With phones literally ringing off the hook and iPhone abuzz, it is a typically hectic day for a matchmaker, or a shadchan, like Esther Levy in the Orthodox Jewish community of Midwood, New York. A typical “Jewish mother,” Esther is able to do it all — greet her ten-year-old son as he returns from school, then turn her attention back to her phone calls, all the while preparing an apple pie for Shabbat. “Tell me, is he a girly boy?” Esther urges, speaking into the phone. “He is so nice, how can you not go out with him again?” It is noon on Thursday and she has been on the phone all morning, being debriefed by each side, as well by the parents of her eight couples who went out the night before. Levy describes herself as spending hours of her day setting up young men and women on what might conventionally be called blind dates, though that term would not be used in the Orthodox community to which Esther belongs.
It must be understood that there is normally a full range of restrictions imposed on unmarried young men and women, precluding the possibility of inappropriate touching or other overly close behavior, that often inhibit the mixing of genders. At the same time, there is a realization of the need to facilitate rendezvous between young people so as to be in position to find a mate. After setting people up, Esther subsequently counsels them throughout the “getting to know you” process. Unfortunately, Levy’s job description often requires the occasional misfortune of relaying regrettable information to a young man’s mother in the form of, “I have bad news. She does not want to go out again. She said he was a very nice, refreshing boy, but she just does not see it.”
Levy has made dozens of matches, or shidduchim, over the years, mostly through networking and word of mouth. “It is just something that either you have or you do not,” she says about her knack for working with singles. “I think of ideas where something about the match just seems right, whether it is similarities in physical traits or religious background. It comes from being involved with people and learning from those experiences.”
The shadchan is often put in the awkward position of communicating between the two parties. Pre-date linkages may be via telephone or online. Prior to the first date, parents, relatives, or friends may stand in for the couple as the conduits through which information and early feedback are conveyed to the man and the woman. Some couples, especially Chasidic ones, will meet for the first time at the woman’s parents’ home. Subsequent dates will take place in local hotel lobbies, lounges, parks, or any other public setting. The two will discuss their life goals, aspirations, preferences, and likes and dislikes in order to get to know each other as efficiently as possible. At date number six or seven, it is expected that they take the next step of engagement, which usually lasts between two and three months.
However, in spite of Esther Levy’s prolific successes in bringing together young Orthodox men and women who eventually marry, her accomplishments are but a small drop in the bucket. There are not that many other shadchanim with her skill for serving the Orthodox world and her interpersonal charm and sensitivity. Indeed, many within the Orthodox community decry the reality of increasingly large numbers of young people who have not yet been able to find suitable partners. Some within that community have even come up with a colorful term, describing with alarm what they characterize as “the shidduch (matchmaking) crisis.”
Among those expressing concern is Rabbi Binyamin Sanders of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington. He describes the crisis as the confluence of “a perceived rise in the number of male and female singles, a delay among those in their 20s in marrying, and a struggle to meet a match.” Sanders continues, “In a community that forbids premarital sex and is centered on family, this is considered one of the major crises in Judaism.”
Sanders and others advocate for a wide-range of remedies, including but not limited to recruiting additional shadchanim, training parents in the art of subtle and suitable matchmaking, providing cash and other incentives for regular people to promote enduring matches and organizing a multiplicity of conferences. Such seminars and colloquia can themselves provide opportunities for initial getting acquainted or can be “how to do it” teach-ins on how to build structures which alleviate the problem.
As with many contemporary challenges, the problem is even more complicated than it first appears. It may well be that many Orthodox men and women, especially “modern” Orthodox, are actually conflicted about whether they need to be fixed up and marry as soon as others would like them to. They may well be striving for added educational and professional development before seeking to marry and begin a family. This can apply no less to Orthodox women than men. Such people may be less inclined to the whole notion of being fixed-up in the first place, as they would more likely be concentrating on what American Jewish Year Book editor, Larry Grossman, characterizes as “the American side” of Orthodoxy. They would value making an affirmative choice in a potential mate without the intervention of a third party.
Over time, the Jewish community has been challenged with a wide-range of crises. While many within the Chareidi Orthodox world speak with passion and anxiety about the shadchan crisis, the fact of the matter is that Jews have weathered many raging storms in the past and have had the courage and conviction to surmount them. I have every confidence that, whether one accepts the alarmist reading of the situation or not, the Jewish people will find a way to survive and thrive.