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Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Put Faith In Unorthodox Dating Service

Yael Mizrachi, a 30-year-old Israeli woman, has been to many matchmakers.

"Too many," she says, rolling her wide dark eyes and tossing her shoulder-length hair.

Matchmakers are the traditional way to find a mate in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to which Mizrachi belongs. But she is not entirely traditional.

"I identify myself as a modern ultra-Orthodox," Mizrachi says.

Mizrachi is part of a growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who are seeking job skills, getting higher education or joining the military. And those changes are shaking up the community's established customs for finding a spouse.

On a practical level, to Mizrachi, being "modern ultra-Orthodox" means she wears long sleeves and long skirts, but also drives — something unmarried women in her community normally do not do.

She won't attend mixed parties but bucked tradition by getting undergraduate and master's degrees in social work. Most ultra-Orthodox women in Israel only finish religious high school.

Mizrachi's parents, who became ultra-Orthodox as adults, supported her college education, she says, but others did not.

"My 12th-grade teacher tried hard to convince me to stick with the classic path," she says. "But that didn't happen."

Looking For A Spouse Who Will 'Earn A Living'

Many of the changes among ultra-Orthodox come from political and social pressure from other parts of Israeli society. Traditionally, ultra-Orthodox men have been able to avoid serving in the military or getting a job by engaging in intense religious study. Their families then often rely on government support or wives with limited education for income.

Still, skilled Torah students have long been seen as the best husband an ultra-Orthodox woman can catch. But not for Mizrachi.

"The matchmakers were always trying to set me up with somebody who studies the Bible all day. I don't want that," she says. "I want somebody who can also earn a living."

You might think college would be a good place to meet that somebody. Except college programs designed especially for ultra-Orthodox students, including the programs Mizrachi chose, are strictly sex-segregated.

The solution: a new dating service, especially designed to serve ultra-Orthodox just like her.

It's called "Shidducation" — rooted in the Yiddish (and Hebrew) word for matchmaker, but ending with a modern lilt. The founder, 26-year-old Eli Postavsky, studies law at a college where men and women take classes on different days of the week.

"We talked about this need for a long time," he says. "The men and women here have no way to make connections, although they'd probably find a good match."

So Postavsky pitched it to the school director. Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel had already seen the need.

"Being an academic school, we did not have anything to do with matchmaking of course," Fogel says. "But one day I got a call from someone who said, 'You have women students. I have a son. So if you have something to offer ...' "

Online Survey Meets Old-School Matchmaker

The dating service starts digitally, but it's nothing like online dating in the rest of the world. Students at the dozen or so ultra-Orthodox campuses in Israel are eligible.

They periodically get an email with a link to an online form. Questions include the usual name and age, plus number of siblings and whether those siblings are married, parents' occupations and what style of religious dress the person wears, including what head covering would be expected after marriage. Photos, please.

Then it's back to tradition. A matchmaker reads all the forms, calls up each student and sets to work.

In this startup, the matchmaker happens to be the founder's mom. Tubi Postavsky doesn't follow the custom of meeting participants — or parents — in person. But she digs into their soul on the phone.

"I have had conversations of over an hour. I'm trying to open them up and learn what they need," she says.

The key difference between traditional ultra-Orthodox matchmaking and this service is that here people are valued for having experiences outside the often closed ultra-Orthodox communities. Eli Postavsky says he saw matchmakers who didn't really know how to treat him without the familiar pedigree of religious study.

"College and working was not something accepted," he says.

Fogel interrupts him.

"What he means is, he wasn't offered girls that would really fit for him," he says. "Because he was not a regular boy, he was offered second-rate girls."

Fogel says helping students find good mates may help convince skeptical ultra-Orthodox that education can respect tradition.

"If they have enough faith that we have good students here, who could be considered good potential matches for their children, that is very important," he says. "We are not against the community, we are part of the community."

'Something That Came From Heaven'

One marriage, another engagement and scores of dates have happened so far through Shidducation's services. About 400 students have signed up since it began late last December. There's no upfront fee, but if you find a spouse, a traditional matchmaking fee of perhaps $1,000 would be expected.

Natanel Schlesinger, 24, married a woman four months after they met through the service. They go to different schools and lived two hours apart, so they might never have met otherwise.

"I think this is something that came from heaven," he says, smiling. "It's not something I'd usually do, but there was this email about it, and I thought I'd have be a better chance to meet someone suitable here than any other place."

Mizrachi, the 33-year-old woman with two degrees, has met several men through the matchmaking service; no sparks yet. She is certain she wants a husband, plenty of kids and a career. But she is well past traditional marrying age in her community.

"Maybe that makes me less desirable in the classic ultra-Orthodox view," she says. "But I believe that whatever God has decided for me is what I'll get.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 20, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly gave Yael Mizrachi's age as 33. She is 30.
International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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