he three men seated around the table look like hundreds even thousands of other Lakewood residents. Young bearded standard-issue yeshivishe white shirts open at the neck.
Then as our conversation is interrupted yet again — “Gentlemen sorry to intrude I just happened to notice you guys and I wanted to mention my sister-in-law again ” or “Hi guys just a quick reminder about my cousin ” and “Hey there just to make sure you didn’t forget my number” — I suddenly imagine the inside of a shadchan’s brain. The image that arises is something like the space between the large stones of the Kosel crammed tight with tiny slips of paper a repository of desperate hopes and dreams.
The shadchanim seated around me seem to understand that even more than a response the steady stream of visitors seek assurance confirmation that they haven’t been forgotten.
Each of the shadchanim around this table has his own unique personality but they share a common trait: empathy an “I’m thinking of you” expression that speaks volumes. They certainly break the stereotype of the shadchan that has been caricatured through the ages he of the umbrella spectacles and briefcase bursting with exaggerations.
The New Advocates
Rabbi Tzadok Katz offers an interesting historical perspective of his chosen profession.
“Until fairly recently a shadchan was a rich man’s luxury. The middle class made do with a well-intentioned neighbor or connected uncle setting them up — only the wealthy had a personal scout looking out for their interests. That changed in the last few decades as we began to see more and more professional shadchanim who worked for everybody regardless of income or social status.”
“The community simply exploded” adds Rabbi Meir Levi “and there was no other option. There were suddenly so many marriageable young men and women and someone had to advocate for them.”
In fact it was that realization that drove Meir Levi and Shloime Lewenstein in this direction. Fifteen years ago they were part of a group that was formed to help parents with gathering information and setting up shidduchim; most of the others in that original group moved on while these two knew it was a calling. Becoming a shadchan 15 years ago was a bit like opening an umbrella just as a hurricane erupts but they’ve been valiant throughout.
Tzadok indicates his two colleagues who served as his own inspiration. “I was still a bochur when they came on the scene and they represented something new; young shadchanim the type that bochurim could feel really comfortable with. They were able to connect with the bochurim as friends and that was a huge help.”
Tzadok who came on the scene younger considers himself a “talmid” of Rabbi Lewenstein. What are some examples of things he’s learned from observing his mentor?
He doesn’t hesitate. “Not to be too aggressive accept a ‘no’ even when you think the parents are wrong or that they’re being too stubborn. Give people the freedom to make their own decisions.”
“I understand the need for anonymity, at least once a couple is dating. You have no idea how much damage is done by yentas”
The shidduch vetting process is what some people feel is actually a big part of the problem. Take the résumé, for example. How effective is an information-gathering network that’s put together by the subject of the investigation?
Meir Levi is emphatic about this point. “I always make it a point not to call it a résumé; it’s just an information sheet with the name, age, and shul. Sometimes, in the process of suggesting a shidduch when a boy gives a yes, I’ll ask his mother for a résumé. ‘A résumé? I have a son!’ She’ll get offended, as if I don’t realize how in demand her son is. So it’s important to underscore that this isn’t a résumé in the classic sense, just a short list of identifying details so that the other side can ask around. It’s also important to make it clear that no descriptions belong on the résumé — not words like intense, or fun-loving, or worldly. Just basic information. Give the people basics and they’ll find out for themselves.”
“The trick is to know how to ask,” Tzadok adds. “How to let people talk. Don’t come with a checklist of questions. Instead, try saying something like, ‘Tell me about her,’ and then let them talk.”
Meir Levi has a different approach. “I believe it works better to come with specific questions, but they can be asked in a certain way in order to get real answers. For instance, don’t say ‘Can you tell me about Moshe Cohen?’ but rather, ‘I’ve heard such nice things about his learning and middos, but there seems to be some concern about his personality, that he’s a bit too quiet. Can you expound on that?’ Then, they know you’ve done your homework, and also that you have a positive sense of the person, so they’ll work with you.”
But will they be honest with anonymous callers? Would they provide information to someone who won’t even offer them a real name?
