Law student Rachel Katz didn't want to depend on a mathematical algorithm to find her soulmate, so she turned to a headhunter-for-love — a matchmaker who would better understand that a shared faith in Judaism was nonnegotiable, but that just being Jewish wasn't enough.
"It's deeper than religion on the most rudimentary level. I identify as a Jew before I do as a woman," said Katz, 26, of Center City. "I want someone who is similarly intertwined with it."
Lori D. Salkin has taken up Katz's quest. Specializing in her own tradition, the Modern Orthodox movement, the Main Line matchmaker finds prospective mates for Jewish singles who want to date and marry within the faith. She not only makes the match, but also coaches the couple through the dating process. After four years, she says, her track record stands at 28 marriages and engagements, with two more couples shopping for rings.
"In Jewish matchmaking, you think of Fiddler on the Roof and arranged marriages," said Salkin, 35, of Merion Station. "Now, we have the same basic idea, but we put the choice in the hands of the singles."
Even as online dating services proliferate — including faith-centric sites such as ChristianMingle.com, Muslima.com, and JDate.com — independent, old-school love brokers are still very much in business, salving lonely hearts with connections based on shared faith. They market their personal touch, their knowledge of the nuances within religious traditions, of the preferences of conservatives and progressives, the must-haves and the deal-breakers — complicating requirements that may not fit neatly onto a computer application. Most of their clients are looking for more than a lively dating life. They want marriage and kids.
"If you are a great dater, open-minded, and willing to put yourself out there, then sure, go online," said Arlene Vasquez Washburn, CEO of the Matchmaking Institute, a New York school that offers training and certification in the art of the match. "But working with someone who has an understanding of the culture and the background" can mean all the difference.
Matchmakers argue that they save their clients the awkwardness and agony of friend-of-a-friend setups and church mixers, and the uncertainty of casting a line into cyberspace to hook a dream catch. That concierge service can come at a price. Average fees range from $5,000 to $25,000 in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, according to Washburn. Agreements vary, with faith-based matchmakers often offering a specific number of matches, or providing services for a limited period of time.
Salkin, on the other hand, volunteers her services. Typically, couples send a thank-you gift when a match is successful. "I've received everything from a $36 bowl to a Dior handbag," she said.
Matchmakers may find potential mates at social events, singles nights, or in chance meetings at religious services. Taylor Bodine, of Francois-Bodine Consulting, a Washington-based enterprise with a large Christian and Jewish clientele in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, spends five nights a week recruiting prospects. "I go to faith-based mixers," he said, "and when people want to know what I do, I say, 'I'm a matchmaker.' Everybody flocks to me, and by the end of the night, I might have 20 to 30 cards."
Zara Johnson, of Atlanta, founder of a service that specializes in linking up Muslim couples, plucks potential matches from a database of 300 profiles she has compiled since starting Zara J. Matchmaking three years ago while she was living in Philadelphia. A convert to Islam, motivated by a desire to see Muslim families develop, she studied matchmaking and reads books on relationships and business start-ups. Today, she works largely with professionals, for whom finding a life partner may be more difficult because "in their day-to-day interactions they are not coming across [other Muslims]," she said.
"If you are involved in the community or come from a Muslim family, you can meet at a mosque or at different events," Johnson said. If not, "it's hard because we are not in a Muslim country. Outside of when a Muslim woman is covered, you may not know who is and who isn't."
Two of her couples, she said, married within the last year.
Salkin began her career as a matchmaker over Shabbat dinner. She was living in New York while her husband, Leon, was attending law school, and the couple regularly invited his male classmates to the Friday night meal in observance of the Sabbath. "Girls around the neighborhood got wind," Salkin said, "and started asking to be invited."
She now draws clients from a Jewish dating site, SawYouatSinai.com, which creates profiles, then uses a matchmaker to personally pair couples. She sees her calling as a way to strengthen families and perpetuate the faith.
Michael Cohen, a 25-year-old dental student at Temple University, dated a Salkin pick for five months. The relationship didn't work out, but Cohen says he saw the logic in her choice.
"I fall in the category of Modern Orthodox. I wear jeans, not a black hat. Having a TV in the room doesn't bother me," said Cohen, of Center City. "I'm looking for someone Orthodox, who keeps Shabbat, keeps kosher inside and outside the home – someone who is passionate about Judaism."
Joseph Ezrachi, 27, a Wynnewood student heading for medical school, has gone on 70 matchmaker-engineered dates..
"Yeah, some dates aren't great, but there hasn't been a woman I haven't been able to learn something from," Ezrachi said. "It renews your faith in love. There's somebody out there for me."