(JTA) — According to Jewish lore, God has been making matches since the creation of the world. Aleeza Ben Shalom has been at it only since 2007 — but the Jewish matchmaker is about to bring what she calls “the most important job in the world” to the masses.
As the host of “Jewish Matchmaking” on Netflix, Ben Shalom adapts the model of Orthodox arranged matches to Jewish singles from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds, including secular, Reform and Conservative Jews from across the United States and Israel.
Formal matchmaking, known as shidduch dating and considered de rigueur in haredi Orthodox circles, has been depicted as oppressive and constricting on Netflix dramas such as “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox.” But Ben Shalom believes her basic approach to love and marriage makes sense for a wide array of people — and she’s out to prove it.
“I’m hoping that people will see that matchmaking and Judaism is not just something that’s old, but that’s timeless, that’s relevant,” Ben Shalom told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“We can use this beautiful, ancient tradition of matchmaking and bring it to modern life, and help people to find love from any age, stage, any background. It doesn’t matter. It’s universal,” she said. “The wisdom that I share is from Judaism. It’s based in Torah, but it’s for the world. Anybody of any background, of any culture can watch this, can learn something from it and can implement it in their lives.”
Ben Shalom isn’t the first to make the case that matchmaking services can help a wide array of Jews find lasting love. Ventures such as YentaNet, a pluralistic matchmaking service that arose about a decade ago, and Tribe 12, a Jewish nonprofit working with young adults in Philadelphia where Ben Shalom got her start, have sought to pair Jewish singles who might be a good fit for each other.
But the practice is most common in haredi Orthodox communities, where the norms around shidduch dating are well known and closely followed. Daters have a “shidduch resume” outlining their education, interests and family background; parents are involved in the process; and dating is intended to move quickly toward marriage. Dates typically take place in public spaces and couples are expected not to touch until they are married.
In formal Orthodox matchmaking, the shadchan, or matchmaker, is usually compensated by the parents, receiving around $1,000 upon a couple’s engagement, although higher-end services may charge more. Some matchmakers may charge a smaller amount for the initial meeting with a client, while Ben Shalom’s company, Marriage Minded Mentor, charges $50 to $100 an hour on a sliding scale based on the client’s salary. (Sima Taparia, the star and host of “Indian Matchmaking,” the Netflix show that inspired “Jewish Matchmaking,” reportedly charges her clients around $1,330 to $8,000 for similar services.)
Matchmakers keep records of who in their communities is looking for a match, but they can also tap into networks of other matchmakers and databases of singles as they seek to pair their clients. “We don’t believe in competition, we believe in collaboration,” said Ben Shalom, who is currently based in Israel.
Ben Shalom grew up in a Conservative Jewish community where matchmaking was not the norm, and later became Orthodox. She knew her husband for three weeks before becoming engaged, then touched him for the first time during their wedding four months later.
She knows that most participants on “Jewish Matchmaking” are unlikely to follow those same restrictions. Still, she encourages them to at least try.
“I’m really trying to have you guys touch hearts,” Ben Shalom tells Harmonie Krieger, a marketing and brand consultant in her 40s, as she explains why she wants Krieger to abstain from physical contact for five dates. “You will gain clarity. If there’s no physical glue holding the relationship together, then there’s actually value-based glue that’s holding the relationship together.”
“I will accept the challenge,” Krieger says. “Maybe. Let’s see how it goes.”
Krieger is one of a number of non-Orthodox Jews who opted to be cast on “Jewish Matchmaking” after being unsatisfied with their own dating efforts. There’s Nakysha Osadchey, a Black Reform Jew who is desperate to get out of Kansas City, Missouri, where she hasn’t had luck finding a partner who understands her multicultural background. Living in Tel Aviv via Rome, Noah Del Monte, 24, is the youngest of the group, an Israeli army veteran and diplomat’s son who wants to transition from so-called “king of nightlife” to husband. In Los Angeles, Ori Basly, who works for his family’s wedding planning business, is looking for a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Israeli woman to fall in love with and bring home to his family.
