Andrea Murphy
12/17/2008
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Earning Their Place In Heaven

Manya Berenholz working
the phones. She’s says
she’s arranged almost
a minyan of marriages.Michael Datikash
Manya Berenholz working the phones. She’s says she’s arranged almost a minyan of marriages.Michael Datikash

by Elicia Brown
Special To The Jewish Week

Tobi Kahn has an unusual ability. Kahn, who is an artist, can observe a person for a short while, be it a waitress or a pedestrian in the park and understand something of their essence, their predilections and aversions, their pleasures and pains. He can, for example, watch a young man stooping over his wheelchair-bound grandfather in synagogue, wrapping a tallit around him, and know, within a minute, that this young man could be a suitable mate for his wife’s cousin.

“He watches the way people carry themselves and gets a sense of their spirit,” says his wife’s cousin, Dahna Stadtmauer, who 12 years later has three children with that man, now her husband Steve.

Kahn, who has played a similar role in more than 10 marriages, belongs to a breed of under-celebrated individuals in the Jewish community — the volunteer matchmaker. While the image (and reality) persists of the stereotypical shadchan, the village yenta, the pushy busybody who insists that her clients are “just too picky,” there are also dozens if not hundreds of others who practice the art in a more selfless manner, with grace and discretion and sometimes diligence too — if not also a sense of mystique.

“The truth of the matter is, given I have this intuition, I feel I should [make the match]. It sort of gnaws at me until I do it,” says Kahn, who also works to match people with employers and even attempts to bring potential friends together.

“The world is broken,” says Kahn. “We should try to fix it. By getting good people to marry, it helps.”

In a culture of cyber-connections and speed dates, of hooking up and of hanging out, demand for practitioners of this ancient art apparently hasn’t diminished. The Web site SawYouAtSinai, which relies on volunteer matchmakers to link potential Orthodox partners, has assisted more than 25,000 singles in its five years of operation, and 702 of its members have married people found through the site. A secular counterpart, JRetromatch, has received less traffic in its almost three years. But it too boasts marriages of 22 members.

Offline, there’s Shoshanna’s Matches, a 10-year-old professional service for New York’s Jews. The company offers eight dates for a set fee, currently has 3,000 clients in its database and has wed 209 couples during its tenure.

No one doubts that Jewish culture highly values the craft of matchmaking. According to tradition, one earns a place in the world to come after bringing three marriages to fruition. After all, as the Yiddish proverb quoted in “Yiddish Wisdom for Marriage” says: “Afile in gan-eydn iz oykh nit gut tzu zayn aleyn; es iz beser tzu zayn a por.” (“Even in Heaven it is not good to be alone; better to be a pair.”)

But as a community, we tend to point out the very real flaws of so many insensitive matchmakers, rather than celebrate the contribution of the quiet, hardworking ones, especially those who do so as volunteers.

“It’s hard out there. There are so many great people and for whatever reason” they haven’t found the right one, says Adina Spiro Wagman, a tax lawyer who for several years navigated the singles scene on the Upper West Side, along with hundreds of other Orthodox professionals.

Through a business acquaintance, she found her soul mate, a secular Jew who has since become observant. Wagman, who is now at home with her two young children, also volunteers for SawYouAtSinai, one among the more than 300 matchmakers who toil each day. She consumes a significant chunk of her leisure time with these hopes and dreams of others.

Manya Berenholz, a second grade teacher at a Long Island yeshiva, spends roughly an hour in the morning and another in the evening, checking the status of the 80 members she is setting up through SawYouAtSinai.

Berenholz, who focuses mostly on the over-30 crowd, says she has arranged almost a minyan of marriages. “What better for me to be doing?” she says. “Mah-jongg is not my thing.”

“You have to have a feel for people. A concern. A compassion.” And, “when you make a match, it’s the most exciting thing in the world. You’re in partnership with God,” says Berenholz.

It is difficult to generalize about the volunteer matchmaker. Some are drawn to the art by their skills, others pulled by their compassion, others by a combination of both.

There are the eerily prescient types like Alisa Adler, who once observed an unfamiliar woman’s stature and bearing from the back, and pronounced: “I know who your husband is!” The woman married Adler’s friend less than three years later. “Hashem has really used me a couple of times,” says Adler, who co-owns a business that syndicates real estate investments, and wears her hair and skirts long.

Matchmakers, of course, can hail from any community, not only the Orthodox world.

Johanna Berkman, who was raised in a Conservative household and now belongs to a Reform synagogue, has already earned her cloud in heaven — bringing three couples together in marriage.

Berkman, an Upper West Sider, believes her matchmaking instincts might be related to her skills as a fiction writer. “I feel like I understand people,” she says. “In an abstract, intellectual way, I can tell how people function. I’m interested in character, in the psychology of people.” She says she can imagine how the story of two individuals will progress.

As it happens, this is a tale that is close to my heart. On a starry night almost 12 years ago, Berkman introduced me to her husband’s friend, Jeremy Pomeroy, with whom she imagined I might share a future. That foresight has delivered us immeasurable joy — not to mention, two children. Thank God. And thank you too, Johanna.

 

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