By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
How can I hope to make you understand Why I do what I do?
-- Fiddler on the Roof
Sitting in the waiting room of Helena Amram's plush Boca Raton suite, you can learn a great deal about the woman before she ever steps out of her office. The walls are crowded with framed newspaper and magazine articles written throughout Amram's career as a marriage broker: New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times. Through good times and bad -- and recently they've been primarily the latter -- Amram has courted publicity, thrived on it, in fact. Many of the stories are giddy, often riffing off the lyrics to the song "Matchmaker" from Fiddler on the Roof. ("Catch me a catch." "Make me a match.") Whatever other wall space could have been left bare is occupied by framed glossies of Amram with celebrities and aristocrats.
The feng shui of matchmaking intensifies in a small anteroom furnished with a black leather loveseat and a glassed, ebony étagère filled with photos of smiling, beautiful men and women. Beside one portrait is a wedding invitation. The seating provides an optimal view of a large-screen television, from which visitors are greeted with a video roundup of talk-show and local news coverage of Amram's matchmaking. The smell of perfume permeates the air.
On a recent April afternoon, Amram is talking enthusiastically on the phone in her office, its door wide open, when Maggie (not her real name) enters. A woman in her 30s from London, Maggie has long, light-brown hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a smile that could melt a chocolate bar. Her spaghetti-strap, flower-pattern dress is revealing but not vampish. In short, she's a head-turner. Now back in America after a lengthy visit in England, she's come to the office to review the dossiers of five men, any one of whom could become her third husband. She ends up waiting a bit for Amram, killing time in front of the television.
"I'm visiting for the moment, seeing what gentlemen I might meet," she chirps in an upper-crusty accent. "You see, all these awful things about the Web and these awful telephone dating agencies. It's not particular enough, not refined enough. You never know who you're going to end up with, do you?"
Maggie's been lucky in some respects -- she's quite well-to-do -- but alas, unlucky in love. "Basically, I date and get engaged to Fozzie Bear; then he turns into some kind of monster," she offers. "They're nice and polite, and then you find out they have a drinking problem or gambling problem or womanizing problem. The latter tends to be the problem I've run into." She giggles. "They're just not what they say they are."
Amram, Maggie believes, will protect her from another big, bad wolf.
When Amram finally emerges from her office, it is with a flourish. Her black hair is pulled back, and she's wearing a cream-colored pantsuit. At 52 years old, her roundish face has an almost glowing complexion. As she breezes toward Maggie, her arms outstretched, the source of the suite's flowery redolence becomes immediately apparent. The two retreat into Amram's small office, where she hands Maggie pictures and bios of would-be hubbies. Amram, however, shows little interest in discussing them, preferring instead to rail against the local media and the Boca Raton Police Department, which in February raided her office and took thousands of documents. A month later, one of her clients, Randie Kaiser, filed a lawsuit to get her $20,000 fee back from Amram for failing to find her a mate.
"What the Boca police did to me is a shame," she declares in her thickly accented voice. Distressed by the topic, her grammar grows more fragmented. "They're going to be sued. The police have nothing. Call the police and ask them, 'What do you want of this lady?' Do they want me out of here? I'm an American citizen. I'm Israeli, but I'm an American citizen. I came here in '79. I've been working 35 years in this business. I have thousands and thousands of couples who've gotten married because of me."
She springs from her desk chair and points to the framed feature stories from halcyon days past. "Look at this, all the papers, all the television shows... why are you destroying me now?" she pleads, seemingly to the media gods above.
"You see, the police don't understand what is spouse-hunting, don't understand a personal agent, don't know what a matchmaker is," she proclaims. "I'm a Yente," she adds, invoking the name of perhaps the best-known, if fictional, matchmaker from the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
The phone rings -- a female client -- and Amram morphs instantly into matchmaker. "Did you talk last night? Two hours! Wow! Saturday was his birthday? Oh my God, I forgot his birthday? I'm going to send him flowers today. What do you buy for a doctor as a gift? A tie? A doctor tie?" Hanging up, she says mournfully, "I've had so many things on my mind.
