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Wed April 16, 2014
Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Put Faith In Unorthodox Dating Service
Originally published on Mon May 5, 2014 9:52 am
Yael Mizrachi, a 30-year-old Israeli woman, has been to many matchmakers.
"Too many," she says, rolling her wide dark eyes and tossing her shoulder-length hair.
Matchmakers are the traditional way to find a mate in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to which Mizrachi belongs. But she is not entirely traditional.
"I identify myself as a modern ultra-Orthodox," Mizrachi says.
Mizrachi is part of a growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who are seeking job skills, getting higher education or joining the military. And those changes are shaking up the community's established customs for finding a spouse.
On a practical level, to Mizrachi, being "modern ultra-Orthodox" means she wears long sleeves and long skirts, but also drives — something unmarried women in her community normally do not do.
She won't attend mixed parties but bucked tradition by getting undergraduate and master's degrees in social work. Most ultra-Orthodox women in Israel only finish religious high school.
Mizrachi's parents, who became ultra-Orthodox as adults, supported her college education, she says, but others did not.
"My 12th-grade teacher tried hard to convince me to stick with the classic path," she says. "But that didn't happen."
Looking For A Spouse Who Will 'Earn A Living'
Many of the changes among ultra-Orthodox come from political and social pressure from other parts of Israeli society. Traditionally, ultra-Orthodox men have been able to avoid serving in the military or getting a job by engaging in intense religious study. Their families then often rely on government support or wives with limited education for income.
Still, skilled Torah students have long been seen as the best husband an ultra-Orthodox woman can catch. But not for Mizrachi.
"The matchmakers were always trying to set me up with somebody who studies the Bible all day. I don't want that," she says. "I want somebody who can also earn a living."
You might think college would be a good place to meet that somebody. Except college programs designed especially for ultra-Orthodox students, including the programs Mizrachi chose, are strictly sex-segregated.
The solution: a new dating service, especially designed to serve ultra-Orthodox just like her.
It's called "Shidducation" — rooted in the Yiddish (and Hebrew) word for matchmaker, but ending with a modern lilt. The founder, 26-year-old Eli Postavsky, studies law at a college where men and women take classes on different days of the week.
"We talked about this need for a long time," he says. "The men and women here have no way to make connections, although they'd probably find a good match."
So Postavsky pitched it to the school director. Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel had already seen the need.
"Being an academic school, we did not have anything to do with matchmaking of course," Fogel says. "But one day I got a call from someone who said, 'You have women students. I have a son. So if you have something to offer ...' "
Online Survey Meets Old-School Matchmaker
The dating service starts digitally, but it's nothing like online dating in the rest of the world. Students at the dozen or so ultra-Orthodox campuses in Israel are eligible.
They periodically get an email with a link to an online form. Questions include the usual name and age, plus number of siblings and whether those siblings are married, parents' occupations and what style of religious dress the person wears, including what head covering would be expected after marriage. Photos, please.
Then it's back to tradition. A matchmaker reads all the forms, calls up each student and sets to work.
In this startup, the matchmaker happens to be the founder's mom. Tubi Postavsky doesn't follow the custom of meeting participants — or parents — in person. But she digs into their soul on the phone.
"I have had conversations of over an hour. I'm trying to open them up and learn what they need," she says.
The key difference between traditional ultra-Orthodox matchmaking and this service is that here people are valued for having experiences outside the often closed ultra-Orthodox communities. Eli Postavsky says he saw matchmakers who didn't really know how to treat him without the familiar pedigree of religious study.
"College and working was not something accepted," he says.
Fogel interrupts him.
"What he means is, he wasn't offered girls that would really fit for him," he says. "Because he was not a regular boy, he was offered second-rate girls."
Fogel says helping students find good mates may help convince skeptical ultra-Orthodox that education can respect tradition.
"If they have enough faith that we have good students here, who could be considered good potential matches for their children, that is very important," he says. "We are not against the community, we are part of the community."
