Inside the World of Ultra-Orthodox Dating

It happens every (weekday) evening across the entire land of Israel. Dates involving religiously observant Jews who have been brought together by a matchmaker take place in hotel lobbies, in certain approved cafes and pubs, and also in family homes. And if you’re a so-called hilltop youth in the West Bank, it could also happen at a secret spring in an obscure valley in Samaria. In the dark.

A secret spring at night? Suddenly my secular dates sound so dull.

“Yes, yes,” says Dr. Yaarit Bokek-Cohen, a sociologist at Bar-Ilan University. “Hilltop youth look for exotic locations. As a secular woman, I would find it quite frightening to go to a spring in the dark on a first date, but for them it lacks the connotations that we attribute to it. For them, it’s simply cool.”

I’d always thought that matchmaking existed primarily in the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, communities, but according to Bokek-Cohen, who has recently studied the subject in the religious-Zionist movement, there are about 70 matchmakers among that population as well. Some of them, she discovered, work as husband-and-wife teams: a rabbi and head of the yeshiva, and his wife – the rabbanit (rebbetzin, in Yiddish). Young women from all over the country seeking attractive young men enrolled in a prestigious yeshiva will, for example, often turn to the rabbanit. She takes them to her husband, who is well acquainted with the students. He interviews the young woman and tries to find her a suitable match.

Young people from the religious-Zionist public might start with the description offered by a matchmaker, but they soon find one another’s Facebook page with its plethora of posted photos with friends and from treks abroad. In the case of Haredim, however, even though the matchmakers often have photographs of their clients, they are less inclined to show them.

“One time a young man came to me after he became engaged,” the Haredi matchmaker P. relates. She continues, “He wanted to see the picture his fiancée had sent me. After looking at it, he said, ‘Thanks for not showing it to me earlier, because if I’d seen it before the meeting, I would never have met with her at all.’ Today they are married and have children, thank God.”

P., who requested not to be identified by her full name, agreed to be described as “an ultra-Orthodox matchmaker with an open mind.” She works mainly with people she refers to as “modern Haredim,” some of them academics, who want to combine Torah with work. They prefer not to use religious dating websites, such as date4dos.co.il, but to find a spouse by means of a more traditional method. Enter P., who is attentive to them and acts as a supportive liaison in bringing the relationship to fruition.

The Haredi matchmaking world is as complex and diverse as the Haredi world itself. In the Gerrer (Gur) Hasidic community, for example, the intended bride and groom meet once or at most twice, and if they like each other, a vort (Yiddish for “word”) ceremony is held in which the couple and their parents raise a toast and announce their engagement. In other Hasidic sects, the couple may meet three times before getting to that stage. In contrast, P.’s clients might meet quite a few times, though in some cases the young man will propose after five dates. That’s the minimum, she says.

Before their first encounter, the two parties usually try to find out about each other by talking with relatives and friends. “They check out in advance religious and economic suitability and whether the families are compatible,” P. says.

The dates take place at sites where there is no chance that the couple will be alone – in a hotel lobby, perhaps, or in a café, where they usually order something to drink. With the shyness of one who knows he’s about to embarrass himself, I asked P. what they order. “No chance of alcohol, eh?” She guffawed affably. “Of course not!” In any event, it’s the young man who pays.

The routine of going to these meetings can be wearing on a young Haredi man looking for a wife – or vice versa. In some cases, the search can take years. That frustration, especially as it affects “older” Haredim – that is, in their late twenties and thirties – led one group of men and women in Jerusalem to establish a non-profit speed-dating system specifically oriented to the ultra-Orthodox community, which allows one to meet up to 30 candidates in a single evening.

The format differs somewhat from regular, secular speed-dating. Once or twice a week a group of single Haredi young men and women meet – in a hall that’s been made available for the event – and each brings along something light to eat or drink. The organizers made a deliberate decision to allow divorced people to mingle with single ones, in order to shatter the stigma that attache to having been previously married. The evening begins with the men and the women sitting separately and listening to a talk by a rabbi on a subject related to love and relationships. Afterward, they divide into groups of five men and five women per table. Everyone introduces himself and/or herself briefly, before the 10 people at the table get into a conversation on a subject like “How would you feel if your ex wanted to meet your best friend?” After a short discussion, in which usually everyone participates, a gong sounds and the five men move to the next table, while the women remain seated and welcome another round of prospects. At the end of the evening, everyone notes the names of the people they liked. The sky’s the limit.