"I have lost so much money in the last two months that I'm holding my business in my teeth" -- she hisses the final words through clenched teeth -- "to not lose it."
Maybe I've learned Playing with matches, a girl can get burned.
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."
Most important, Amram asserts, is that although the business folded, she did not drop any of the clients who had paid her to find mates. "I took care of the clients I had left," she sums up.
May you be like Ruth and Esther.
May you be deserving of praise.
With no business left to run in the New York area, Amram moved to Beverly Hills, California. She closed up shop there in 1995 and returned to Israel. According to an article published at the time by the Los Angeles Times, police were investigating her business after receiving client complaints. Amram claimed she left Southern California because the 1994 Northridge earthquake had left her too nervous to remain. She migrated to South Florida in 1997 and filed incorporation papers for Soulmate by Helena Inc. in June 1998.
By her own account, she lives a modest lifestyle. "I don't have a Jaguar," she explains. "I'm not a wealthy woman." She and her husband, Itamar, live in a Fort Lauderdale apartment and own a 1992 Cadillac DeVille and 1998 Lincoln Towncar.
The matchmaking she does from her Boca Raton suite varies little from how she's done it for the past 25 years. Would-be brides and grooms learn about Amram from ads or by word of mouth. Fees vary for these clients. In order to maintain a large enough pool for matchmaking, Amram also recruits men and women who are screened but pay no fee. She now has a pool of about 2000 from which to match.
"I only have 300 clients who have paid me in four years," she explains. "Most of them are 'database' clients who pay only $5000. They pay to have a psychology exam, a physical exam, a background investigation. I don't really work for them, but I use them for the people who pay me lots of money. Then there is another program, for $20,000. I work for them day and night. They get priority. Then we have a very few, no more than ten people, who pay $50,000, who are very, very wealthy and very, very particular."
Matthew (not his real name) contacted Amram about a year ago. A 38-year-old self-described workaholic, Matthew owns a distribution company in Broward County. He is one of the elite clients who paid Amram $50,000 to help him find a wife.
"I'm a transplanted New Yorker, and I've been here for seven years. In that time, I've met three different girls who tell me who they are and where they're from, and all of it's been complete lies. Between the small window of opportunity I have to get out and meet women and women I actually meet, it just wasn't matching up. That's why I said, it's time to go to an expert.
"If you have the money and can afford this luxury, I would suggest it," he says. "I'm engulfed in work because I own a business. Why would I not use an expert? If I needed a heart operation, I'd try to find the best surgeon. Well, if I want to meet a girl I want to marry, I want an introduction from an expert."
Clearly, though, Matthew approached the matchmaking idea with a realistic outlook. "Helena doesn't introduce you to a wife," he says. "She finds you an introduction. It's up to those two people to make time for each other." He's met three women through Soulmate. There wasn't any chemistry with the first two, but he and the third match have connected and are getting serious. All three, he notes, were "very compassionate, very beautiful, and intelligent." All were financially secure. "It wasn't like these were girls trying to sink their hooks into a guy with money," he adds. "Helena's services don't come cheap, so it's not like you're going to meet someone who works at Wal-Mart."
Matthew was aware of Helena's past in New York and says he spoke with some of her former clients from there. Perhaps it was the businessman in him, but he was not concerned about her running afoul of the $250 fee cap. "How can you really gauge what this service is worth?" he reasons. "It's not like you can price it at one store and then at another. If a guy can get $10,000 for a car or $20,000 -- whatever a client is willing to pay, is what a service is worth. For what she does, there is no measuring stick for what to charge."
Amram didn't "take the money and run" in his case, Matthew emphasizes. "She'd call and ask how things are going," he recalls. She'd talk to his date, then pass on valuable tips, like recommending a certain restaurant or when the time was ripe for a weekend trip. "There's nothing for her to gain by talking to me after I started dating the woman I'm seeing now. She's made her fee, but we continue to have a relationship."
