Love: Jewish Baltimore Style

August 7, 2014
BY Simone Ellin | Photos by David Stuck
The JT looks at dating across the religious spectrum
Sometimes, Lauren Katz says, she feels like the “only single person in the universe.”

Sometimes, Lauren Katz says, she feels like the “only single person in the universe.”

After more than a decade of dating in Jewish Baltimore, Lauren Katz is feeling discouraged.

The 30-year-old Owings Mills native has lived in Baltimore her whole life, not withstanding a few years away at college, and she’s had her fair share of experiences dating both Jews and non-Jews in the community.

“I feel like I’ve dated them all,” Katz said, though she has made an effort to avoid friends’ exes and has tried to stay away from men she’s known since they were in middle school together. Now that most of her friends are married and starting families, Katz admitted she sometimes feels like “the only single person in the universe.”

But she isn’t. Matchmaker Mashe Katz (no relation to Lauren) can testify to that.

Katz, who was interviewed in the weeks leading up to Tu B’Av — the minor holiday (on Aug.11 this year) that Jewish tradition for centuries has associated with love and marriage, said she has always had a gift for matchmaking. She’s been making matches since her teens. But she is humble about her talent.

“The One above is the true matchmaker. We are just his emissaries,” said Katz. “It is known that 40 days before a child is born, his match is called out in heaven.”

Katz’s friend, fellow matchmaker Shulamit Gartenhaus, feels similarly.

“I have four kids and when they had to find matches, they didn’t have a hard time. When my youngest got married 13 years ago, I felt thankful to God,” she said.

Aware that not everyone has an easy time finding a mate, Gartenhaus decided to provide God with some help. She said she feels sorry for women who are single and watching their friends get married and have babies.

“There was a need [for a matchmaker] in the community,” said Gartenhaus. “When you make a match you feel like a million bucks. Not only are you creating a new Jewish family, you are also strengthening the Jewish community.”

Not everyone uses a matchmaker, of course, and many in the non-Orthodox segments of the community consider matchmaking a relic from another era. But Tammy Tilson, a psychotherapist in private practice who is also a professional dating coach, said that when it comes to finding a serious relationship, many people need help.

While Gartenhaus and Katz work mainly with young adults, Tilson’s clients are primarily divorced men and women trying to negotiate the singles scene after being out of it for quite some time. In the age of the Internet, dating norms have changed dramatically.

“Sometimes people are reluctant to start [using] online dating sites,” said Tilson. “It may not seem completely natural, but it’s the way of the world and the best tool out there.”

“Sometimes people  are reluctant to start  [using] online dating sites.  It may not seem  completely natural,  but it’s the way  of the world and the  best tool out there.”

“Sometimes people are reluctant to start [using] online dating sites. It may not seem completely natural, but it’s the way of the world and the best tool out there.”

Digital dating
Since JDate first burst onto the singles scene in 1997, online dating sites have cropped up like weeds. In the Jewish world alone, there are countless websites for people of every denomination with clever names such as jewcier.com, sawyouatsinai.com and ebeshert.com. Frumster.com changed its name recently — it’s now called JWed. Many Jewish singles also rely on dating sites that aren’t limited to Jewish singles such as Match.com, OkCupid.com and eharmony.com.

Lauren Katz first got her feet wet with online dating eight years ago when she returned home from college to find that her mother had created an online profile for her on JDate with the headline, “Mother looking for daughter.” Right off the bat, Katz started dating a man she met on the site.

“We dated for four months,” she said. Katz was so impressed with her mother’s matchmaking skills that when she created a paid profile on J-Date three years later, she did so with her mother’s help.

This time, Katz — who would prefer to marry a Jewish guy but has had trouble meeting Jewish men she likes — quickly got a message from a non-Jewish man who was “looking for a Jewish woman.” The couple dated for more than two years before eventually calling it quits.

It’s no secret that mothers can be the best matchmakers for their children. Just ask the founders of TheJMom.com, “where Moms do the matchmaking.” Brother-and-sister team Danielle and Brad Weisberg launched the website in 2010 after their own mother convinced them that when it came to matching her son with a “nice Jewish girl,” there was no better marketer than his mother.

Yet, like Gartenhaus, who said her clients, many of whom also use Orthodox dating sites, appreciate “the human touch,” Tilson said the Internet is no substitute for the coaching she can provide.

“Finding a mate is like finding a job. Your [online] profile is your resume,” she explained. “I help people write their profiles and choose their photos. We look at their dating history, and we talk about dating strategies. A lot of people don’t know why they are not successful.”

One key to success, the matchmakers all agreed, is flexibility. Many singles, especially men, place a premium on the appearance of a potential match.

“Looks are important,” said Katz, who also noted that the pool of eligible single men in the Orthodox community is much smaller than the pool of eligible women.”

Gartenhaus said she has one client who is 64 and never married.

“She says, ‘I wish I hadn’t been so picky when I was young.’ So what if he’s a little nerdy?” said Gartenhaus. “Nerds make good husbands.”

Tilson has seen the same phenomenon among her clients.

“Some people have unrealistic expectations. I say if you really want a relationship, it’s not just about attraction,” she explained. “Dating is more complex in your 40s. You have to look at your lives, your kids, your schedules, your location. Do they fit together? There are a lot of good people out there. You have to look outside the box and be open-minded. Perfection doesn’t exist.”

