Some matchmakers see themselves as messengers of God

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

He insisted on dating Sephardic women from Spanish or Arabic descent.

His matchmaker continued to set him up with women of Ashkenazic European ancestry, adamant that marriage is tough enough without throwing dissimilar backgrounds into the mix.

But the tall, blue-eyed blond bachelor persisted. So the matchmaker, Estherkayla Fleisch-man, one of several in the Baltimore Orthodox community, set him up with a dark-haired Sephardic woman who was visiting from Israel.

He barely spoke Hebrew; she spoke even less English. They spent their first date communicating via his English-Hebrew dictionary and her Hebrew-English dictionary.

When he proposed three months later, it was in the matchmaker's living room — Fleisch-man served as translator.

Now, five years later, the couple has three children.

Many matchmakers readily admit that helping someone find his or her beshert, or destined one, is not easy. In fact, the Talmud says that matching two people is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.

Whether they use complex computer programs or hand-scribbled notes to record clients' vital information such as schools attended, favorite hobbies or a preference for blonds, matchmakers often see themselves as God's messengers.

"God makes shidduchim [matches] and I make phone calls," said Fleischman, a Baltimore day-care provider who has made seven successful matches in the past 13 years.

Casual dating is generally frowned upon by the Orthodox because dating must be for tachlit (a purpose) — i.e., marriage. Since young Orthodox men and women don't frequent singles haunts, they rely on friends, relatives and shadchanim — matchmakers, who may or may not command a fee, not only to set them up with a potential partner but also to check out the blind date's character as well as his or her religious, educational and family background.

Matchmakers' clients undergo in-depth interviews.

"I try to get a feel for the person: not only what they answer but how they answer, and know their likes and dislikes," said Margie Pensak, a Baltimore resident and mother of five who has made 12 successful matches in eight years.

Pensak charges a fee to cover up-front expenses such as long-distance telephone bills. She also receives a set monetary gift if the couple makes it to the chuppah.

"Gifts show appreciation for the matchmaker's efforts, bringing blessings on the new couple's household," said Rabbi Shlomo Porter, director of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies.

Pensak uses a computer program to track her burgeoning 800-member client list. Ranging in age from 18 to 78, her current clients live as far away as Laramie, Wyo., and Mexico, with professions as diverse as interstate trucker, brain surgeon and pulpit rabbi.

She also services non-Orthodox Jews in a personal effort "to stop intermarriage," she said.

Her clients must answer 20 questions covering such variables as whether or not they'd like to live in Israel, and what age-range they are seeking in a mate. A computer helps Pensak narrow the field of compatible dates; she says she will not set people up arbitrarily.

"This is not a dating service. I discourage people from signing up if they expect a date every week or every month." Pensak calls herself a "full-service" marriage consultant because she helps clients spruce up their image; if necessary, she will help men shop for suits, ties or black hats.

Fleischman, too, may take up to a year to set a client up with someone.

"It has to be something I have a gut feeling about — that it's worth a shot," she says.

A grandmother herself, Fleischman generally works with clients in their mid-30s and older because "it's so much nicer when the diehard singles get married," she said.

She insists on meeting clients in person because "they all sound good on paper." She has asked her husband Shmuel, a businessman, to sit in on interviews with male clients.

"He can ask them questions I might feel uncomfortable asking or they feel uncomfortable answering."

Fleischman generally receives a voluntary gift, usually money but sometimes whatever else clients care to give — such as a trip or jewelry — if the couple marry.

For many matchmakers, getting the "right feel" goes beyond detailed personal histories and future goals.

"I don't have a system; I have an instinct — I see certain things," said Mashe Katz, a Baltimore secretary who has made 13 successful matches.

Katz, whose husband, Joseph, is the campus rabbi at area colleges including Johns Hopkins University, sets up college-age and middle-aged singles. But she finds that some of her older clients "don't know what they want to do in life — they don't want to face reality."

They also tend to be more demanding. For example, Katz said, one 38-year-old man with whom she is currently working refuses to date women over age 30 and women who have been married.

Some matchmakers act as intermediaries until the time the couple decides to marry. But Katz prefers to bow out by the third date.

"If they're not mature enough to be on their own, then they shouldn't get married," said Katz. who is also a grandmother.

A new shadchan service that combines high-tech with tradition is Couple-Up, a year-old company with offices in New York, New Jersey and Israel and a page on the Internet. It was initiated in the Baltimore area by Ahuva Albrecht, a native Israeli whose husband is a cantor.

Albrecht founded and runs the company with Zahava Weinreich, a New Jersey resident and a fellow Sabra. With about 500 Orthodox and non-Orthodox singles aged 18 to 73 as clients, Albrecht says the company is responsible for about 12 successful matches.

Singles pay an annual $180 membership fee and $1,800 more if the match leads to marriage. Members receive a brochure and a questionnaire, which they fill out and return along with two photographs. An interview is then arranged.

Members also are asked to provide their own Hebrew names and their mothers'. These names are then written on kvitlach, or notes, and sent for blessings to Jerusalem's Rebbe Avrum Beiderman, and the New York gravesite of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

"Not only for the match to come quickly, but that it's the right one,"said Albrecht, who arranged about 30 successful matches including her first at age 16, before starting Couple-Up.

"I am the yenta of the `90s," she said. w