A century ago in an Eastern European shtetl, a rebbitzen matching up two young people for marriage was hardly earth-shattering news.
After all, one of the roles of the rabbi’s wife was that of a shadchan, a matchmaker.
But that was then and this is now.
The role hasn’t been sustained at modern-day American synagogues. In fact, one Orthodox rabbi said he has never heard of any rebbitzen in the Bay Area serving as a shadchan.
“I think I’m one-of-a-kind at the moment,” said Lorri Lewis, who was recently hired by Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto as a part-time shadchan.
Soon enough, the wife of Rabbi Sheldon Lewis expects to see the headline “Rebbitzen makes her first shiduch”” in the Kol Emeth Voice, the Conservative congregation’s newsletter.
However, she’s still waiting.
“It’s been a slow start,” admitted Lewis, who has been on the job since August. “There have been a couple of dates, but engagements? No. I’ve only been at it for a couple of months. I need a little more time.”
Actually, Lewis does have one success story. Before she was hired by the synagogue, she showed off her matchmaking skills by bringing together Cythnia Rawls and Ed Sternberg. They ended up getting married two years ago.
Lewis had been trying to find a match for Cynthia for several years when, on her job as a dental hygienist, she came across Ed right under her nose — literally — in the dentist’s chair.
“Before he knew it,” Cynthia wrote in a short story about the match, “Lorri had left him in the chair with his mouth full of dental implements so he couldn’t run away and gone into the lab to call Cynthia.”
Cynthia was the executive director of Kol Emeth at the time, plus she keeps kosher, all of which Ed thought was “a bit too Jewish” for him.
But what Cynthia called a “seemingly impossible match” worked, which only “added to Lorri’s reputation as a matchmaker.”
Partly hired on the basis of that home run, Lewis is willing to bring together any Jewish singles in the Bay Area, not just Kol Emeth congregants.
By the middle of October, about 40 people had signed up.
The service costs $100. That fee doesn’t guarantee a marriage, but it does cover three introductions — it’s up to the two people involved to figure out their first date — over a one-year period. Couples who become engaged are encouraged to make a tax-deductible $2,000 donation to the singles program at Congregation Kol Emeth.
Other singles matchmaking services charge about $1,500 up front — although Jewish-oriented services in the Bay Area usually charge about half or even one-third of that price.
One of those services, the S.F.-based Jewish Connection, has a pool of clients “anywhere from 150 to 200,” according to director Marsha Winer.
Her operation, she said, has planted the seeds for more than 75 marriages in its 16-year history.
Thus, she isn’t too worried about losing business to Lewis. “There’s been so much competition that has come and gone since I’ve started, I can’t tell you,” Winer said.
Lewis said her slow start is partially due to a lack of people of similar ages in her pool of clients. “The ages range from 25 to 55 and it’s all spread out,” Lewis said. “But we’re getting more and more people every day.”
Lewis was hired by Kol Emeth for four hours per week, but said she has been putting in another eight to 12 hours of her own time. She gets paid $150 per week.
“It’s not only a job, but a very significant mitzvah,” said Lewis, who has kept her main job as a dental hygienist. “Rabbis tell us that ever since God finished creating the world, He’s been busy putting together matches as a matchmaker. I see myself as one of His assistants.”
Kol Emeth decided to hire a shadchan after receiving an endowment from congregant Miriam Segall following her brother’s death. The endowment is called the Laurien Y. Segall Fund for Jewish Singles Programming.
“We formed a singles steering committee,” said Arthur Keller, a Kol Emeth board member who serves on the committee. “After kicking around a few things, we decided that it would be interesting to hire a shadchan.”
The matchmaking service is not-for-profit.
“We’re not in this to make any money,” Lewis said, citing that as one of the big differences between her singles service and most others in the Bay Area.
Another difference, she said, is that she meets with each of her clients for a one-hour interview. But Winer said she does the same thing, plus she boasts of a master’s degree in counseling.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of critique of some of the other services,” said Lewis, who has no formal training in social work or counseling. “If it’s two people within so many years of each other and both are non-smokers, that’s a good enough match for them. I want a more personal touch. I’m really trying to get to know my clients.”
Lewis will match her clients only with other clients. Then again, if she thinks a single person at Kol Emeth might be a good match for a client, “I’ll probably become more of a ‘noodgenik’ and encourage him or her to sign up.”
Lewis refused to give her age, saying only that she is the mother of four boys of high-school age and older.
Her first successful match?
“I started when I was in college,” she said. “I fixed one of my roommates up with the man who turned out to be her husband.”
Even though she has yet to make any matches in her official capacity, Lewis said she won’t get antsy and just throw two people together and hope for the best.
“I think the role of an official matchmaker is different from the role of the friend who just tries to put two people together,” Lewis said. “I have to wait for the perfect match. I have to be patient.”