Dec 4, 2007
In their monthly meeting, about 20 excited middle-aged women gather around the table with their notes. One by one, they each get a turn to stand up and present their cards for the purpose of swapping. They are not swapping baseball cards. They are looking to swap people, for the purpose of marriage.
These women are Jewish Orthodox volunteer matchmakers who meet with the hope of bringing lonely souls together and do a good deed. Each one describes her client’s age, profession and religious beliefs as everyone takes notes and reflects on a prospective match.
“I think a few dates will come out of these meetings,” said Eddie Jaffi, the matchmaker who founded the group three years ago and hosts it regularly in her home. “I just hope that G-d agrees with my ideas.”
In this modern Western society, there is a community that still maintains traditional customs of meeting their mates.
“Modern orthodox New York City Jews use a variety of formal and informal ‘shadchanim’ [matchmakers],” said Keren Blum, who serves the Jewish community as a rabbi’s wife, teaching Judaism and matchmaking on occasion herself. “I’d say about 75 percent have at some point used an intermediary.”
The big apple is a main attraction for many Orthodox Jews who want to get married. Edith Abitbol, 25, moved to Brooklyn from Montreal a couple of years ago to pursue her marketing career, and to potentially find a Jewish partner.
“I knew people would set me up here because the Jewish community is so big,” she said. Abitbol followed her sister, who also moved to New York, met her husband within two weeks and was engaged to him within two months.
“People in New York become obsessed with dating,” Abitbol said, “there are so many single Jews in New York that you can date someone new every day and still have people to go through.”
But “dating” in the religious Jewish Orthodox world is not as frisky as it sounds.
It is a calculated and formal process in which both parties are “interviewed” by their designated matchmakers and are well-informed of each other’s background and goals before they even agree to go on a first date. Once they hit their prime at 18, they are ready to begin dating for marriage, and so, within a few dates, a decision must be made. Is he or she for me?
Out on their first few dates, the man will wear a suit and the woman will dress up, modestly covering her knees, elbows and collarbone. He will generally pick her up from her home, meet her parents and the two will go out to a public location for a few hours. They may go for a walk in the park, to a hotel lobby or for a quiet cup of coffee and question each other about their future religious objectives, among others. They may discuss whether they will own a television set at home, how they’d educate their children and whether the man will work or study torah.
After the date is over, the couple will part and both will report back to their matchmaker. In order to avoid awkwardness, it is the matchmaker that will do the “breaking up” for them if it did not go well, or will set up a new date, if it did.
“After the first date, if there’s no reason to say no, you go again, but after the third date, if there’s no reason to say yes, you don’t go again,” said Abitbol. This timely process is meant to avoid wasting valuable time when searching for a marriage partner.
“I think no one is ever truly ready,” said Dr. Abraham Schreiber, 30, who got married within several months of meeting his wife through a match three years ago. “People a lot of times waste good years trying to make themselves ready and then at the end of the line, they look back and ask where did all my good years go?”
Though matched-marriages may be formed at a young age and within a short amount of time, they are not arranged, but a product of choice.
“I see the matchmaker as someone who facilitated me meeting my wife,” Schreiber said. “We don’t go to mixed schools, we don’t go to bars, so the only real way is to have people set you up,” he said, referring to his Orthodox community.
But a fast-paced relationship may not always provide enough time to fall in love.
“The word love is thrown around too much today,” said Schreiber. Though he believed that an initial connection must be there, it was a good fit in terms of religious beliefs and life objectives that he primarily looked for.
According to Judaism, “a person is only half a person until they marry,” said Blum. The deeper love does not result from dating, but within the context of commitment in a holy union, she said.
As the number of dates increase, they become more casual. Inviting the other person over for a family Friday night dinner would already be considered taking a big step towards marriage.
The dating phase is short and the engagement period may sometimes be even shorter.
Sexual chemistry builds up and because Jewish law forbids any sort of touching before marriage, there is a sense of urgency to get married fast and not to give in to temptation.
“It’s difficult because you have feelings and you want to manifest those feelings,” said Schreiber. Though difficult, he said that in his eyes, waiting for marriage is the right and special thing to do. “There are no secrets, no baggage, and no comparisons,” he said.
Though the couple does not touch, psychologist and marriage counselor Eva Fogelman says the attraction must be there.
“If you end up marrying somebody who you’re not attracted to then it becomes a problem when you have to get physically intimate with him,” she said.
But sexual problems are not the only ones Fogelman encountered while dealing with matched-marriages. She said that sometimes there is too much pressure on singles to get married young, possibly resulting in a premature marriage and wrongful decision-making. “We’re talking about young people who may not necessarily know themselves yet and may evolve and change over time,” she said.
However, when the decision is thought-out and the chemistry is there, Fogelman sees no harm is being married quickly, through a match.
“I don’t think that having a very long courtship necessarily ensures that it will be a better marriage,” she said, reflecting on today’s 50 percent divorce rate. “There are surprises that happen whether you’ve been together for a long time or haven’t been together for a long time, whether you’ve fallen madly in love with somebody or have grown to love them over time.”
A growing intellectual connection and love in development is exactly what this widely used phenomenon is all about.
“There’s a beauty in getting to know somebody on a non-physical level and really focusing on the emotional side of things,” said Michal Frager, who is currently dating through matchmakers.
She is satisfied with the matchmaking system and enjoys the personal touch it brings to the table, as opposed to the internet, where nothing is guaranteed.
“It really is such a beautiful system in which women are regarded and treated with the utmost of respect,” she said.
It is said in Jewish folklore that a person who makes three successful matches merits a good portion in the world to come. And so, New York City matchmakers are running around as the Jewish Orthodox community awaits.
“They’re bringing Orthodox to the new millennium,” said Abitbol, with a spark of hope in her eye.