A 21-year-old Yeshiva student, the oldest of nine children, worries that she'll wind up an old maid. A 24-year-old office worker tries not to panic, even though she still hasn't found a mate after two years of searching.
Their faces and voices blend together in a sea of longing: . . . I'm pretty, I'm tall (hopefully not too tall?), I'm slender, I'm a little pudgy, I'd make an excellent wife . . .
They've place their fate in the hands of Rita Schonfeld. In her early 50s, with piercing blue eyes, a voice half an octave lower than Fran Drescher's, and a database bigger than most political fund-raisers', Schonfeld is a shadchan, or Jewish matchmaker. Call her Cupid's headhunter. She works for free.
Shadchans entered pop culture with Yenta, the bumbling matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof. Matchmaking, however, is as old as the religion itself. The first matchmaker was Eliezer, who found Rebecca for Isaac, the son of Abraham, the founder of Judaism. Ever since, Orthodox parents have relied upon shadchans to help find mates for their children.
But in the 1960s, as the country became more liberal, Orthodox Jews were no exception. As it became more accepted for young Jews to arrange their own dates, shadchans fell out of favor.
Now that's changing, in part because there's been an upswing in the number of Orthodox women and men reaching their late 20s without finding partners. Worried religious leaders have deemed it a "crisis," holding three national conferences to address the problem. And last year, Jewish officials in Baltimore began offering a $2,000 bounty to anyone who could find a match for local Orthodox women who are 22 or older.
For Jews, the crisis threatens the very fabric of their culture. Judaism is a religion focused on family -- and many of its rituals, prayers, and customs are centered on married pairs.
"We are dealing with our future, with the health of a generation of observant Jews," says Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, a member of the Orthodox Caucus, a national clergy group.
Jewish girls feel the most pressure. They're raised with the idea that getting married, bearing children, and providing a home are the biggest mitzvot (good deeds) they can do. Although more educated and career-oriented than ever before, Orthodox women who reach their late 20s without a husband sometimes feel like failures.
"Orthodoxy has no place for the single person," says Rachel, a 28-year-old who's so ashamed of her inability to find a mate that she asked that her real name not be used.
That places a heavy weight on shadchans like Schonfeld, who works with men as well. She's an agent, a headhunter, and a telemarketer all in one, with as much drive as any Wall Street broker. Every few nights, she calls colleagues in New York, Canada, Australia, and Israel, seeking names of marriage-minded singles. She meets with her clients to help them readjust their expectations. "In the Orthodox community, a lot of girls want a learner" -- someone who studies the Torah all the time -- "but you still need an earner," she says.
For motivation, Schonfeld looks to her own past. Married at 20 and widowed at 25, Schonfeld sought the services of a shadchan. At their first meeting, the matchmaker asked her to spin around and inspected her from all angles.
"I felt like a piece of meat," Schonfeld says.
She never went back. The next time she heard from a shadchan was three years later, after she was remarried with two kids. "I think you're a little late," Schonfeld told her.
Successful matches are few and far between. It's especially difficult in Cleveland, where the Orthodox community is so insular that young singles often feel more like siblings than potential mates. To compensate, Schonfeld scans wedding announcements, hastily arranging dates for visiting groomsmen.
But matchmaking isn't all flowers and candy. The shadchan also holds the unenviable responsibility of dumping the suitor if the match doesn't work out. When a friend of Schonfeld's niece moved to Israel a few years ago, Schonfeld set her up with a dentist. But they didn't hit it off. After six dates, the woman told Schonfeld that she wanted to end it. "It took you six dates to decide this?" Schonfeld asked. "You knew what he was like after date one."
Schonfeld dreaded making the call. When she finally did, the dentist let out a long, sad sigh. "You don't have to say anything, I know why you're calling," he said.
"I don't know whose heart hurt more -- his or mine," Schonfeld says.
Jewish tradition dictates that anyone who makes three matches is guaranteed a spot in heaven. Schonfeld's made four. But she's hardly celebrating. There are too many desperate girls in her book, pleading for her to find them a husband. "There are people out there who don't find that mate," she says. "You need someone behind you, someone pushing for you."
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