“It was just me and my cat,” says Michal Cohen Eckstein, when she was a 38-year-old religious single living in Jerusalem in 2012. But she didn’t give up hope and continued repeating her mantra: I will get married. She also decided to heed the Talmudic notion that if you change your place, you will change your luck.
This happened twice. First, when she moved to New York and started attending the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) outreach program. “Rabbi Wildes, the MJE founder and director and his wife, Jill, changed my life,” enthused Michal. “I came to New York as a secular Jew from a traditional Sephardic background, and I returned to Israel as a Torah observant Jew,” or ba’alat teshuva.
Her four months in Nepal and India also changed her life. In 2010, Michal took a leave of absence from her work as a graphic artist to volunteer with Tevel B’Tzedek, an Israeli non-profit, working in third world countries. “More than I gave to the locals, this experience gave me inner peace.”
“When I returned to Jerusalem, I was glowing,” Michal recalls. In January 2012, when she registered for the matchmaking program, SawYouAt Sinai, (SYAS), she posted pictures from the Far East. “I was not your typical ba’alat teshuva.”
Michal’s profile and photos on the site piqued the interest of Joey Eckstein. Born in San Francisco is 1961, Joey is comfortable in different worlds: his family’s modern Orthodox synagogue; his family-owned bar and grill; Bar Ilan University, where he studied as an undergraduate and the music world. Joey plays acoustic and electric guitar and had a rock band for many years.
Joey, currently a realtor, recalls: “At the age of 50, I was living in Jerusalem and still looking for a wife. But I didn’t give up, thanks to daily encouragement from the late Rabbi Gershon Burd of the Yeshiva Birkat Hatorah. He would assure me: we are going to get you married.”
In 2012 Joey consulted with a matchmaker, Rabbi Herbert Cohen, from SYAS. After Joey agreed to Rabbi Cohen’s suggestion, it was Michal’s turn. Michal’s response: “Two things attracted me to Joey’s profile: his essay and his dimples.”
Two hours after her acceptance, Joey called her, and they had their first date on Feb.1, 2012. His first impression: “Based on her photos, I was sort of expecting an Indian Jewish woman, but I wasn’t disappointed. I liked her New York Jets t-shirt.”
From the beginning, Michal kept their relationship private. They both liked what they saw in the present, but wanted to examine each other’s past before moving on to the future. Everything checked out. Rabbi Wildes later commented how “Joey’s meditative calmness compliments Michal’s incredible passion and positive intensity.”
Within two months, they were having Shabbat meals together. “I appreciated the fact that Michal would cook meat for me,” says Joey, “even though she’s a vegetarian.” Soon Joey passed the final test. He bonded with her cat. Michal smiles. “My cat finally has a father and a mother.”
On June 1, Joey proposed. On June 2, Michal called Rabbi Wildes in New York to set the date for the wedding. She would only get married when Rabbi Wildes could officiate. “He was the one who turned my life around, and I want him to be there when I start a new life.” The rabbi and his wife, Jill, were to be in Israel between August 12-19.
With Rabbi Wildes under the chuppa, Michal and Joey were married in Jerusalem on August 15, 2012. Mazal tov.
Dr. Leah Hakimian currently researches the question: How Jewish couples meet and marry. In the 90’s she founded two nonprofit Jewish matchmaking programs, and continues to champion the role of community in helping singles meet. She resides in Jerusalem and Great Neck, New York.