Baltimore's Star-K is best known for its ability to enforce Jewish food laws, but now the kosher certification agency is attempting to navigate the equally intricate rules of the heart.
Starting tonight, the first night of Hanukkah, the nonprofit group is offering $2,000 to anyone who introduces a local Orthodox Jewish woman to the man she eventually marries.
Organizers hope the incentive will benefit an untold but growing number of unhappy singles in the area, especially women.
"In our community, we've been troubled for some time," said Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, which often sponsors projects to bolster Baltimore's Orthodox community of about 20,000 people. "We wanted to take a first step, to help, to make a dent."
The bounty does not apply to matches made for Baltimore men with out-of-town women. And local women must be at least 22 years and 2 months old to qualify, said Pollak, who acknowledged that the offer's emphasis on double numbers was intentionally "shticky."
Pollak said Star-K hopes to sponsor at least 50 marriages - paying out $100,000 - in one full calendar year, when the incentive expires. The money comes from surplus funds, he said.
Believed to be the first of its kind, the proposal has intrigued the Jewish world, generating inquiries from as far away as Australia. It also has drawn fire from some single women who feel that the money taints the sanctity of marriage, and from young men who object to having a price on their heads.
Upset also are those who feel the program hypes the ancient system of third-party matchmaking, which they say is antiquated.
"People need more avenues opened up," said Eliezer Gamerman, 30, who last year started the Baltimore-area Singles Orthodox Networking Group, a social program for strictly observant Jews that helps bypass traditional matchmakers. "People need to be told that that's kosher and OK."
In the Orthodox culture, where unmarried men and women are forbidden to touch or interact in unsupervised situations, paid "matchmakers" use networks of contacts to set up dates based on levels of religious devotedness and other factors.
But despite the best efforts of these professionals, the "singles problem" or "schidduch crisis" has troubled Orthodox communities in Baltimore and beyond for the past decade or so, said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, a former Baltimorean who is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, a nonprofit outreach organization in New York.
To an extent, the falling marriage rate and rising average marital age among orthodox singles mirrors the U.S. population at large, he said. In 2003, the national median age of women marrying for the first time was 25, compared with 22 in 1980. A growing number of women aren't marrying at all.
The age of Orthodox brides hovers below the national norm, about 23, Weinreb said. Still, the prospect of potential spinsters and older newlyweds feels threatening to some strictly observant Jews, who place a premium on marriage, and large families and encourage women as young as 18 to wed.
"From a traditional Jewish perspective, it's very disturbing," Weinreb said. "The family is the central institution, more central even than the synagogue. It's really a spiritual problem."
It's also a matter of survival, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. The singles crisis will mean fewer children for Orthodox Jews, whose reproductive rates were once robust.
"When scholars look back, they will say that singleness is more the cause of decline than intermarriage," he said.
Baltimore's population might be hard-hit. Considered a satellite community of the Orthodox hub of New York, Baltimore is overshadowed by hordes of singles there, who, because of expense and inconvenience, rarely circulate outside the city.
"Once you get beyond the Verrazano Bridge, you might as well be in Montana," said Chevi Kurcfeld, 40, of Olney, who braved the Maryland Orthodox dating scene for years before marrying 10 months ago.
Though home to a prominent rabbinical college, Ner Israel, Baltimore loses many eligible young men to schools in New York and elsewhere. Women tend to stay closer to home.
What results is an imbalanced gender ratio - purely a numbers problem, area matchmakers are quick to say.
"It's not like, oh, woe, the Baltimore girls are a pity case," said Laure Gutman, founder of a network of Baltimore area matchmakers. "We have gems. Let us show you. Let us tell you."
That's what the Star-K program is designed to do - to tempt matchmakers, both professional and aspiring, in other places to include Baltimore on must-see lists. The $2,000 incentive is in addition to the usual fee collected from the brides' and grooms' parents, which can be jewelry, clothing or cash, ranging from less than $500 to several thousand dollars.