For centuries, Jewish families seeking suitable mates for their daughters and sons have employed the services of a matchmaker, an honored figure in the community who acts as a counselor, a diplomat and a reliable source of neighborhood news.
Nancy Granat, a former corporate manager with a degree in counseling, is a matchmaker for the new millennium.
"You have personal trainers. You have financial consultants," said Granat, 59, a grandmother whose tools are a computer database and her intuition. "What you have in a matchmaker is someone to do the personal research for you."
While most matchmakers today serve the Orthodox Jewish community, seeking to match mates who will uphold the strictest interpretation of religious life, Granat is Baltimore's first professional matchmaker serving Jews who are affiliated with other branches such as Reform or Conservative or who aren't religious at all.
Granat runs Jewish Personal Connections, a matchmaking service funded by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and operated out of the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center.
The catalyst for starting Jewish Personal Connections was the pervasive concern that intermarriage rates exceeding 50 percent threaten the future of the American Jewish community. Rabbi Floyd L. Herman of Har Sinai Congregation, a Reform synagogue, said he supports such creative efforts to strengthen Jewish identity.
"It's not going to be the old matchmaker thing we saw on Fiddler on the Roof," he said. "There are a lot of people out there looking for mates. We believe family is the core of the Jewish community. We need committed Jewish families who will raise committed Jewish kids."
Granat's role as a matchmaker (shadchan in Hebrew) might hark back to past generations in the old country, but the demand for her services is a product of modern life.
"We realize that people seem to be so much busier than in the past," she said. "Family and friends, who in earlier generations might have been counted on to set up blind dates, are dispersed around the country. People are asked constantly to relocate if they want to advance in their jobs. They don't know people in their new community. It's simply much harder for singles to meet each other."
And given the risks of the dating scene, a matchmaker like Granat offers a measure of security.
"It is a way of countering what some people have objected to with the Internet and the bar scene. It's a way of offering a safer way of meeting people," said Ann Kahan, chairwoman of the steering committee that launched the project. "I think having this person in the middle to do this screening and to do the introductions, while it's kind of old-fashioned in a way, I think it meets some of the needs and desires people have today for a comfort level that seems to be missing in a lot of areas in their lives."
In the Jewish community, matchmakers traditionally were men, often esteemed rabbis or scholars. As a fee for his services, a matchmaker received a percentage of the bride's dowry. In modern times, the role has been taken over principally by women.
A former teacher, family counselor and a manager for Sylvan Learning Centers' Baltimore locations, Granat said she has long acted as an amateur matchmaker, arranging more than a dozen matches as a kind of sideline. "I've done fix-ups over the years with people that I worked with," she said. "And they've married and stayed married for a long time."
Although Granat's aim is to set up dates, don't call her a dating service. There are, she said, several important differences. For one thing, prospective dates don't get photos of each other.
"Everyone does these glamour shots, or their picture is five or 10 years old, so how relevant is it really?" she said. "They tell me how important appearance is to them and based on that, I would screen accordingly."
Anyway, she said, "appearances are just a surface impression. You have to get beyond that."
Granat also does not give her clients a long list of potential dates they can work their way through. "I'm not going to give them 10 names. It's one person," she said. "Of course, if that doesn't work out, we'll try again."
What she does is ask them to fill out a questionnaire with basic personal data. But the key for Granat is her personal interview with a person, where she can delve, dig and discern, asking about their lives, their families, their jobs, trying to get a sense of who they are.
"I ask questions like, `Tell me about your relationship with your parents. Tell me about your relationship with your siblings. Tell me where you like to go on a date. How do you celebrate holidays?'" she said. "And, `How flexible are you? What are you willing to give on?'"
She takes that information and her sense about her clients and arranges a match. If both parties agree to meet, she gives out phone numbers and they arrange the date.
And afterward, Granat always finds out how the date went, both to assess prospects and to offer helpful suggestions, particularly if things didn't go well.
"You get to know more about them from something that doesn't work," she said. "Also, giving somebody feedback helps them the next time. Because most people say, `I don't know why he didn't call me again' and they're hurt."
Granat's shingle has been out for about the past two weeks, and she is getting the word out through strategically placed brochures and publicity in the Baltimore Jewish Times. The yearly fee for her services is $145 ($95 for JCC members).
She has completed or scheduled about 16 interviews. And she is impressed with how people are willing to open their lives to her.
"Everybody has their own story and history. It really is fascinating," she said. "You talk to people: what they've been through, what they're looking for, what their criteria are and why they have those criteria. People like to be heard."