“Honestly,” says Rabbi Lewenstein, “I understand the need for anonymity, at least once a couple is dating. You have no idea how much damage is done by yentas, who run around with their juicy tidbits — ‘Can you believe X just called me about Y?’ — and causing needless problems.”
How About Doggy Bag?
“You know, when the boy and girl like each other, then everything is perceived as a maileh”
So, the research is done, the yes is given, and the date is scheduled. But is three hours with a boy or girl who has been carefully schooled in what to say and how to respond really a gauge of anything?
Yes, says Tzadok Katz, who explains that good manners is a platform for a boy’s natural mentschlichkeit. He advises young men to show consideration on a date. “People always challenge that. Is a guy who was told to ask if the air conditioning is too high, or how her class went, really showing anything about his true character? And the answer is yes; if he wasn’t nice, he wouldn’t be able to pull it off naturally — it would fall flat. The suggestion isn’t made to trick anyone, it’s a real suggestion in order to bring out his best side.”
“You can train a monkey,” counters Shloime Lewenstein, clearly not buying the answer.
Rabbi Levi laughs. “The problem is when they’re so overzealous about following your advice that they even give you the credit for it. A guy could tell his date, ‘Meir Levi says I should tell you happy birthday.’ ”
Tzadok’s initial mortification turned into praise when an earnest dater took his suggestion — and credited him for it. “You know, when the boy and girl like each other, then everything is perceived as a maileh. A boy once came back from a date and told me that when he’d recommended that the girl bring home the leftovers from a restaurant meal in a doggie bag, he’d quoted me: ‘The shadchan told me to suggest it.’ I was horrified, but the girl’s father called me and said, ‘You know, he’s such an honest boy, he told her to wrap the leftovers but he gave you credit for the idea, and we were so impressed with that.’ ”
“A bochur or girl starting shidduchim should be guided completely by the parents”
As relatively young shadchanim who went through the system themselves not too long ago, these three men have a good rapport with both generations involved in the shidduch process. And that means there’s a certain comfort level for the young client as well as his parents. Still, they say they prefer the traditional approach, initially working through the parents, instead of talking to the young client directly.
“A bochur or girl starting shidduchim should be guided completely by the parents,” says Rabbi Lewenstein. “I can hear if after a few years, when they have developed shidduch instincts, they want to get the résumés directly, but that’s the second stage.” Still, he says, a direct connection with the involved party is an advantage. “When I speak directly with the boy or girl after a date, I get a real feel for them and I form a connection, which makes it much easier to help.”
Rabbi Levy agrees. “There are situations where, for whatever reason, the child might need to work around the family, but as a general rule, we prefer to work with the parents. Then, once a shidduch is developing nicely, we would want to communicate directly with the involved parties, because some things do get lost in translation.”
“There is definitely a generation gap,” acknowledges Tzadok Katz. “More than once, a mother has asked me to please speak directly to her son: ‘Maybe you’ll understand him; I certainly don’t.’ ”
Today, there is a more “modern” trend in which shadchanim approach bochurim directly with shidduch ideas — and accompanying pictures. But the shadchanim around the table today are unanimous: it’s dangerous, unhealthy, and a breach of tzniyus. “It’s not the Jewish way. Period.”
“When parents pass their son off as a huge masmid when he isn’t one, simply to command a high price for him, it’s downright dangerous”
Naturally, people around Lakewood and elsewhere want to make a good impression on this trio. After all, everyone wants to be well-thought-of by a shadchan. They enter a restaurant, and everyone suddenly starts using napkins; they’re in shul, and people put away their cell phones during chazaras hashatz. Who’s a better mayvin on people than a successful shadchan, so what does it really take to impress them?
Rabbi Lewenstein appreciates it when people keep their priorities straight. “It’s irksome when people call and ask about all the superficialities first, and none of the important things. It’s so refreshing when they first ask about the old-fashioned mailehs: middos, refinement, ehrlichkeit. Then you can see how sincere they are.”
“You know what’s always nice?” Rabbi Levi takes his turn. “It’s when people care about the family, when they recognize that a young man or girl, wonderful as he or she may be, is a product of a home. When parents, or the young person, ask about the family, I find that impressive.”