'Something That Came From Heaven'
One marriage, another engagement and scores of dates have happened so far through Shidducation's services. About 400 students have signed up since it began late last December. There's no upfront fee, but if you find a spouse, a traditional matchmaking fee of perhaps $1,000 would be expected.
Natanel Schlesinger, 24, married a woman four months after they met through the service. They go to different schools and lived two hours apart, so they might never have met otherwise.
"I think this is something that came from heaven," he says, smiling. "It's not something I'd usually do, but there was this email about it, and I thought I'd have be a better chance to meet someone suitable here than any other place."
Mizrachi, the 33-year-old woman with two degrees, has met several men through the matchmaking service; no sparks yet. She is certain she wants a husband, plenty of kids and a career. But she is well past traditional marrying age in her community.
"Maybe that makes me less desirable in the classic ultra-Orthodox view," she says. "But I believe that whatever God has decided for me is what I'll get.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, the business of matchmaking is adapting with the times. By tradition, a woman's ideal catch has been a man who devotes his life to religious study.
Well, now, NPR's Emily Harris has found a matchmaking network designed for changing tastes.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Yael Mizrachi is 30 - old for an ultra-Orthodox woman to still be single. She's been to many matchmakers.
YAEL MIZRACHI: (Through Translator) The problem is they don't know me well enough. They don't know my soul. They don't understand who I am.
HARRIS: Mizrachi calls herself a modern ultra-orthodox. She wears long sleeves and long skirts but she drives. Unmarried women normally don't. She won't attend mixed parties but she bucked tradition by getting a BA and a Master's. Most ultra-Orthodox women here only finish religious high school. Men traditionally study religious texts up to 14 hours a day.
MIZRACHI: (Through Translator) Matchmakers were always trying to set me up with somebody who studies the Bible all day. I don't want that. I want somebody who can also make a living.
HARRIS: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are about 10 percent of Israel's population. When men are dedicated to religious study, they rely on welfare checks or wives with limited education to support their families. Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel says for decades, few ultra-Orthodox contributed to Israel's economy.
RABBI YEHEZKEL FOGEL: They live their whole life in their own neighborhoods. So they have small businesses like having a deli, but they were not involved in really economic life.
HARRIS: But things are changing. As the number of ultra-Orthodox has grown, so has pressure to join the workforce. Rabbi Fogel runs a community college for ultra-Orthodox men and women. The four-story school in central Israel blends in with office buildings around it. Here, 3,000 students study law, business, accounting, health and occupational therapy. This college might seem a good place for young ultra-Orthodox pushing boundaries to meet. But men and women attend classes on different days. Third-year law student Eli Postavsky started a digital dating service to help.
ELI POSTAVSKY: (Through Translator) My friends and I talked about needing this. The men and women who study there are probably very suitable for each other but don't have any way to make connections.
HARRIS: But it's not like most online dating.
TUBI POSTAVSKY: You fill out the form and you send pictures. And then I speak with everybody.
HARRIS: There's a human matchmaker behind the screen. Tubi Postavsky, the founder's mom.
POSTAVSKY: I'm trying to open them and to learn them, to learn what they need.
HARRIS: How is this different from traditional matchmaking then? Twenty-four-year-old Natanel Schlesinger says it values ultra-Orthodox who are a little bit different.
NATANEL SCHLESINGER: (Through Translator) What interested me was that it was for ultra-Orthodox who were going to college. There seemed to be more chance I would find a good match here than any other place.
HARRIS: He married a woman four months after they met through the service. About 400 students have signed up. It's free until you find a spouse, when a matchmaking fee of perhaps $1,000 would be expected. Rabbi Fogel says the program helps prove to skeptical ultra-Orthodox that education can respect tradition.
FOGEL: We're not against the community. We are part of the community. And this is why it's important. One of the ways to show that we are part of community is through this matchmaking system.
HARRIS: Yael Mizrachi, the 30-year-old with two degrees, has met several men through this matchmaking service but no sparks yet. Marriage is very important to her, says this modern ultra-Orthodox woman, as are children and her career. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.