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Matchmaking has been reclaimed as a contemporary calling by a new generation of Jewish women.

By Susan Josephs

Wedding photos by Zev Fisher

Spring 2011

In her two years in business as a professional matchmaker, Judith Gottesman has fielded plenty of phone calls from skeptics. “Their parents or grandparents have paid for my services as a gift and what I find out from them is that they think I’m either the old lady from Fiddler on the Roof or the Millionaire Matchmaker,” she says.

A 41-year-old former social worker based in Berkeley, Calif., Gottesman offers a distinct alternative to either the grandmotherly Yente or the now-famous Patti Stanger, whose in-your-face, tough-love approach to matchmaking has attracted more than a million viewers to her reality TV show The Millionaire Matchmaker. Calling her business Soul Mates Unlimited, Gottesman offers a lifetime of matchmaking services for a one-time fee of $1,540 without guaranteeing a particular number of dates and only collects additional cash upon a couple’s engagement.

“I don’t turn people away because they’re too this or too that. I try to help everyone, from the low-income to the wealthy,” she says.

Jewish matchmaker for singles looking for marriage - wedding image Contemporary Matchmaking

Arguably one of the oldest professions in the world, matchmaking, as practiced by Gottesman and a growing number of other Jewish professionals, has been reclaimed as a contemporary calling and advertised as a pragmatic necessity in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world. And while they might evoke the iconic Yente by claiming that matchmaking dwells in their DNA, today’s matchmakers also sport an eclectic list of qualifications that would have mystified Tevye and his fellow shtetl dwellers. They often have social work or psychology degrees, hold strong opinions about modern etiquette and optimal personal grooming practices, and have their pulse on the caprices of Internet dating and other pitfalls of 21st-century love. Fueled by the success of TV shows such as Bravo’s The Millionaire Matchmaker and NBC’s The Match Off, they cast themselves as savvy experts that people hire to repair their love lives, just as they might employ a personal trainer or interior designer to spruce up their bodies and homes.

“People have an expert for everything in their lives today to help them achieve their goals,” says Marc Goldmann, CEO of SawYouAtSinai and JRetroMatch, which combines Internet technology with flesh-and-blood matchmakers to help singles find their mates. “It’s no different with matchmaking.”

Susan Shapiro, an author and writing professor who wrote about her zest for amateur matchmaking in her book Secrets of a Fix-Up Fanatic: How to Meet & Marry Your Match, likens the best matchmakers to gurus or mentors who help people get to where they want to go in life. “In order to change, you often need someone in your corner to help you. It’s tough out there, and there’s no shame in hiring a matchmaker,” she says.

Rachel Greenwald, for example, a 46-year-old matchmaker who recently appeared on The Match Off, has made a career out of applying her Harvard MBA to the business of finding love. “I combine my instincts for matching people who are compatible with each other with my knowledge of business and marketing,” says the bestselling author of Find a Husband After 35: Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School. “There’s a real practical side to finding love, and people need research and strategy to understand what’s blocking them.”

In an era where some 20 million people continue to use online dating sites, according to a recent New York Times article, contemporary matchmakers often tout their personalized approach to love as a viable alternative. Their target audience: the lovelorn who have burnt out on scrolling through thousands of profiles, only to endure bad dates where the person sitting across from them is, in actuality, arrogant and conceited, not to mention short, bald, and living with his mother.

“The Internet has been great for my business,” says the 30-something Shoshanna Rikon, who’s been fixing up Jewish singles for almost 13 years through her New York City-based Shoshanna’s Matchmaking Service. “People have spent so much money on online dating, where there’s major ADHD…all these people just look at profiles and are clicking next, next. When people come to me, they get a guarantee of compatible matches.”

For cities with small Jewish populations, online dating definitely has its limitations, according to Laurie Berzack, a 42-year-old matchmaker from Charlotte, N.C., who founded her company, Chai Expectations, to serve the Jewish community. “JDate opened up Jewish dating globally, but in small cities, everyone knows everyone on JDate,” she observes. “People come to me because they have tapped out their social networks.” 

How Matchmaking Works

Berzack, Rikon, and other matchmakers will conduct lengthy, preferably face-to-face interviews with potential clients before signing them up. But gone are the days when a matchmaker had to rely on handwritten notes or photographic memory to keep track of all the single people in her shtetl. Goldmann, for example, has created a company where more than 350 matchmakers sift through a combined database of 45,000 profiles to make matches for clients all over the world. “One of the problems with online dating is that it’s very hard to assess a person purely by looking at his or her online profile,” says the 41-year-old former management consultant. “What we offer are intermediaries and oversight of this process.”

Both SawYouAtSinai and JRetroMatch, which, respectively, cater to Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish singles, require clients to submit their own profiles and continually update their information. Matchmakers then send clients profiles of potential matches; the database’s filtering tools prevent the same match from being suggested twice. Clients pay a monthly fee to stay active in the database and only pay matchmakers in the event of an engagement.

Goldmann credits the birth of his company to Tova Weinberg, his top matchmaker, who provided him with 3,000 contacts to launch the database. Weinberg, 56, a former dentist who has lost track of how many matches she’s made—somewhere over 200, she thinks—currently spends at least 10 hours a day at matchmaking. Galvanized by a mission to prevent intermarriage, she works with Jewish singles of all denominations and has learned that far too many people “are looking for what they can’t have. Everyone wants the brilliant female doctor who happens to be a model at night,” she says. “My advice to people is if you like the personality, then learn to love the looks.”

Weinberg, who donates the proceeds of her successful matches to charity, differs from most of her peers in that she performs her job only as a mitzvah and not for a living. Successful matchmakers, however, can earn lucrative incomes, while the most famous among them, Patti Stanger, charges $5,000 for a single two-hour lunch consultation.

