eye color to a nice background, finding flattering angles, and most importantly, learning about their personalities. She speaks with the client beforehand about what they want to convey in the picture – for example, the quality of being friendly, positive, thoughtful, or kind.

Namdar believes that having the parents or shadchan see a picture can be an important tool. “It’s not about being pretty or handsome – it’s about what one sees in a face,” she says. “You may look for gentleness and soft nature or strength of character, simplicity or elegance… Are the clothes classic chassidishe levush or more casual? Today shadchanim can’t travel the world to see each person they are setting up, so these factors give direction.”

Mendel Meyers, a photographer in Brooklyn who specializes in weddings but has recently taken up shidduch photography, believes that what’s wrong with pictures isn’t the pictures themselves, but that people are evaluating them as more than just a single piece of information and overemphasizing them. What you see in a picture, he points out, is based on what you are looking for.

In the end, it may not be the pictures themselves that are causing trouble in the shidduch process, but the realities and challenges of today’s societal and cultural trends. “We can’t be too surprised if a person really wants pictures in shidduchim when typically, those [of us] with smartphones have almost every area of our lives documented by pictures,” says Rebbetzin Sobolofsky.

While the Nix the Pix movement focuses on de-emphasizing pictures, there are other areas of focus that do not necessarily lead to happy long-term marriages, she notes. “Some of us may shy away from resumes when we don’t think highly of the professions or earning potential of a candidate, of the schools the person attended, or even the professions of parents, family status, yichus, etc.”

Elefant has received backlash from mothers saying that with so many ideas and resumes coming their way, it’s overwhelming not to have a picture. Elefant believes this is because pictures have become “a crutch to lean on to make a decision of which person to go out with.”

Reliance on pictures may thus be part of a larger problem – a need to “streamline” the shidduch process, both on the part of shadchanim and shidduch candidates. Whereas years ago, mothers would call shadchanim to tell them about their children and the shadchanim would ask questions, write down information, and usually meet the single, today shadchanim receive many shidduch resumes, with pictures attached.

Resumes not only make it easy for a person’s information to be easily sent out but also to be broken down into components that are often scrutinized individually, as opposed to holistically. Sebrow laments what she sees as a decline in the time and effort put in by both parties – the shadchan and the single and his or her parents – which she sees as contributing to a higher rate of rejections of shidduchim than ever before.

“All resumes and pictures do is nix the opportunity, because it makes both shadchanim and the boy or girl think that they already have the information they need, without even putting in effort to try and get to know the person at all,” she says.

It is important that parents “sprinkle positive messages” throughout adolescence and the pre-dating years about the important qualities and values that really matter in a marriage, urges Rebbetzin Sobolofsky. “This is a great opportunity to have these important conversations [about what aspects of a person are important for marriage] and highlight values and traits that are important, such as a person’s character, shared values, how a person interacts with others and solves problems, instead of the external and situational factors that matter less.”

How you look at a picture, and other factors on a resume, has to do with chinuch, agrees Meyers. “How you educate your children in general is going to guide what they focus on in the shidduch process. If they know their parents value aesthetics, then naturally when they look at a picture, they are going to use the picture as a measure of that. But if they grow up valuing chein, happiness, etc., within a person, that’s what they’ll be looking for in the picture.”

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