Even ultra-modern singles turn to Israeli matchmakers

JERUSALEM – These days, more than just the flowers are blossoming in Old Katamon, a historic, tree-lined neighborhood in Jerusalem. Since the beginning of the year, at least two dozen singles in their 30s and 40s have announced their engagements.

Though there is nothing unusual about Israelis getting hitched — by the age of 40 more than 90 percent have been married at least once — many of the above-mentioned brides and grooms met their soul mates through a professional or amateur matchmaker.

Strange as it sounds, even the most ultra-modern, hyper-skeptical Israelis are turning to matchmakers, having attended countless parties, hikes and lectures aimed at singles. And although they still surf the many Internet dating services that cater to Jewish singles, they yearn for a maternal shadchanit, or matchmaker, to make them the perfect match.

During the past couple of years, the number of matchmakers in Israel has risen steadily as the country has grown more Westernized.

Though numbers are sketchy, participants at a matchmaking convention held this past winter — the first of its kind in Israel — estimated that several thousand Israelis, the majority of them religious women, are engaged in matchmaking on a professional or voluntary basis.

Traditionally accorded an important place in Jewish communities of old, matchmakers lost much of their status in the newly-established Jewish state. With the exception of fervently religious Jews, whose strict modesty codes forbid casual dating, native-born Israelis scorned the "quaint" ways of their parents and grandparents.

Yet as Israel becomes a Westernized nation with an annual per capita income of $17,000 (just behind that of the United Kingdom), young Israelis say they are tired of the bar scene and dissatisfied with large, impersonal matchmaking services with thousands of clients.

"I don't like to admit it because there's a stigma attached, but I've registered with a couple of matchmakers," said Gil, a secular 28-year-old engineer who asked that his last name not be used. "I like the fact that a nice Jewish mother is looking out for me. Internet dating and video dating are just too random."

Yohanan Peres, a sociology professor at Tel Aviv University, links the matchmaking revival to changing demographics.

"Rather than marry their childhood or army sweetheart at 21 or 22, as they did a decade ago, young people are postponing marriage to attend college and launch a career," Peres said. "When they do finally decide to get married, they often find it difficult to find a spouse."

Gittel Nadel, a professional matchmaker whose efforts have led to 40 marriages during the past nine years, theorizes that the thousands of singles who go to matchmakers are seeking security.

"The world is a crazy place and people are looking for some sanity," she said. "They'd like to meet people in a respectable way, not go through the dating-scene meat grinder. The world of matchmakers is safer."

Nadel, who works in the religious community, interviews all potential clients, aged 18 to 70, for up to two hours. "I really want to know what's inside a person, not the titles after their name or their family background," she said. "Most of it is intuition. If a person seems unstable, I won't accept him."

Beth and Stephen Franks, one of Nadel's success stories, credit the matchmaker's personal touch for bringing them to the altar.

Married a year and a half, they have an infant son.

"Not every matchmaker should be a matchmaker, but Gitel's a wonderful, funky woman," said Beth, 26. "She didn't say, `You're a woman, he's a man, you should meet.' She really listened to me and wanted to know who I am inside."

Stephen Franks, a 30-year-old dentist, believes matchmaking takes some of the guesswork out of dating. In a shiduch, or match, he says, you know both the man and woman want to get married.

"That's not the case when you meet someone casually."

Ellen, a Katamon resident in her 30s, agrees. Seriously dating a man she met through a professional matchmaker, Ellen says the men she meets through matchmakers "are serious about getting married. You know they're not just going out for kicks."

Not that matchmaking offers any guarantees.

"You can go out with dozens of guys and nothing happens. Usually, that's because you're not ready," Ellen said. "If I'd met the guy I'm dating now a few years ago, I doubt if we'd be thinking of getting married. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time."

Asked to "rate" the matchmakers she's consulted, Ellen said those who charge the most money once an engagement is announced — usually between $500 to $1,000 from each partner — are the most serious.

"They seem to try harder than the ones who only charge the price of phone calls. For them, it's a livelihood."

While they prefer to discuss successes rather than failures, matchmakers admit not all matches end happily.

At this winter's matchmakers conference in Jerusalem, more than 100 women aged 30 to 70 shared ideas — and client lists.

One participant, who declined to give her name, recalled how she had arranged a match between a young man and woman from very religious families. The couple became engaged, but before the marriage they underwent genetic testing.

They learned that both carried the gene for Tay Sachs (a fatal genetic disease that strikes Jewish infants) and immediately called off the engagement.

Prenatal screening would not have solved the problem, the matchmaker explained, because fervently religious rabbis usually forbid abortions unless the mother's life is endangered by the pregnancy.

"Matchmaking is a huge responsibility, not to be taken lightly," the matchmaker said.

Nadel agreed, but stressed that she receives guidance from a higher authority.

Reciting from the Talmud, she said, "According to Jewish tradition, 40 days before a child is born a call goes out in Heaven proclaiming who that child is intended to marry. I'm definitely working for the boss."