“Yes, you can make a lot of money as a matchmaker,” says Stanger in a phone interview. “But it’s an honorable profession. More important than the money, you get credits in heaven.”

Lisa Clampitt, the co-founder of Matchmaking Pro, an institute dedicated to training matchmakers and setting industry ethics and standards, estimates that the majority of matchmakers charge anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 for a comprehensive list of services. A former social worker who also runs VIPLife, an upscale, New York City-based matchmaking company with a separate Jewish division, Clampitt believes a good matchmaker should “set realistic expectations with clients. It’s about staying true to your word about what you can and can’t provide,” she says.

Jewish matchmaking services: wedding image matchmaking Success

On the subject of revealing their success rates, matchmakers seem divided. SawYouAtSinai’s website, for example, prominently states it has more than 1,000 engaged members. Greenwald says she’s responsible for more than 762 matches but admits she also counts the matches from people who wrote to her that they found someone after reading her books, which include last year’s Have Him at Hello: Confessions From 1,000 Guys About What Makes Them Fall in Love…Or Never Call Back.

Then there’s Gottesman, who will not divulge how many clients she has, believing that “matchmaking is not about numbers, but people.” And Berzack, who’s made “a handful of marriages” since she started matchmaking in 2006, says she’s always a little suspicious when she hears about matchmakers with enormous success rates. “I honestly don’t know how many matches I’m responsible for…plus people have found each other on their own after getting some coaching from me,” she says.

Evan Marc Katz, a Los Angeles-based dating coach who specializes in personal consultations for women and empowering his clients to find love on their own, believes “that matchmakers have the toughest job around. I won’t even set up my friends with each other,” he says.

Though he respects what matchmakers do, Katz also feels many of them ultimately can’t succeed because “people are paying them to hand over that right person. Nothing against matchmakers, but I want people to take responsibility for why they’re still single. The first place to look is in the mirror if you’ve been on JDate for 10 years and not found anyone,” he says.

Clampitt would argue that a good matchmaker provides intensive counseling to clients. “You need to be straightforward with people about what is and isn’t working in their love lives. I also think the really good matchmakers are truly obsessed with helping people find love,” she says.

Gottesman, for example, always “hated seeing lonely people” and discovered that matchmaking came naturally to her. She would set up friends with acquaintances she met at parties and “was able to pick up key bits of information about someone that would make me think, ‘wow, this person would be perfect for so-and-so,’” she says.

A self-described “incurable romantic,” Berzack traces her calling to her childhood, where “as a little girl, I believed the love of my life was just outside my bedroom window, floating in the air, waiting for me. I know that sounds hokey, but it shows my faith in love,” she says.

In addition to her clients, who pay her anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, Berzack maintains a database of about 5,000 single people free of charge. Selective about taking on new clients, Berzack asks potential candidates a slew of questions about their past relationships and what they seek in a mate. “If they tell me they’re looking for a model or a size zero, I’m not taking them on,” she says. “I feel like your head has to be in the right space to hire a matchmaker. You have to be willing to get in touch with who you really are and be open to critique.”

In addition to having good listening skills and an intuitive understanding of people, Berzack also believes that “being in a successful relationship for the past 16 years” has helped her comprehend other people’s relationship problems—a sentiment echoed by other married matchmakers.

“All my relationship gurus were happily married,” says the now happily married Shapiro. “If I were getting fixed up, I’d want someone who’s already been through all of that.”

Wedding photo: Matchmaking success story Married Matchmakers?

Does a matchmaker need to make her own match in order to do her job right? This question comes up all the time for Stanger, who is single. “People always want to know why I’m not married, and I tell them to look at all the coaches who’ve never played in the NFL and got their teams into the Super Bowl,” she says.

Rikon, another single matchmaker, believes her status allows her to better relate to her clients. “I have real empathy for them because I’m also out there dating, and I think that makes me a better matchmaker,” she says.

As a student at the New York Institute of Technology, Rikon discovered her knack for matchmaking when she kept successfully setting up her sorority sisters. The people who seek out her services today, she says, “are serious but not desperate. You have to be vulnerable to sign up for a matchmaker, and people come to me saying, ‘I can’t believe I have to do this,’ and I have to keep telling them, ‘You’re not the only one. New York City is a really hard place to meet, and people are really picky.’”

But thanks to the recent visibility of the profession on television, the stigma of hiring a matchmaker has definitely decreased, says Beth Mandell, who runs the Jewish division of Clampitt’s company, VIPLife. “It used to be I’d tell people I was a matchmaker and they would just say, ‘Wow.’ Now, people are asking me for my card.”

Also, the number of people setting up shop as matchmakers seems to be on the rise. Clampitt estimates that 50 to 75 matchmakers sign up for the annual professional development conferences sponsored by Matchmaking Pro. “People are so excited that this is a possible career for them,” she says. “And I feel like we’ve developed a sense of community over the years, where if I have a client, I might contact someone else who might have a client who’s good for my client.”

It’s such a burgeoning profession,” observes Greenwald, who conducts matchmaking boot camps for aspiring matchmakers, including at Matchmaking Pro conferences. “The field of matchmaking is where online dating was about eight years ago. And look at how common online dating is today.”

Gottesman believes she has found her ideal job. “In all my years of experience in the nonprofit world, it seemed to me that whatever challenges people faced…money, health problems, whatever it was, finding love seemed to help more than anything,” she says. “Helping people find love is the best kind of social work I can do.”

Susan Josephs is a freelance writer based in Venice, Calif.

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