Modern-day matchmakers

In Israel, Jewish singles in search of soulmates are turning to an American couple for guidance

Postcard: Jerusalem

August 15, 1999|By Viva Sarah Press | Viva Sarah Press,Special to the Sun

JERUSALEM -- Though the man sitting opposite her is a complete stranger, Ilana Kelson is confiding in him as if he were a best friend, trying hard to describe her vision of an ideal mate.

And she's not alone. Tucked inside an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem's Old Katamon neighborhood, 25 other newly introduced couples are having the very same conversation.

At the front of this large, airy room sit Rosalie and Efraim Eisen, an Oregon couple who have come to Israel to specialize in helping Jews find their soulmates.

You wouldn't think it would be difficult for a nice Jewish boy to meet a nice Jewish girl in Israel. But the plethora of personal ads in the daily newspapers suggest it is. And on a recent Saturday evening, Jewish singles like Kelson flocked to the synagogue to participate in an Eisen workshop designed for them.

During their introduction to the group, the Eisens -- he, 50, medium height and heavyset; she, 49, same height and medium-build -- say they knew when they met each other that it was meant to be, that they were "bashertes," the Hebrew word for beloved, partner, intended or soulmate. Now, they've made it their goal to help others find their intendeds.

That an American couple has to come to Israel to help out the local Jewish singles scene may sound a bit silly. But Liaura Zacharie, founder and director of Eden 2000, a Jerusalem nonprofit cultural center that sponsors singles events, says the problems for singles, especially religious singles, aren't being dealt with sufficiently.

"Judaism revolves around family and it becomes an impossible mission to be single and religious and stay here," says Zacharie, a French immigrant. She began her organization seven years ago when she saw so many of her friends leaving Israel because they couldn't find a match.

A 1995 survey of Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics shows that 52 percent of Jewish men and 32 percent of Jewish women between the ages of 25 and 29 were not married. That year, there were some 50,000 unmarried people aged 25 to 44 in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv.

"It's not like in the States where you open any newspaper and it will have tens of events for singles. Here you can open all the newspapers together [and find almost nothing]. There's nowhere for people to meet," says Zacharie.

While the Eisens' workshop is geared toward all Jewish singles, Zacharie says such a seminar is especially needed for modern- Orthodox. Whereas their secular cohorts often meet at discos or bars, and their counterparts in the ultra-Orthodox world still conform to arranged marriages, modern- Orthodox women and men rely on singles events, such as this one, as a place to meet mates.

Though there are no current official statistics, Zacharie says there are at least half a million singles throughout Israel between the ages of 20 and 44.

"For the Jewish state, the citizens are the main assets. We don't have gold, we don't have fuel, we have people. ... We're supposed to care about others, and so little is done. The issue is almost taboo in Israeli society."

'It is not good to be alone'

"God says it is not good to be alone," Efraim Eisen, who wears a large knitted yarmulke, says in an interview the day before the workshop. Rosalie nods in agreement.

The Eisens, who were both previously married, met in 1991 in Philadelphia at the Jewish Renewal Kallah, a gathering of the Jewish Renewal movement. Concerned about Jewish continuity and the lack of opportunities for singles to connect spiritually, they developed the Basherte Workshop and for the past seven years have been presenting it to groups across North America. They have just begun offering it in Israel.

The couple's matchmaking plans came out of their own romance. Both were single parents looking for companionship. Both lived in small Jewish communities in Oregon, 180 miles apart. "People knew we were looking to meet someone," says Efraim, who married Rosalie just four months after their meeting. "No one tried to connect us. We knew it was important to create a new vehicle for people to meet."

Their goal is simple: To help Jewish singles find their basherte. The Eisens believe that every person has one.

Their workshop combines stories, Torah teachings, music and guided imagery as a means to teach relationship skills. While it is not aimed at a specific community, most of the participants are modern-Orthodox.

One participant, Rebecca Auerbach, 32, came to the Eisens' Jerusalem workshop, with hopes they could help her achieve one of her goals: "To find the right person for me to marry."

To such people, the Eisens say: "One must know one's soul to find one's soulmate." That's why much of the workshop uses probing questions and group discussions to have participants open up.

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