The Jews cast on the show are all in different places in their lives, some grieving serious breakups or committed to specific religious identities, some picky about looks or hoping their partner will be OK with riding motorcycles. Some of them are looking for particular Jewish commitments to concepts such as tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world” and has come to represent a social justice imperative for many liberal Jews; others want to be sure they’re matched only with people who share their approaches to observing Shabbat and keeping kosher.
Pamela Rae Schuller, a comedian whose material frequently centers on living with Tourette syndrome, a nervous system disorder, demurred when Ben Shalom first offered to set her up about seven years ago, after attending one of Schuller’s shows in Los Angeles.
“I was picking career first. And there are a lot of complicated feelings around dating and disability,” said Schuller, who stands 4 feet 6 inches tall and frequently barks because of her syndrome. “And I never even thought about a matchmaker.”
But in 2022, Ben Shalom reached out again, this time with a possible match, and a catch — it would be for a new Netflix show she was set to host. This time, Schuller was ready.
“I have this life that I really, really love. I’m just at the point where I’ve realized I’d like someone to start to share that with,” she said. “I’m not going into this looking for anyone to complete me.”
Getting back into dating and then appearing on the show, which Schuller hasn’t seen yet, was both scary and exciting, she says
“I’m about to put myself out there. I think that’s scary for everyone, disability or otherwise,” Schuller said. “But I also want to see a world where we remember that every type of person dates.”
Plus, she added, “I love the idea that Netflix is willing to show diversity in Judaism, diversity in dating.”
Ensuring that she show accurately represented American Jews was the responsibility of Ronit Polin-Tarshish, an Orthodox filmmaker who worked as a consulting producer on “Jewish Matchmaking.” Her role was to ensure that Judaism was portrayed authentically. She also worked to help the Orthodox cast members feel more comfortable with their involvement on the show.
“Being Orthodox is who I am, and of course it infused every part of my work,” said Polin-Tarshish, who herself used a matchmaker to find her husband.
Multiple recent depictions of Orthodox Judaism in pop culture — including the Netflix reality show “My Unorthodox Life” — have drawn criticism from Orthodox voices for getting details of Orthodox observance wrong or seeming to encourage people to leave Orthodoxy. Both “My Unorthodox Life” and “Unorthodox,” based on the Deborah Feldman memoir of the same name, depict formerly Orthodox women who left arranged marriages they described as oppressive.
Meanwhile, other depictions of Jews have been panned for botching details. Those include a grieving widow (herself not Jewish, but mourning a Jewish husband) serving hamantaschen at the shiva in the 2014 film “This is Where I Leave You,” and a storyline on the Canadian show “Nurses” about an Orthodox man rejecting a bone graft from a non-Jew.
“So many times we watch shows as Jews and we kind of gnash our teeth, and are like, ‘They got it wrong! They got a basic thing wrong!’” said Polin-Tarshish, who previously produced the first-ever feature-length film by Orthodox women and worked on another reality show about arranged marriages across cultures. “That was my whole job, to make sure that they got it right. And thank God, baruch Hashem, I think we really did.”
Asked if her involvement on “Jewish Matchmaking” has received any pushback, Ben Shalom said she had gotten questions about how she could know whether the showrunners will accurately represent who she is.
Ben Shalom said she was confident in the production based on what she saw on “Indian Matchmaking,” but also because she believed she could pull off the delicate balance needed to represent her own community and make for great entertainment.
“You have to be smart about how you share who you are with the world, and you have to be authentic, and you have to be real, and you have to be true,” she said. “And you have to do that on reality TV with strangers that you’ve just met, and you have to do an interview. So only because I saw it done beautifully before, I knew that I had the ability to do that as well.”
Polin-Tarshish is excited for viewers at home to identify with the cast of “Jewish Matchmaking,” and to even get frustrated by some of the cast members’ actions. But most importantly, she says she is excited to have real, three-dimensional Jewish characters on screen.
“They’re real people in every sense of the word,” Polin-Tarshish said. “There are characters you’re going to love, there are characters you might even love to hate. But that’s life.”