One of the initiators of this project is Menachem, a Haredi bachelor of 32. After 12 years of searching for a spouse, he still hasn’t despaired of finding the love of his life.

Like all those interviewed for this article, Menachem does not belong to the “hard core” of the Haredi community, but in his search for a potential mate, he too is subject to several strict limitations “There isn’t a lot of room for bachelors in Judaism, it’s a condition that’s neither here nor there,” he told me in a late-night telephone conversation. “The Torah – Genesis 2:24 – says, ‘Hence a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.’ That is a sentence without a pause: When you leave your father and mother, you must immediately cling to a wife.”

Despite the cultural gulf that divides us, Menachem and I understand each other well. Until not long ago, I too was part of the dating world, so I am familiar with the despair and the disappointment. Still, my ears perk up when he says that there are quite a few advantages to a first meeting with a young woman in her home, with her family.

A first date with a girl and her parents together? Sounds like a total nightmare.

Menachem: “I’ve never said no to that suggestion. In that way I gained both a meeting with the family members, which spared many future embarrassments, and visiting the home also reveals a great deal about their style. It’s also her home court, so she’s a lot more relaxed and goes with the flow. In addition, sometimes you see right off the bat that there’s no chance, so you can end the meeting early. You know, when you meet outside, it’s always hours until you order and then pay. In the girl’s house, it could end within 40 minutes. In really tough cases, I got up after exactly 40 minutes, said I was in a hurry and left.”

With his rich experience, Menachem now gives advice to younger Haredi men ahead of their first dates – almost like P. She is making more and more matches that end in marriage, but wouldn’t tell me how many, saying only, “Thank God, quite a few.”

Do you go to the weddings?

P.: “If I’m invited I go, of course. That is the greatest joy there can be – to establish a faithful household in Israel. I remember that at one of the weddings, I saw the bride and groom coming out of the yichud room [where newlyweds spend a few moments in seclusion after the ceremony], holding hands. The groom spotted me in the large crowd, his eyes opened wide with happiness and his lips were saying, ‘Thank you.’ Tears came to my eyes. It’s a great deal of work, but it’s one of the biggest sources of satisfaction in the world.”

While we secular types often tend not to talk about our intentions for the future in a very clear and unequivocal way when dating, we might do so before a first meeting, when one part of the pair – usually the woman – may ask the other if he or she is “serious” or is “just looking for some fun.” Otherwise, things generally progress very slowly. Any mention of kids, pregnancy, childbirth, raising a family, and so on is usually considered taboo before the relationship has passed the six-month mark, at the very least. Moving in together? Don’t bring that up either until plenty of time has gone by. We were in India, we did yoga, we took a dip in the Ganges, and we learned to live the present and believe in the power of the here-and-now. By contrast, a key aspect of meeting someone through a shiddukh (an arranged match) is that there are no games. As ultra-Orthodox Israelis have told me, when you decide to embark on this process, you’re talking business; it’s not about just going out with someone. It’s clear to both sides that the goal is to create a Jewish family.

“This focus is both an advantage and a disadvantage,” explains Gil Barak, who grew up secular in Ramat Gan, became successful in public relations, and says he sampled “all the delights of Tel Aviv” before his quest for meaning led him to find spiritual succor in the Chabad movement. He became observant, married, had children and began counseling bridegrooms before the ceremony.

Barak, who wrote a self-help book in Hebrew for couples entitled “Ledaber o Lishtok” (“To Speak or to Stay Silent”), says the focus on marriage spurs couples to move ahead in their relationships, but can also be very stressful: Inexperienced young, observant people feel they have to decide after just a few dates if they want to live with each other for the rest of their lives.

How do they do this? First, it’s important to remember that before the dating even begins, it’s customary to speak with friends and relatives of the prospective match, to learn about their personality and intellectual and religious character from those who know them. People who are asked for their opinion are also subject to conflicting pressures: On the one hand, they don’t want to commit the sin of lashon hara (gossiping) and certainly don’t want to speak badly about a friend or relative. At the same time, Judaism obligates them to tell the truth. The result ends up being somewhere in the middle, and it’s with this information that one begins dating.

