On her fourth date with the man who’s now her husband, Lily was feeling giddy.
“Do you want to just get rid of the matchmaker?” She asked. Their connection felt genuine and she was eager to cut out the middleman. Her future husband was less certain and suggested they wait.
In the corner of the religious community that Lily (who asked that we not use her real name) inhabits, which she identifies as “modern Orthodox/Yeshivish,” being set up through a matchmaker, or shadchen, is very common. In some communities, a shadchen is hired by a synagogue to match its congregants; in other cases, they’re individuals – usually, but not exclusively, women – who take it on as volunteer work, viewing it as a mitzvah, or work for a volunteer organization like Toronto’s Sasson V Simcha Connections.
It’s standard, too, Lily says, for the matchmaker to serve as a go-between during a prospective couple’s initial dates. If Lily went on anything from one to five dates with a guy, then decided she wasn’t interested, she’d relay the information to her shadchen, who would break the news on her behalf. And, if a man didn’t want to see her again, the rejection would come via the matchmaker, as well.
Lily, a 32-year-old Torontonian who’s been married for two years, dated using matchmakers for a decade, from the time she was 19, until she was 29. She estimates that she’s used between five and 10 different matchmakers – in Toronto, as well as Jerusalem, where she lived for a period of time, and New York, where she used to visit from time to time, specifically to go on dates.
What one needs from a shadchen varies depending on one’s age, she maintains, and a good matchmaker will adapt her approach to her client’s individual needs. For instance, a shadchen acting as an intermediary at the beginning of a relationship served Lily in her early 20s, but was less effective as she matured. In her mid-to-late 20s, she had fewer qualms about telling a guy directly that she wasn’t interested in him.
The men she dated then tended to be in their 30s and, as she puts it, “were also less interested in playing games; they wanted to be more straight-up and speak to me directly.”
Lily attributes this disconnect to the reality that shidduch dating was originally intended for people in their late teens and early 20s. It’s only as people, even in the Orthodox world, began to get married, or divorced, later in life, that shidduch dating became the norm for older singles.
Rabbi Yisroel Bernath doesn’t consider himself a matchmaker. The spiritual director at Montreal’s Chabad NDG and the Jewish chaplain at Concordia University, Rabbi Bernath founded JMatchmaking International, an online network of Jewish matchmakers. He says that, thanks to his work, 58 couples have gotten engaged. He generally sets up young, secular Jews, because he feels that non-Orthodox Jews have limited dating resources. He also writes a monthly advice column in The CJN.
Rabbi Bernath’s commitment to making matches is rooted in the talmudic, and kabbalistic, notion that every human being is one-half of a complete soul. Finding your soulmate is reuniting those two lost halves, whose destinies have been entwined from the start.
“All the jokes about the Jewish mother and the matchmaker is because Jews truly believe the most important thing you can do with your life as an adult is get married … that every person comes into the world for a purpose and the only way to maximize that is by being married,” he says.
For Anna Sherman, a marriage and family therapist who for 17 years has made matches in her spare time, the motivation to set people up stems from a distinct sense of empathy for the emotional distress shidduch dating can cause. Three couples she introduced have gotten married.
“There’s a saying that if you make three marriages, you’ll go straight to the afterlife. You won’t have to explain yourself in the (divine) judgment section,” she says. She’s set up people who are “really black hat” and people who are modern Orthodox. She often matches people who are baal teshuvah, or have become more observant, as she knows from experience that they are often stigmatized in the religious dating world.
“My husband and I are both baal teshuvah and I understand what it’s like not to have family (support) in that way,” says Sherman.
For her, a large part of what made shidduch dating frustrating was working with shadchenim who weren’t very sensitive, or efficient.
“A lot of them were missing the whole point of setting people up. I was getting set up with people who were completely not suited to me,” she says. “A lot of times, shadchenim aren’t looking at what makes a good match.
They’re going, ‘He’s 24; she’s 23. He’s 5-6; she’s 5-5. She’s looking for a guy who works; he’s an accountant. It’s perfect.”
As a therapist, Sherman feels as though she has more insight into what matters to people and how they operate than many others do.
“I pick up on people’s personality types, their energies, backgrounds, goals,” she says.
Her roster of would-be brides and grooms is likely smaller than matchmakers who do it professionally, or at least full time, but based on the feedback she’s received, Sherman feels she compensates in terms of quality.
Both Sherman and Lily stress the vast spectrum that exists in terms of the quality of the matchmakers – some are “hipper” and more attuned to contemporary mores; others are out of touch (Lily refers to the “60-plus ladies sitting in their armchairs while you talk to them”).
