WEDDINGS

Jewish Matchmaking Is Alive And Well, With Some Post-Shtetl Updates

06/18/2014 01:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2014
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The Jewish community has come a long way since the kind of matchmaking portrayed in "Fiddler on the Roof," but it hasn't left the yenta back in the shtetl. At least, not entirely.

While Jews marrying Jews is still a widely shared goal, the means to that end have been fine-tuned to better serve today's tech-savvy singles. Through global dating sites like SawYouAtSinai.com, Chai Expectations and JRetroMatch, people across the world can access their own matchmaker -- not a computer algorithm, but the kind of living, breathing person whom Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava of "Fiddler" once sang about.

These modern-day Jewish matchmakers talk to their clients one on one, learning the nuances that computer questionnaires don't pick up on. And then they search online profiles, generating more options than their ancestors ever could. It's this blend of Old and New World that's becoming increasingly attractive to young Jewish singles.

Marc Goldman, founder and CEO of SawYouAtSinai.com, told The Huffington Post that he instructs his matchmakers to be the "anti-yentas." Traditionally, a yenta was a busybody and a gossip. But these days, Goldman says, in a world of constant communication, packed schedules and endless options, Jewish singles want three things in dating: privacy, efficiency and choices. Lots and lots of choices.

'Anti-yentas' are on the rise ...

"I think that the matchmaker environment cuts the bulls***," said one woman who requested anonymity to avoid identifying herself as the client of a matchmaker.

A 25-year-old social media strategist, she has been using SawYouAtSinai.com for over a year now. She describes herself as "modern Orthodox liberal," which for her means she observes the Sabbath and keeps kosher but also wears pants and doesn't plan to cover her hair when she gets married. She tried secular dating apps like Coffee Meets Bagel, but found them too passive and cluttered.

"I think that the matchmaker environment cuts the bulls***."

The main reason she sought out the help of an Internet yenta? Her busy work schedule didn't leave time to find men in the same specific category of Jewish observance, and she's looking to get married "not tomorrow" but sooner rather than later. The more dates she can go on with potential spouses, the better.

Those potential spouses are a key advantage of using an online matchmaking site. The clientele there have signed up for a more in-depth selection process because they want to get married, not just find a hookup à la Tinder, OKCupid and other dating sites and apps with lower barriers to entry.

"Once people come to us, they're serious about marriage. Otherwise, why would they bother?" said Mindy Eisenman, a matchmaker with YU Connects, the dating site for New York's Yeshiva University and an affiliate site of SawYouAtSinai.

Jewish dating sites like JDate, perhaps the best known, as well as apps like JSwipe have made it easier for Jews seeking Jews to connect. And it's not just observant Jews who place importance on finding a religiously like-minded mate: In a 2006 study, 17.2 percent of JDate users surveyed identified as "just Jewish" or "culturally Jewish."

However successful these completely digital sites may be, though, there seems to be a desire for a more personal matchmaking experience, albeit still using online tools. Rabbis now run matchmaking sites -- specifically the "J" sites, which include JMontreal, JMiami and JBoston. There's even The JMom, which is exactly what you think it is: Jewish mothers choosing prospective partners for their children.

... but matching modern-day Jewish singles can be challenging.

Matchmakers like Eisenman are working in an old tradition, but one with entirely new parameters. Singles in general are getting married later than ever. The average marrying age for American women is close to 27, while it nears 30 for men, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew also found that the rate of intermarriage peaked at 58 percent last year for the general Jewish population, with a whopping 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marrying outside the religion.

These numbers certainly serve as motivating factors for modern-day matchmakers, driven by the mitzvah of chesed, or Jewish communal work (translated from Hebrew as "loving-kindness"). Being community-oriented, gregarious and passionate about Jewish coupling are requisite traits of online matchmakers, most of whom are women.

For Eisenman, matchmaking comes naturally. Whenever she's in a social setting, she finds herself asking, "I wonder if that person's single?"

When Jewish singles sign up for SawYouAtSinai.com (which has a predominantly Orthodox clientele) or any of its 11 affiliated local sites (which have a 75 percent non-Orthodox clientele), they fill out an in-depth questionnaire, letting matchmakers know about likes and dislikes, religious practices and such issues as whether they plan on moving to Israel. They then get on the phone with their two designated matchmakers so the matchmakers can learn more about them.

After that, the matchmakers set to work, sifting through a database of over 50,000 profiles visible only to other matchmakers. Enforcing private profiles, in stark contrast to what Goldman calls the public "Facebook culture," eliminates the chance of a quick read and reject, which can so easily happen on other kinds of dating sites.

When they think they have a match, the matchmakers connect the two singles, giving the man three days to call the woman and schedule their first date. After the date, the matchmakers check in to see how it went and give any advice needed, but the singles keep track of their status online and can "close the match" -- or let their date know they're not interested -- with just a click of a mouse.

It's not about instant gratification.

"The thing that I don't like about it is that sometimes it gets so serious that there's no room for exploration," the social media strategist said about her SawYouAtSinai dates. "The date almost becomes an interview."

"You have to build a relationship. You're not going to say, 'OK, it's not working,' after five minutes. That's not the way it works."

While she herself has "rarely" gone on a second date with a potential match, she continues to use the site because she appreciates the human touch it offers, even if she can get fatigued by all the first dates and the lifestyle cataloging that she says dominates the conversations. Once she gives her matchmakers post-date feedback, they do their best to adjust suggestions and they continually check back in for updates.

But it's easy for clients who expect instant gratification to get frustrated. Matchmakers encourage clients not to rush the process.

"People want immediate results," Goldman said. "You have to build a relationship. You're not going to say, 'OK, it's not working,' after five minutes. That's not the way it works, whereas in many parts of your lives things happen immediately or you move on to the next thing. With relationships, it's the exact opposite. It's not going to happen immediately. It's something you build as you learn about somebody, and that's very much against the wave of society."

Today's singles want romance, but they want a lot of other things, too.

Another challenge for matchmaking sites? Gender roles and expectations have changed significantly since the days of shtetl yentas. Courting couples do not follow a set path or expected timeline toward that wedding. Young men and women are adding marriage to an ever-expanding to-do list, leaving matrimony as one of their life goals, not the life goal. Indeed, many Americans simply don't prioritize marriage in the same way they used to.

"[Matchmaking sites] are places with Old World values -- you know, the guy will call you in three days," the client said. "But this is not a world anymore where women are just sitting at home waiting for men to call them. I'm at work. Don't call me in the middle of the day. It just makes things more complicated in matchmaker world, since everyone has their own lives in addition to trying to pursue a relationship."

Pop culture has helped bridge the understanding gap when it comes to matchmaking, with shows like Bravo!'s "The Millionaire Matchmaker," NBC's "Ready for Love" and VH1's "Making Mr. Right." Boutique professional matchmakers are also in business -- about 1,500 as of 2006, according to Matchmaking Pro -- to assist daters of all beliefs. According to SawYouAtSinai.com, it has 350 matchmakers on staff who have brought together some 1,000 couples, mostly in the 25 to 39 age range, during the site's 10-year run.

Tallying marriages may seem as unromantic as spending a first date trading religious checklists, but it's this practical attention to detail that makes services like SawYouAtSinai useful for singles looking for a Jewish marriage. Plus, the concept itself isn't so antiquated. Take it from the matchmaking client herself:

"Right now, even as we're speaking, I'm sitting here but somewhere out there in the universe, I'm paying $20 a month for these two ladies to find someone for me."

And what's more of-the-moment than outsourcing the legwork?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly shortened SawYouAtSinai.com to SYAS.com. The two sites are not related.

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