'Matchmakers' Help Jewish Singles Find Love

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Saw You at Sinai is a Web site that uses a unique form of matchmaking to help Jewish singles meet potential mates. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue is joined by Refael Hileman, a matchmaker with the Web site, to discuss the concept and how it supports common cultural traditions of marrying within one's faith.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, another of our most fascinating people of the year, C. Vivian Stringer, of the Rutgers women's basketball coach. Her pastor and friend tells us how adversity has always made her stronger.

But first, what is it about the New Year that sparks the urge to merge? Maybe it's all those family get-togethers where people are trying to get into your business, or maybe it's all those ads for lavish New Year soirees. Anyway, this is the time of the year when many people are thinking about finding commitment. And for many people, it's not enough that the intended have a sense of humor, a steady income, or even a good relationship with mom. For many, finding someone with similar religious commitment is essential.

A Web site called Saw You at Sinai is aimed at conservative and orthodox Jewish singles seeking to make that kind of connection. And it's taken the ancient art of matchmaking online. It's this week's Faith Matters conversation.

Refael Hileman is a matchmaker for Saw You at Sinai and he joins us in our Washington D.C. studio. Also with us is Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of the National Synagogue and he joins us now as well.

Welcome to you both.

REFAEL HILEMAN: Thank you.

SHMUEL HERZFELD: Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Rabbi, let me start with you. Why is this kind of matchmaking important for observant Jews? Some people don't understand why it's so important for some people to marry within their religion.

HERZFELD: I get that sometimes. The Torah teaches that marriage is more than two people being in love with each other. It's more than a physical relationship. Marriage is a spiritual destiny. And since I believe in the Torah, I believe that it's our responsibility to help people find that spiritual match and that spiritual destiny. And that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to match people up so that they can create a home that spiritually best matches the values of the Torah.

MARTIN: Refael, what's the significance of the name of the Web site - Saw You at Sinai?

HILEMAN: Well, there's a Jewish tradition that when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai that all the Jewish souls were there - from the future and the past - and that all couples were there with their soul mates, so to speak. And so it's based on that tradition.

MARTIN: Oh it's lovely. How does it work?

HILEMAN: Well, basically, similar to other dating sites, you create your profile that gives a lot of data. But rather than singles seeking out their own matches, you have a matchmaker who works for you. And the matchmaker does a search on a database and tries to find other matches that the database brings - he and other matches who want the same things and then the matchmaker goes and sees which ones really, really makes sense. And then the matchmaker will send the profile to one of the two parties and if that person accepts, then it goes to the second party and then they make contact from there.

MARTIN: What's the point of having this intermediary, of having the matchmaker in between? Because as I was looking at the site - I know I'm married so...

HILEMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I wasn't looking for me. I just want to clarify that point. But you can't just randomly roam around the site looking for profiles. You have to have the intermediary (unintelligible). What's the point of having that intermediary?

HILEMAN: Well, there's two elements. One element is really feeling more secure. You know, the members are screened to some degree; the matchmakers are screened so you know that your personal information is really kept more secure and not everyone is seeing you. In addition to that, some people are shy. It just feels more comfortable. You don't have someone else make the introduction - it's a lot easier to feel open with someone if someone else has made the suggestion then, like, going up to someone at a bar or on a Web site and say, hey, you know, do you like me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HILEMAN: That's not an easiest thing to do.

MARTIN: Well, matchmaking is traditional in some communities. Of course, there's the famous - I hate even - that I'm saying this, but "Fiddler on the Roof," which is a story of kind of, you know, a matchmaker. It's kind of an honored tradition. Do communities, rabbi, no longer have sort of trusted people who perform this role, or is it just that people are so spread out now? It doesn't - it isn't really as viable.

HERZFELD: Right. It's much more difficult when you're dealing with a city like Washington, where our synagogue is located, where the community is sprawling over a very large area. And not only that, sometimes you've gone through all the singles in your area. There's not that many who might fit your profile. And so there's an entire world out there, which Saw You at Sinai can match somebody, you know, like Refael was living in Seattle and he met his wife who lives in Washington D.C. You'd be a very, very talented matchmaker to be able to do that without the Internet.

And one of the other things which is so important about having a matchmaker on Saw You at Sinai, is unlike other Web sites, this allows you to screen the candidate to make sure that they fit the profile, spiritually, of what you're looking for. And...

MARTIN: What do you mean? Like level of...

HERZFELD: Well, it's...