Rabbi Katz respects people who still insist on doing things the proper way. “I recently had a father call me whose son was going out with a girl out of town, and she was prepared to come to Lakewood, as it was during the zman. This father, a real ben Torah, said, ‘I know she’ll come in, but I feel like that isn’t right — what’s proper is for the boy to go to the girl, even though he’s learning well and it’s an expensive trip — so that’s what we’ll do.’ ” Tzadok Katz looks around over the top of his glasses. “Nice, no?”
“Let’s face it, we deal with people at their most sensitive times, so they aren’t always at their best,” says Shloime Lewenstein generously. “I try to remember that.”
But Tzakok sees it more black and white. “One second. Chazal tell us that one of the ways to get a true measure of a person, a barometer of true character, is ‘b’koso’ — when they’re drunk. Now modern psychology would tell us that it’s then when you davka can’t judge him. After all, he isn’t himself, he’s under the influence and all that. Yet Chazal say that’s the real person! His personality is reflected in all situations. Sometimes we hear things like, ‘Oh, he’s a wonderful guy, he’s just tough in business, that’s all.’ That means he’s tough! So the way we see people is an accurate reflection after all.”
So what leaves them with a genuine bad taste?
They answer almost simultaneously. “Pettiness.”
Reb Shloime smiles gently. “When all they can ask about is money and they clearly don’t care about anything else, that’s petty.”
Reb Meir interjects. “Yeah, when they switch to Hebrew, as if that makes it more respectable, instead of asking about support, they use words like mishtatef.”
Chitzoniyus … balabatish … baalei parnassah … askanim … The code words pile up on the polished conference table and there is laughter all around.
Reb Tzadok has a pet peeve of his own. “When parents use learning Torah as a means to get money, if they pass their son off as a huge masmid when he isn’t one, simply to command a high price for him, it’s downright dangerous.”
What’s a Nice Jewish Boy…
“You always have people mad at you. They blame you if the other side said no, if you haven’t called them with ideas in a while …all the shadchan’s fault”
Today there are entire forums about the importance of shadchanim and the fees they take, making it sound as if it’s the most lucrative profession around. Is it a profession to pursue, or to run from?
‘We can use all the help we can get,” they say. “If someone has the right skill set to be a good shadchan, we beg you — please join us!”
But they quickly turn serious. This is a tough job, and a full-time one at that. They work tirelessly returning messages, coordinating dates, and giving information — that takes up most of the day. Then at night there are weddings and late-night conversations that demand their attention. They are psychologists and counselors and best friends, expected to keep their phones on and hearts open at all times.
There is no steady income for a shadchan — the remuneration is only as good as the success rate. For most shadchanim, the rate of shidduchim suggested to actual dates is about one in five; out of the couples that actually make it to a date, approximately one in ten get engaged. That’s a 2 percent success rate — meaning 98 percent of their work is voluntary.
This is full-time work but no one’s getting rich: all their wives work as well.
“No one is jealous of us, that’s for sure,” Rabbi Lewenstein offers with a half smile. “Besides everything else, you always have people mad at you. They blame you if the other side said no, if you haven’t called them with ideas in a while … it’s all the shadchan’s fault.”
And it goes without saying that none of these shadchanim appreciate when the same people who pleaded with them for help while single can walk right by without so much as a “hello” once married.
But they certainly don’t bear grudges, and they share their blessings, offering a pro bono information-providing service, helping parents through the process. “We all give information when we can, and it’s usually on shidduchim that aren’t our own.”
The fact that these three men are clearly close friends, even though they are essentially competitors, underscores that. “We work hard not to lose sight of the goal; we back off from shidduchim that other people suggested first. We have tremendous respect for each other.”
Beyond the L’Chayim
“We saw chassanim with no money for a new hat, no way to take care of basic needs or the gifts they were expected to purchase for the kallah”
Some 15 years ago, one of the gentlemen at this table was my own shadchan. I recall how he came over to me before my chasunah and asked if I might have any excess maaser money for a good cause. He explained that he was completing a shidduch between a wonderful couple, but money was a problem and he had committed to raising the missing amount so that this new home could move forward.