In March 2001, Tracy (not her real name) paid Helena $20,000 to find her a match. Age 54 and once divorced, Tracy comes across as someone who is nobody's fool and has a firm appreciation for the absurd. She has a high profile in Palm Beach County, where she lives and works at a privately held business. "I cannot go out and find a potential partner by going to a bar," she says. "I thought maybe there's someone similar to me who is equally embroiled in career and other things and would be working through [Helena]. I thought she'd be a clearinghouse and do some of the leg work that I don't have time for. For several months, I had to go for physical exams, get pictures taken, go see a psychologist. My sense is that the psychologist was looking for someone who could articulate their feelings, what they were looking for, an overview of their life and background -- and didn't evidence any bizarre behaviors." She chuckles. "I also had to do a writing sample so she could send it to a graphologist, which is akin to a horoscope, as far as I'm concerned."
Above all, she did not want a player. "There are a lot of them, and down here in Boca, there are an awful lot of them," she says. The first matches were "misconnects, real misconnects," she recalls. One man's idea of a good time was to spend all day on his boat fishing, the "last thing in the world I'd want to do," she says. "But I didn't expect it to be perfect the first time out. I knew there would be a couple of rough ones.
"I'm seeing someone right now. I don't know where it will go. We're still very early on in a relationship. Did I get my money's worth? I don't know yet, and I probably won't know that for several years. I did not look at it as: 'Here's money -- go get me a husband.' I looked at it as: 'Here's money I'll invest in a future relationship.' It's my earnest money toward that investment."
Tracy says of Amram, "I think she's smart, that she has a product that can sell to a very certain market. She projects incredible confidence in her abilities, sometimes too much; she's almost too smooth. Sometimes you fall for it, and other times I sit there thinking, 'I just see right through it.' There's a little bit of a sense that it's all a scam, but I think there's also a give and take on the part of the client. What are you willing to settle on, to negotiate? What are you willing to do if you're really serious about finding someone?"
Yet another client, Robert (not his real name), didn't pay anything to become part of the Soulmate pool. Now 67 years old, Robert answered a personals ad about three years ago, which turned out to have been placed by Amram. "She didn't make any promises to me whatsoever," says Robert, who underwent a battery of screening tests he describes as "thorough." "Since then, I've met five ladies through Helena. In my estimation, they've been very nice relationships but never materialized into a long-term relationship. Really, it was chemistry."
You're a girl from a poor family, so whatever Yente brings you'll take, right? Of course right.
If Amram's method of matchmaking hasn't varied much from location to location, neither has the nature of the complaints against her. Civil court cases filed in Palm Beach County in recent years echo the claims of fraud from New Yorkers 12 years ago.
In December 2000, Miriam Brown, a resident of Palm Beach County, filed suit in circuit court accusing Soulmate of breach of contract and fraud. Brown became interested in Soulmate after reading the company's brochure, which stated in part: "Helena doesn't take just anyone." Brown contacted Amram, who quoted her a price of $50,000. When Brown declined, Amram lowered the fee to $30,000 in a cash/barter deal: a third in cash, a third in gift baskets from Brown's business, and a third in airline tickets. Brown accepted. The matches, however, were not "high caliber" as promised, according to the complaint. Brown learned that one man had herpes. Others included a man who was still married, someone who had a felony DUI conviction, and an individual with a "schizoid personality disorder." As a result, Brown asked for her $30,000 back, and Amram agreed, the complaint states. When Brown visited the Soulmate offices on November 15, 2000, however, Amram refused to refund the money. Brown soon sued.
Playing hardball, Amram countersued in April 2001, claiming Brown had defamed her. Amram asserted that Brown had insisted on dating Jim Horn, an employee of Soulmate. During that date, "Brown made numerous advances" to Horn, "who continuously advised Brown that he had no desire of becoming 'intimate' with her," the countersuit alleged. The rejection led Brown to carry out a "malicious and deliberate plan" to destroy Soulmate, Amram claimed. The case was settled out of court. The terms of the agreement are confidential. Brown's attorney, Richard Goetz, would not discuss the case for this article.