MARTIN: ...observance?

HILEMAN: No, Michel, that's another cultural perspective. You could have orthodox that's modern, that's more strictly observant. And then there's an even more traditional called black hat or Yeshivish, which is even stronger, still which combines both being orthodox and where one's cultural perspective is.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

HILEMAN: And knowing we're someone fits makes it a lot easier.

HERZFELD: And it's known that a site like JDate for example, which is a much more heavily trafficked site, one of the problems is that people go in that site not because they're necessarily Jewish, but because they want to marry Jews. They love Jews so much. So...

MARTIN: But people could convert can't they?

HERZFELD: People absolutely can covert.

MARTIN: But is there an ick factor as you're saying that you're finding people who say they want to marry somebody of a specific ethnic background. Is there something a little icky about that or off-putting about that?

HERZFELD: No, the effect of - it's not an ick factor and the idea that people can convert is a beautiful thing. Judaism loves converts. But the point is that, you know, that's a very long process. And when you convert, it's literally like being reborn. And it's not easy thing to do. And to go into a relationship, you're not necessarily looking for that extra added responsibility. So you might be seeking - and most people are seeking at the first time for a person who best matches where they're coming from and what they think will build a home with shared values and shared responsibilities. Judaism, I should say, it's - you're looking for somebody who shares your spiritual values, but Judaism is colorblind. It does not distinguish from the basis of black, white, yellow, brown. It's all about the spiritual responsibility.

MARTIN: Do you find it though, Refael, given that the Web site's ultimate goal is to unite singles, to find their soul mates, do you think that that might raise the bar so high that it might put some people off? I mean, rather than saying, I just want to meet a nice person and see how it goes, you're intentionally looking for marriage. It just seems like a lot of pressure to me. Does that make sense?

HILEMAN: Well, actually not. And the difference is that it's not a dating site. It's specifically geared towards people who want to get married. To go with the assumption that both parties really want to get married, that that's what their in-result is, it really makes things a lot easier for all involved.

MARTIN: How did you get involved in this?

HILEMAN: Well, I originally was on the Web site. I lived in Seattle, as Rabbi Herzfeld mentioned earlier, and I was actually very happy both with this Web site and with other Web sites because by using the Internet, I could interact with people who really fit me. Because on the one hand, I'm very observant in my religious practice. I'm very committed to my Judaism; I'm also very modern. You know, I am very interested also with cultural things. I was actually a dance major undergraduate, thinking that was just not necessarily good mix.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HILEMAN: And...

MARTIN: You're kind of a hipster. And you wanted somebody to get you.

HILEMAN: You could say that. I'm about...

MARTIN: So you found your soul mate?

HILEMAN: I was able to find lots of relevant people.

MARTIN: Oh.

HILEMAN: Which was very surprising for me. In the end, I found my wife at this site, and I've been very happy to move here.

MARTIN: Oh wow, that's very progressive. Move for the wife. That's (unintelligible).

HERZFELD: Moved from Seattle. We got married in our synagogue, and now he is giving back.

MARTIN: Where was my invitation?

HERZFELD: Yeah, Michel, next time that we have...

MARTIN: Thank you.

HERZFELD: The next match, I'll put it out there to all your listeners. If there's somebody who gets inspired by listening to this broadcast, I will marry them for free.

MARTIN: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HERZFELD: And we'll invite Michel to the wedding.

MARTIN: I would hope. I would hope. How many matches do you think Saw You at Sinai has been - had been facilitated because of the Web site? How many matches do you think there are?

HILEMAN: So they have on record 270 matches. That's 270 matches, 540 people matched so far in the three and a half years that they have been making matches.

MARTIN: Oh, okay.

HERZFELD: And in the Jewish tradition, Michel, if you make three matches, you go straight to the world to come. So I'm - you know, Michel, as a result of this radio show, we got three matches here, you're hedging all your back.

MARTIN: I'm hedging my back, exactly.

HERZFELD: Right.

MARTIN: Well, will you keep us up to date on...

HERZFELD: We'll invite you all to the wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HERZFELD: The whole TELL ME MORE with Michel Martin and staff. Host your food.

MARTIN: Okay. Shmuel Herzfeld is rabbi of the National Synagogue. Refael Hileman is a matchmaker for the Jewish dating Web site, Saw You at Sinai. They both joined us here in our Washington Studios. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HERZFELD: Thank you, Michel.

HILEMAN: Thank you.

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