Internet, Internet, Make Me a Match

Jewish matchmakers are being squeezed by online dating services

Francine Katz is not happy. The 68-year-old Jewish matchmaker sits at her dining room table in Miami Beach, leafing through her big black date book. She shuffles through printouts of a 45-year-old divorcee looking for someone who is great with kids, a 28-year-old Hasidic man looking for a woman willing to relocate to Israel, and a 30-something conservadox man who does not mind if his wife shows a little leg. Pages are paperclipped and folded over. Words like "sweet" and "kind-hearted" are underlined and circled. She stops at the printout of one orthodox man who is looking for an "attractive woman" preferably one who wears a size 3.

Katz sighs. She pushes back her blue headband, which holds her shoulder- length brown wig in place. Her eyebrows pinch together, tent-like, and she folds one squat leg over the other. "Men are always looking for the skinny girls," she says. "Such a shame. I know a lot of heavy people with unbelievable qualities. People are always looking for such superficial things -- they should be asking what sorts of wonderful things the other person does, what type of person she is."

Then she points to the three glass dishes on the table that she has filled up with candy.

"Have some food," she says.

Francine Katz is one of a decreasing number of shadchanim -- Jewish matchmakers -- in the South Florida area. In the Internet age, it's a sinking ship. Traditional matchmakers in religious communities are now finding themselves in direct competition with Jewish online dating sources, which offer the same matchmaking services and vast databases of names, without the intermediary.

A few years back, though, there was a local community of shadchanim here. These were not just matchmakers but skilled service providers expert in Jewish rituals. The group of women would meet monthly at one another's houses, exchanging their prospective clients' information the way young boys trade baseball cards. Over glasses of Diet Coke and plates of pareve kosher cakes, the women would advocate their prospective clients, espousing their attributes and waving their pictures about. "Have I got a great girl for you," one would say, and the rest would dive through their books, sculling for prospective matches. At the end of a session, the shadchanim would come home with more numbers to call, more references to seek out.

Sometimes these women would take to the streets in South Florida, carrying pictures of their prospective clients and stopping eligible men and women in their tracks to show them profiles of their latest catches. Even if the pit stop did not result in a match, there was always the chance, Katz says, that that person would know someone else who was looking.

"Being a matchmaker is hard work," says Katz, who herself is married to a doctor. (She offers her services not for money, she says -- though she has been known to accept a four-figure gift, which she promptly donates to charitable Jewish causes.)

Today, however, Katz finds the need for her services waning. Plummeting, in fact. Though she prides herself on her almost innate ability to recognize good matches, she has not mated a couple in a year.

This concerns her deeply, not just for her own well-being but for the matchmaking tradition in Judaism as a whole.

The matchmaker has always played a central role in religious Jewish circles. Because marriage is seen as the closest real-life interpretation of God's relationship with man, marriage is seen as an important force in a person's life. A matchmaker, then, has been viewed as a purveyor of God's will and was thus granted a high position in society. Creating a successful shidekh, or match, is one of the greatest mitzvot (good deeds) a person can perform.

A good shadchan, Katz says, is one who has a good marriage and who recognizes the faults in other people's. It doesn't hurt to have an intimate understanding of human nature -- or a minor in psychology, as Katz does, from Ohio State University. The important thing is the personal touch.

This is why the subject of online dating peeves her so much.

Jewish online dating services have surged in the past few years. Jdate.com, which has been in existence for five years, now boasts a 500,000-person membership. The site caters to the general Jewish community, with no preference given to the different religious sects. And two years ago Frumster.com, a site specifically aimed at the Orthodox and Hasidic communities emerged. With 17,000 members, Frumster.com lists South Florida as one of its biggest markets. Its mission is to help Orthodox men and women find their soul mates. But not just anyone can enter a profile; there are minimum religiosity requirements. The user must believe in God and basic Jewish law. He or she must also abstain from work on the Sabbath and keep a kosher home. There are also no sexual references on the site -- anything deemed even remotely revealing or inappropriate is quickly deleted, says Derek Saker, its marketing director.

To find the perfect match, then, Orthodox men can search through profiles of women who profess their love of the Torah and boast about the number of times a day they study it. They can look at how willing the potential candidate is to move to Israel, how much she covers up her legs, and whether she will tuck her hair into a wig when she marries. And women can browse through pictures of black-hatted Hasidic men with long beards and curly tendrils, looking for a match who engages in tefilah at least three times a day and comes from a very observant family.

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