It was an epiphany — I had never before understood what goes into the shadchan’s job description. Apparently, it’s not just bringing a couple together, but actually making sure they actually get to the chuppah.
Rabbi Meir Levi has been doing this for years. “A fellow recently came over to me to push me about why I wasn’t suggesting shidduchim for his cousin,” he says. “I told him that I actually had set her up, but that the shidduch was on hold because of finances. He asked how much money was missing to move it forward. I told him that for another $500 a month, for five years, we could get it done. ‘You got it,’ he said, and just like that, another young couple was brought together.”
Sometimes it isn’t family that steps in — just good Jews. A wealthy out-of-towner approached Meir at a wedding. “Meir, I recently married off my daughter and have a few years until my next one is old enough. What can I do for you right now?” This gentleman knew that Meir, being on the front lines, no doubt knew who needed what. “I’ll send you the money and you’ll figure out what to do with it.”
This good-hearted friend of Meir Levi essentially launched a fund, but it was informal; still, various shadchanim who knew about it would use the money for one of the many pressing causes that required their attention.
In time, it became clear that chassanim are an overlooked demographic.
“There are so many great organizations and people helping with hachnassas kallah, making sure that the bride’s needs — whether money, furnishings, or dishes — are met. But we were seeing scores of young men going to the chuppah and their parents couldn’t help. We saw chassanim with no money for a new hat, no way to take care of basic needs or the gifts they were expected to purchase for the kallah, creating all sorts of problems. I realized that if we are really committed to bringing people to the chuppah, there has to be a resource to help the young men as well.”
Last year, Shloime Lewenstein lost his mother, Mrs. Mattel Lewenstein, a beloved woman of great personal generosity. Tzadok and Meir, Shloime’s close friends, turned their activism official and launched Zichron Mattel in tribute to their fellow shadchan’s mother.
Rabbi Lewenstein is obviously moved by the gesture. “The initiative means a lot to me. It’s a way to really make a difference. Baruch Hashem, we see a stream of chassanim walk to the chuppah, and there is usually maaser money from the gifts. What better investment for them than using that money to make sure that their friends back in the dormitory can experience that same happiness?”
“Bochurim helping other bochurim,” Meir Levi sums up. “It’s pretty simple and can make a huge difference.”
“I don’t know too many shidduchim that came about from offers of increased shadchanus”
There is no shadchanim’s union, and although it’s an industry everyone uses, it’s also an industry without clearly defined rules of payment. What’s to prevent price-gouging and exploitation, especially among the wealthy or desperate?
Tzadok Katz takes issue with the very question. “There are clearly defined rules,” Rabbi Katz explains. “A shadchan is like any other service provider, and each community and kehillah has its own going rate. That’s basic halachah. In addition, besides the actual payment for services rendered, there is the inyan of hakaras hatov — and that depends on the one who’s paying.”
“To be honest, we don’t work for shadchanus. Rather, it’s the other way around — shadchanus is what enables us to keep working,” remarks Meir Levi. “I was at a chasunah and a fellow told me that his family had put together $25,000 as shadchanus for an older, single sister-in-law. I felt bad, but the fact is, money doesn’t make us work harder. We always try our best and the incentive isn’t what makes us do it.”
So, are all the programs that are based on providing incentives to shadchanim as a way of alleviating the “shidduch crisis” missing the point?
“I wouldn’t say that they’re missing the point,” says Rabbi Levi, “but I’m not sure how much of an effect they’re having. I don’t know too many shidduchim that came about from offers of increased shadchanus.”
In recent years, the shidduch crisis seems to have been upgraded from code orange to red; a recent study using illustrations and graphs in a statistical model starkly painted a grim reality that — because of the age factor as every year a new crop of young girls floods the market — some girls will never find their intended.