In another case around the same time, Eric Jay Goldberg filed suit December 29, 2000, against Amram in Palm Beach County Circuit Court to get his $50,000 payment back. According to the complaint, at the time he made the contract with Amram, he was in the process of getting a divorce but had been trying to reconcile. He insisted on adding a stipulation to the contract that if he got back together with his wife, he'd get the money back. He divorced her, then remarried her and asked Amram for the fee. She would not make the refund. Again, the case was settled out of court in a confidential agreement. Goldberg's attorney, James Tuthill, also would not discuss the case for this article.
It wasn't until early this year, however, that Amram's business began to unravel. On February 22, the Boca Raton Police Department's Economic Crimes Task Force, which includes representatives from the IRS, FBI, and Postal Inspection Service, raided Amram's office looking for evidence of improprieties. Police took computers and documents after receiving complaints from clients, according to Jeff Kelly, a spokesman for the department. Kelly declined to give details about the nature of the complaints, saying only that they were "definitely enough to get a warrant to investigate, that's for sure."
Amram claims the raid came primarily at the prodding of Randie Kaiser, a former client with whom she had an argument. Kaiser, who lives in Miami-Dade County, filed suit in Palm Beach County on March 15, less than a month after the raid. In her complaint, Kaiser claims that she had been induced to sign a $20,000 agreement in the summer of 2001 after being shown a potential match, a man who was no longer available after Kaiser had completed initial testing. Amram misrepresented the men she actually did introduce to Kaiser, the complaint alleges. For example, Amram claimed that one man's wife had recently died and he was eager to marry again. "In fact, the man's wife had died years earlier after she had cheated on the man and got pregnant with another man's baby," the complaint states. On another occasion, Amram told one of Kaiser's prospective dates that she weighed only 120 pounds, which was not true. Another man had difficulty maintaining an erection, despite the fact that he was put through a physical exam that should have identified the problem. Kaiser was not informed that one date wore a hairpiece.
When Kaiser protested the mismatches, Amram refused to work with her, the complaint alleges. Nor would she return the $20,000.
Amram claims that Kaiser came on too strong with one of her dates, a comment that soured the relationship between Kaiser and the matchmaker. "She tried to sleep with a guy, and he wouldn't sleep with her on the first night," Amram says. "I told her it's very, very wrong. Men don't want a woman who is crazy. Then there was a fight between them. She promised she would destroy me, and she did." She pauses. "You will see that the police have nothing."
"We'll respond to any statements Helena makes while she's under oath in a court of law," says J. Ronald Denman, Kaiser's attorney. His client isn't willing to discuss the case with the media, he says, and has instructed him not to elaborate on the suit. He claims, however, that Kaiser did not go to the police about Amram; the police approached Kaiser.
Some of Amram's clients are surprisingly sanguine about the police raid and further allegations of fraud. Matthew, who was already deeply involved with someone by the time of the raid, says, "During the negative media coverage, the first thing I thought was that if you lined up ten people and one person was unhappy, I'd like to hear from the other nine. I think people might be envious or some people just aren't matchable. That might be cold-hearted, but some people are looking for a needle in a haystack, a Prince Charming or Snow White."
Asked about the media coverage, Tracy laughs. "I've seen it all," she says, dismissing much of it as "someone who was disgruntled, someone who just had this naive idea about what Helena could do for them. Perhaps it was someone who was desperate. I go back to where the client's head is: If it's my last $20,000, I'd be angry as hell. But it wasn't my last $20,000, thank you."
Amram called Tracy soon after news of the raid broke. "She was very upset and asked me to write a letter expressing my level of satisfaction," Tracy recalls. Amram says she called as many active clients as she could.
As for prospective clients, Amram shied away for a while from accepting any, informing prospects that she's under investigation. But in mid-April, the day Maggie showed up to look at her portfolio of matches, that changed. "For two months, I couldn't do anything," Amram laments. "People come here, and I say, no, I don't want. Today is the first time. A lady came in, and I told her the story of the police, and she said, 'I don't care. I know who you are.' She just signed up with me." Amram pulls out the woman's handwritten check for $10,000. Another $10,000 is yet to come.
"I have nothing to hide," she declares. "I live for this business. You take this away from me, you take my life away from me."