Sarah Fichter, a former journalist who belongs to the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox stream and is now a shadkhanit (matchmaker), has brought a good number of couples together under the wedding canopy. Now, two of her own daughters have started the process of seeking a match. She stresses that checking off a “laundry list” isn’t enough.

“On paper,” she explains, “the young man or woman could be wonderful, very pious and virtuous. But if they leave your heart cold, then it’s a no-go. I like to see what happens by the third or fourth date. If there’s no emotional spark by then, the match should be called off. Of course, you could have strong feelings for someone, but also discover that they have qualities that don’t suit you. You have to ask yourself: Can I live with this person for the next 70 years? Still, if your heart isn’t excited at all, if you’re not waiting impatiently to see her, if you don’t miss her – then say goodbye. I always say, with shiddukhim, you have to be merciless if you feel that ‘this is not it’ – even if you’ve gone out seven times already.”

The going rate for a matchmaker in the Haredi world is $1,000, from each side. Which is one reason many Haredim try to act as amateur matchmakers: You do a mitzvah and get paid, what could be bad? “The Gemara says this is the most ‘kosher money,’ the holiest money. I very happily receive it and also pay it out,” says Fichter. Sometimes, in lieu of money, the shadkhan is given an expensive gift as a token of thanks.

Although it’s generally expected for brides to receive marital tips before the wedding, I was surprised, and pleased, to hear about the guidance that many grooms are offered. Most of the information relates to the concept of marriage according to halakha (traditional Jewish law), with its emphasis on the subject of niddah (relating to the woman’s menstrual period, a time when the couple must abstain from sexual relations). However, there are also counselors who talk about various ways to sustain a healthy relationship – offering the sort of prenuptial advice that secular men could benefit from as well.

For his part, Barak says that he tells grooms about the importance of maintaining “pleasure in a relationship” by various means, stressing that they shouldn’t think of time spent together as a waste of time or as a sin: Even just going out to eat ice cream as a couple is “holy” if it strengthens their bond and their love for each other. He also tells them that during niddah, the husband mustn’t allow his wife to feel unwanted, but rather should use this time when physical contact of any kind is prohibited to strengthen their emotional bond. He also advises his clients about being considerate of their wife’s needs, including in the bedroom, once niddah is over.

Barak: “You have to provide for her pleasure, not yours. In bed you are performing a mitzvah, this is the highest connection to the Creator, but it is also her time. You are connecting properly to Hashem if you are going at your wife’s pace, if you prepare her properly [for intimate relations], take her desires into account and give to her out of love. The husband has to make the wife happy, give her pleasure – and his pleasure is not the goal here, it is incidental.”

He also debunks the popular notion that Haredim are only supposed to have sexual relations through a hole in a white sheet. “That’s forbidden by halakha,” he asserts. “Flesh must touch flesh, there can be no barrier. You have to be completely naked, otherwise you aren’t fulfilling the mitzvah.”

In comparison, the conversation I had with Orly, who counsels brides, was less pleasant to my ears. Bridal counselors too apparently spend much time talking about the laws of niddah, ranging from the dry legal standpoint, to the deeper reasons for observing this mitzvah, such as “its holiness, and how it imparts healthfulness and fulfillment to married life.”

Orly, who also belongs to the Chabad community, explains to brides that Judaism does not denigrate the female body, and that sexual relations in the marital framework are a good thing if properly conducted. The part that left my mouth gaping was when she explained how she also advises that, “the wife should be available to her husband, she should make an effort, and if the man wants it [i.e., intimate relations] she should encourage him, she should respond to him when he wants it. It’s a holy thing, and we encourage women as much as possible not to say no. If the woman is tired and doesn’t have the energy, then it’s best for the husband to be told this by means of open communication. But yes – sometimes, even if the woman doesn’t feel like it, she must make the effort and not act as if she’s doing him a favor. Yes, women must make the effort so their husbands will desire them. They say that in Judaism the man is rewarded for striving to please, to satisfy his wife, and she is rewarded for showing the man that she wants him.”

This story "Inside the World of Ultra-Orthodox Dating" was written by Shachar Kidron (Haaretz).

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