“Stop.” Tzadok Katz pounds the table. “Stop with the propaganda. Besides creating hysteria among the girls, forcing them to ‘settle,’ it also has another negative effect. It convinces a mediocre boy that he can do better, land a first-class shidduch, since it’s ‘his market.’ Needless to say, that isn’t a favor to him in the long run, either.”
Many gedolim have supported the call for boys to consider going out with girls their own age, or even older, in order to close the gaps. Are boys ready for that?
“There is no doubt that the boys have developed a comfort level with the idea of an older girl, but that doesn’t mean that some boys don’t need a younger girl,” Meir Levi says.
Shloime Lewenstein agrees. “A boy can give precedence to an older girl, but it’s foolish to say no to a girl because she’s younger. Maybe she’s his bashert?”
Bringing the Boys Home
“Each community should do what it takes to make it worthwhile for a bochur to want to come back”
So many well-meaning people seem to be wringing their hands over the shidduch crisis. Some want to offer financial incentives. Others want to limit age gaps. Many talk about creating an outlook of more realistic expectations. Sitting around the table, we asked our Lakewood experts: If you were given $5 million to help solve the shidduch crisis, how would you spend it?
As if rehearsed, each one echoes the same idea — a concept where communities outside of New York would open post–Eretz Yisrael yeshivos, providing an easy feed of available boys to the home market.
Our shadchanim point to Baltimore or Monsey as examples that have worked. “The situation there is better because they have a local yeshivah. Even in Detroit, those zmanim when the bochurim come back after Eretz Yisrael always sees a spike in shidduchim,” says Rabbi Lewenstein.
Too Many Cooks
“You need to feel something to move forward”
You don’t have to be a professional shadchan to put a shidduch together, and the message is out there that everyone should think about someone they know who’s still single and try to help them out. But do the professional shadchanim appreciate the do-gooder amateurs, all those well-meaning neighbors or friends?
“Yes. Absolutely, as long as they are honest and will give a shidduch the time and attention it deserves, then welcome aboard,” says Meir Levi.
But then there are the dating coaches and teachers who often find their way into the middle of a shidduch. Is this something beneficial, or are too many cooks stirring the pot?
The others look at Shloime; it’s clear that he’s the one with the “vort” on this topic.
“A ben Torah has a rebbi,” he says, “but a nudnik has rebbeim.” This is a crucial distinction. “It’s advisable to have a rebbi, rav, teacher, or wise brother-in-law to speak with during a shidduch, but reaching out to all of them, trying to follow everyone’s guidance, isn’t a good idea.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Meir joins in. “Sometimes a shidduch is going nicely and then one or the other goes to speak it over with someone else, and all of a sudden, new concerns arise. Be careful who you speak to.”
“Professional intervention can be helpful at times,” concludes Tzadok, “but meddling do-gooders aren’t doing anyone a favor.”
Let’s say the boy has spoken to his mentors, and no matter how he turns it over, he says he doesn’t “feel anything.”
Shloime Lewenstein turns serious. “I would take that comment with a lot of weight, and strongly consider whether to go on. I know that isn’t a popular stance, but I’ve seen enough broken engagements to convince me: You need to feel something to move forward.”
The pressure, the responsibility, is immense. To move forward or leave it, to use your powers of persuasion or know when to stand back, to realize that the future of Jewish homes is in your hands? Don’t they ever wish they could just retire and go take a regular job? Don’t they miss being able to go daven Minchah, or attend a chasunah, or take their kids on a Chol HaMoed trip without being harassed?
Shloime shrugs. “I was at a restaurant last night and three couples came over to me, all happily married with families, just to say hello and thank you again. That gives tremendous sipuk and makes up for a lot.”
Meir Levi saves every note and letter of thanks. “That’s what you remember, long after the check is cashed.”
These fellows have long days, never-ending conversations, and a daunting pile of voice mail every time they open the phone; but ultimately, they know they’re engaged in His work, and like their Creator, each day means building new worlds. And no amount of shadchanus can compete with that. —
“It could even be a yeshivah with part-time college, whatever works for that particular community,” adds Reb Tzadok. “Each community should hire the appropriate staff and do what it takes to make it worthwhile for a bochur to want to come back. It could make all the difference.”