Slammed with hefty court-ordered judgments in the Northeast, matchmaker Helena Amram has found no peace in South Florida either

Maybe I've learned

Playing with matches, a girl can get burned.

David Hollenbach

Amram considers herself a latter-day shadchan, which is the name for a traditional Jewish matchmaker. According to Rabbi Maurice Lamm, a professor at Yeshiva University's rabbinical seminary in New York City and author of the book The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage, Jewish matchmaking traces its origins to the Book of Genesis. Abraham, unsatisfied that any of the native Canaanite women would make a proper wife for his son Isaac, sends Eliezer to find a suitable bride. His find, the generous and hospitable Rebecca, becomes Isaac's wife.

The shadchanim proliferated, however, only after the Jewish Diaspora, especially during the 13th and 14th centuries, after the Crusades had wreaked havoc upon Jewish communities. Toward the end of the Middle Ages the shadchanim became paid professionals. Superior matches warranted higher-than-average fees. A poor match sometimes led to a matchmaker's banishment.

The need for the shadchanim declined in the modern era due to more stable communities, large concentrations of Jews in cities, and the acceptance of romantic love as a basis for marriage. Indeed, Yente, the matchmaker of Fiddler on the Roof, represents the passing of long-held traditions among Eastern European Jews.

Amram's role as matchmaker has one distinct parallel to the rise of the shadchanim: tribulation. Originally from Haifa in Israel, she met her own husband while they served in the Israeli army, according to her 1991 advice book, Have I Got a Match for You. She began helping military widows find husbands after the Six Day War of 1967 and became quite successful at it.

"So many people marry the wrong person," she explains. "My parents were divorced when I was 14. I know what it's all about. Maybe that's why I'm married after 35 years. There is only one life; you can share it with someone to make you happy or make you miserable."

When she traveled to New York City in 1978 to recruit Jewish singles for Israeli clients, she appeared on a television talk show and gained almost immediate notoriety. Jewish and non-Jewish viewers clamored for her services after that appearance, and as a result, she broadened her clientele base. She eventually headed a network with offices in Tel Aviv, London, Los Angeles, New York, and New Jersey. She received breathless media coverage throughout the 1980s, and she sometimes told interviewers that the growing popularity in matchmaking was a natural extension of the conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Marriage and family values were once again relevant after two decades of free love.

Any business endeavor that so closely binds love and pocketbook, however, is inevitably going to lead to some heartbreak. In February 1989, the Tel Aviv small-claims court ordered Amram to return a matchmaking fee to a woman who had met only two men during a half-year period, according to a news brief by the Jerusalem Post at the time. Amram reportedly told the client that she was "too fat."

Of such claims of dissatisfaction -- and there would be more to come -- Amram has a standard response: "I am not God. Only God can marry everybody. You need to be marriage material."

Amram was at the height of her success, with five different dating companies in the New York City area and poised to open divisions in more U.S. cities when, in late 1989, she sued the New York attorney general's office, claiming that a state law capping fees for "social referral services" at $250 was unconstitutional. State attorney Robert Abrams filed suit in February 1990 on behalf of about 50 clients who claimed Amram had defrauded them. Some paid fees as high as $20,000. New Jersey sued as well later that year.

New York County Supreme Court Judge Elliot Wilk in July 1992 permanently barred Amram from operating dating referral services in the state. In his decision, Wilk wrote, "The evidence is overwhelming that respondents preyed upon people's loneliness." One recurring complaint, Wilk highlighted, was that a client would be shown a picture of a potential match and then, after a credit check and other paperwork were completed, told that the client would meet that person. By the time that initial screening was completed, however, that desirable match was no longer available.

In a separate decision, Wilk ruled that the $250 cap was constitutional.

Wilk ordered Amram to refund all payments made by former clients that were in excess of the permitted $250 fee, which totaled about $3.7 million. Amram's assets at the time, a mere $1905, were turned over to the attorney general for restitution. (The judgment remains unpaid and has increased to more than $5.6 million with interest.)

Amram still owes more than $120,000 to the State of New Jersey for two separate judgments. She settled one lawsuit in June 1992, agreeing to pay $39,000 in restitution over three years; $12,000 remains unpaid. She has paid only $550 of a $108,582 judgment from a November 1992 case that named nine of Amram's companies as defendants. She is permanently barred from matchmaking in New Jersey.

Amram says the problems in New York arose from bad advice from an attorney and are now ancient history. "We had different companies," she explains. "One was for social referrals, and it charged $250. A different company did background investigations, psychological examinations, which charged the rest of the money. The attorney said it was OK. I worked it for a year, and everything was perfect. Then the attorney general says they were one business. He shut me down. I didn't even defend myself. There was a $3 million judgment, and I couldn't give it back because the company went out of business. That's all that happened. It was not my fault."

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