A foot in the door
In the two years he has lived in Baltimore, Sammy Zimmerman, a 32-year-old CPA and law student, has found that it’s been challenging to break into the Orthodox community and difficult to find women willing to look beyond the surface when it comes to seeking a mate.

“It is not a progressive community,” he said. “There’s a lot of labeling, and some people are close-minded. What I find is that before girls get to know you, they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s too modern,’ or they have to follow the rabbi or check with their parents or their friends to get clearance. I know people say there are a lot of women looking, but they’re not accessible. If they really wanted to meet someone, they would be more flexible. They should focus on the positives — we all have good qualities.”

Going about the dating game with a positive attitude, said Tilson, is important.

“You have to stay positive and be able to deal with rejection. No matter who we are, we have been on both sides of the fence,” she said. “Online dating is a bit of a game. You can’t take it too seriously. Lots of people are online talking and dating lots of people. That triggers tons of anxiety. You’re vulnerable, you’ve put yourself out there. I try to empower and support them so they feel positive about the future and put their best foot forward.”

Katz encourages the men and women she matches to go out more than once. Generally, she said, after the first couple of dates, clients will call Katz to discuss how the date went. After the third or fourth date, she said, “they know if they’re not getting anywhere.”

On the other hand, if a relationship is progressing after the third or fourth date, Katz encourages them to continue seeing each other and to call if they need her assistance.

Both Gartenhaus and Katz said they don’t charge a fee for their services. However, if a successful match comes from their efforts, the family gives “a nice gift.” Sometimes, said Gartenhaus, families ask their rabbis what they should pay.

“Each side pays something,” she said. “It could be a smaller gift like a serving plate or it could be $1,000 from each family.”

Tilson’s date-coaching fees vary depending upon what services she provides.

“I charge about $100 hourly, but I also offer packages,” she said. “For example, I might write a profile, help them role-play how to act on a date, go shopping with them. Some people don’t have time to screen thousands of [online] profiles. I might do that for them. Lots of people have social anxiety; a lot of what I do is to build their confidence. I help them to pace the relationship appropriately so it develops from online to offline. I can hold their hand every step of the way if they want that.”

Plenty of people
That kind of support hasn’t been necessary for 25-year-old Andrew Collins of Baltimore. He said he’s had no trouble meeting women to date in his hometown.

“For me, there are plenty of people to meet,” he said. “It’s a social town, lots of bars, clubs, music.”

And although Collins, a home loan consultant, is Jewish and grew up attending Beth El Congregation, he cannot remember ever dating a Jewish woman.

“There is no conscious reason,” he said. “I hang out with Jewish girls and girls who are not Jewish. Most of my friends are Jewish. Whether a girl is Jewish or not is one of the last things I care about. As long as she is a good person.”

Collins is also not a fan of online dating and doesn’t like the idea of being fixed up by friends or family. He acknowledges that these practices work for others. For example, Collins’ sister recently married a man she met on JDate.

Do his parents mind that he doesn’t date Jewish women?

“I think my parents feel about the same way I do,” he said. “My mom would probably prefer I marry a Jewish girl, but, at the end of the day, she really only cares if I’m happy and that [my prospective wife is] a good person.”

Chana Bernstein has given up on online dating sites, preferring to meet people through family and friends.

Chana Bernstein has given up on online dating sites, preferring to meet people through family and friends.

Chana Bernstein, 30, a marketing professional with Living Social, no longer uses matchmakers or online dating sites. Matchmakers haven’t really “gotten” her, and those she has met through online dating sites were disappointing. She has dated a lot since moving to Baltimore three years ago but said she prefers to meet people through friends and family.

Bernstein is reluctant to label herself when it comes to her level of Jewish observance but said she is somewhere between Orthodox and modern Orthodox.

“I would say I have my feet in both the religious and secular worlds, and I straddle them successfully,” she said.

Bernstein, who was once engaged, said she is looking for a man who is “mature, has gotten his life together and is goal-oriented with a stable personality. Otherwise, he can just be someone I enjoy being with.”

She keeps an open mind.

“I won’t know until I meet him,” she said. “I think I could mesh with a lot of people. One of our rabbis gave a talk at a Shabbos meal recently and I liked what he said: ‘There’s no harm in going out; it’s not a promise to get married. Just go out, you’re not losing anything and you might gain a lot. That person may surprise you.’”

Tu B’Av: What’s it all about?
“Tu B’Av is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar and takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av,” said Rabbi Deborah Wechsler of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

“The most popular story about Tu B’Av is probably from the Talmud. On that day, unmarried girls were said to go out into the vineyards in borrowed white dresses and find mates. The dresses were borrowed, so that the poor girls who couldn’t afford new dresses wouldn’t feel embarrassed,” said Wechsler. “The only practical way it is observed today is that the tachanun, the penitential prayers, are omitted from the service on that date.”

If people would like to bring Tu B’av back, suggests Wechsler, “they should do a mitzvah and make a shidduch between two people without mates on that day.”

Staff reporter Heather Norris contributed to this report.
sellin@jewishtimes.com

ADD COMMENTS