Israel Irenstein is trying to explain chemistry.
Neatly dressed in a grey suit and closely cropped hair, the 37-year-old dating coach stands before his all-female audience and addresses a young woman in the front row who is perplexed by a recent rejection. It had been a great first date. They laughed, they talked for hours, she felt good about it. Later, he texted her and said that he didn’t feel a connection.
“If the two of you spoke for hours about your lives and personal experiences then, yes, you might have developed chemistry.” Irenstein tells her. “If you spoke for hours about your interests, like the fact that you both love Woody Allen movies, then you couldn’t have developed chemistry.”
There is a ripple of nods. Notes are scratched on pieces of paper balanced on laps.
For the past six years, Irenstein, the founder of TheDatingAcademy.com, has dispensed love advice onto the lonely-hearted of New York City.
In his former life, he was Hasidic and living as part of the Gur community, an ultra-Orthodox sect known for its extremely conservative views on sex and marriage.
“You know the women in your immediate family, perhaps your sister,” he said in a phone interview last week. “But talking to your aunt is already borderline. Beyond that forget it.”
Irenstein, whose childhood was spent shuttling between Brooklyn and Israel, found his views of the opposite sex dramatically crippled as a result.
“When you don’t really know any women, they become objectified. They’re like animals in the zoos. You don’t get to interact with any of them.”
The simplest acts, he recalled, such as accepting change from a female cashier, were forbidden and—as a young boy growing up—immediately sexualized. “It becomes very hard to sit in front of a woman,” Irenstein said. “Even if she’s fully dressed.”
For a while, Irenstein led a life much like his peers. He was married at 21 to a woman whom he had met twice, for one hour each time. After their seven-year union ended in divorce, the freshly single, newly secular Irenstein decided it was time to explore the uncharted waters of dating.
It was a rocky start.
“I went to bars, sat there and didn’t talk to anyone.” he recalled. “It wasn’t easy. The progress I made just doing that was very slow and very painful.”
He refused to give up, signing up for every dating coaching event he could find. When tickets were too expensive, he set up chairs and collected names in exchange for admission. Slowly, he started to see a shift.
“I would talk to women, get a number in a bar and I would think: ‘What changed?’” He paused for a moment, considering. “But I think know what changed. My body language changed, my confidence changed, I stopped putting myself down.” Irenstein notes that his biggest hurdles — low self-esteem and self-deprecation — are typical among ex-Hasids entering the dating world. “When you grow up in such an extreme community like I did, one of the main things is that you are not important,” he said. “You’re a little screw in a machine for the good of God. Everything is written for you so you don’t get to create a personality.”
Irenstein put in the work to do just that, starting with the simplest of discoveries. He decided what his favorite color was, what clothes he liked to wear and what food he wanted at a restaurant. As his personal developments bled into a successful dating life, people began to take notice.
“Friends from the community liked the advice I gave. At one point someone came to me and said that they wanted to pay me to be their coach.” he recalled. “This was someone who was 28 years old at the time and had never had a relationship, had never even kissed a girl. I helped him and within a couple of months he had a girlfriend who he lived with for a year and a half.”
Irenstein, who volunteers as a dating coach at Footsteps, an organization that assists people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox community, points out that the transition is never an easy one.
He notes, in particular, the slow and difficult process ex-Hasidic women must face when readjusting their view of men.
“Women who grow up very religious often view male figures as dominating, they think of them as the person who controls them, the person who holds them back.” he said. “It’s very hard for them to go into the world and look at men in an open-minded way.” Irenstein is quick to remind his clients that it takes time. “Sometimes just telling them that, sometimes that’s all they need to hear.” he said.
The dating coach takes a similar tactic when working with women outside the community. Irenstein assigns homework to his clients, instructing them to find twenty good things about the date, even if the date was was a flop.
“It takes a lot of work but then they come up with the fact that it felt good to wear that dress that they hadn’t worn in a long time, watch that movie or eat food that they wouldn’t have eaten otherwise. It’s about being creative so that they can look at the whole picture more positively.”
Irenstein tries to lead with the similar mindset when it comes to his own romantic life — don’t look back on mistakes and stay positive. “When I’m on a date, I’m living in the moment.” he says.
There is one iron-clad rule, however. Never mix business with pleasure.
“Sometimes I’m on a date with someone who knows I’m a dating coach and she starts asking me for tips,” he said. “I’ll be like, ‘We’re on a date. I’m not working right now.’”