Lily has worked with some shadchenim who have social work or counselling degrees and “take that aspect of it seriously.” Some play the role of mediator, or even relationship therapist. She cites what she says is a plausible scenario, wherein a shadchen might help a couple figure out if they should get married or break up.
“If the people start dating but one wants to make aliyah and the other doesn’t, the matchmaker might ask them, ‘How important is this to you? Is there any room to work on this, or are you at an impasse?’’ she says.
While it was often unpleasant, Lily believes that dating through a matchmaker has its advantages.
For years, she appreciated not having to reject men – or being rejected – herself. She feels that she was spared the tortured overanalyzing that people endure when dating in the secular world – something she’s never done personally, but has heard about from others.
Sure, it stung when a matchmaker told her that a guy wasn’t interested, but the good ones knew how to cushion the blow. A savvy shadchen can elegantly toe the line between honesty and regard for people’s feelings.
“They’d say: ‘He didn’t think it was a match,’ or, ‘He couldn’t see it,’ ” she says.
“This one guy I liked, we came from very different backgrounds. My shadchen said something like, ‘You’re too outside the box for him.’”
If a guy wasn’t attracted to her, a shadchen might say: “He’s looking for one of those New York girls who’s tall and blonde and always in heels. You’re too artsy for him; you’re pretty in an unconventional way.”
The best part was that as the shadchen was delivering the rejection, she’d be pulling out a fresh list of men’s names.
For Jason (also not his real name), the pressure to get married caused him real anguish. Jason, 31, grew up in a Bobov Hasidic community in Toronto and did the sort of shidduch dating where a shadchen that his parents found would set him up, or someone in the community would suggest a girl and his parents or siblings would “research her,” to determine if she was an acceptable prospect. “Then, if you like what you hear, you go on a date,” Jason explains.
Dating involved going to the girl’s house and talking privately in a room for an hour. After two to four of these meetings, “that’s it, you’re engaged,” he says.
For several years after he turned 19, he “did a lot of these” dates and, after each one, he’d tell the shadchen that he wasn’t interested. He hoped to show his family that he was making an effort to find a wife, but put it off for as long as possible. At 22, the daughter of a family he’d grown up with was suggested to him and the pressure placed on him to marry her was immense. They got engaged and, soon after, he went to see his rabbi.
“I told him, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Jason recalls. Indeed, since he was seven, Jason has known that he’s gay. He’d previously told his rabbi, but the rabbi cajoled him by saying: “’How do you know? You don’t know anything until you get married.”
The marriage, which lasted seven years and produced two children, was profoundly unhappy. The couple separated about a year ago and is in the process of getting a divorce.
Jason is also in the process of leaving his community. He’s planning to move to Quebec, where he’s already connected with Forward, an organization that provides support to people leaving ultra-Orthodoxy, and a liberal rabbi whose synagogue he hopes to join.
He worries that if he stays, as soon as his divorce is finalized, people will start trying to set him up again.
Dating is sensitive and private, Sherman says, something the religious community should be more respectful of. She wishes others would be more mindful of the fact that some people take longer until they’re ready to meet someone.
“Someone might be dealing with family issues, or want time to establish their career. Or they’re dealing with a health or anxiety disorder,” she says. “People in the community can be insensitive. They’ll go, ‘Oh you’re 25; you must want to get married.’ But if I don’t know someone’s situation, I’ll try to be really sensitive.”
A definite benefit of shidduch dating, she says, is bypassing a scenario where it’s difficult to find dates with people who are “marriage-minded.”
On the flip side, she says, “You never know what you’re getting” with a shidduch. Even with a good matchmaker, you might end up on a date with someone you’ve got nothing to say to.
Lily pays heed to the idea that the Orthodox community is in the throes of a “Shidduch crisis” – that there’s a surplus of single women and men are too quick to reject them on the basis of appearance or age.
There’s huge pressure on women to look a certain way and be a certain size, Sherman says. A 20-year-old man doesn’t want to date for marriage, but when he’s 25, he wants to date a younger woman. This leaves women in their 30s with no guys to go out with.
“Of course, these pressures are present in any dating practice, but you’d think in an ethical community (like the Orthodox), there would be less insane standards,” she says.
But Sherman believes the onus to be less superficial falls on women, too: “What do these girls think makes a good guy? Does he have to make six figures by age 25? Sure, don’t settle down and marry a dud. But what I was looking for at 21 was very different from what I was looking for at 29, when I finally got married.”
She and her husband have two children and are very happy. She often says to him: “I wish we’d met when we were younger and saved myself years of heartache. His response, she says, is, “But you wouldn’t have been interested in me at 21.”
And, she concedes, he’s probably right.