Tova Weinberg will do anything to make a match – even adopt a dog.
In an interview from her home in Pittsburgh, Weinberg, the matchmaker who co-founded the Jewish dating website SawYouAtSinai.com (SYAS), recalls her confusion when a man whom she thought was in a relationship asked to come to her Hanukkah party for singles. Asked why he would attend a singles party, the man said he wanted to marry the woman he was dating, but he hated her dog. Weinberg called the woman to let her know that her boyfriend wanted to marry her – sans the dog. When the woman balked, Weinberg said, “I’ll take the dog.” Within a few months, Weinberg was a pet owner, and the couple was married.
Launched in December 2003, SYAS was one of the first Jewish dating websites. The site’s approach is unique in that it fuses the old-school shidduch (matchmaking) strategies with new-school Internet dating. Unlike most dating sites, in which users independently browse profiles, SYAS relies on a team of volunteer matchmakers who scour databases of users and suggest matches to the users they represent. Only matchmakers who are married and willing to devote at least six hours per week to the project are eligible to volunteer. SYAS now boasts more than 30,000 users, and nearly 1,000 matches resulting in marriage have been made since the site’s inception a decade ago.
At the helm of the operation is Weinberg, who works from what she calls “command central” – a small desk area in her kitchen. That space is where the “magic” happens, she says.
As a shadchan (matchmaker), Weinberg deals with all kinds of clients with special needs, from Asperger’s syndrome-spectrum individuals, to widows and widowers, to divorcees. She believes her toughest customer is a 30-year-old “Bais Yakov girl” (referring to the Brooklyn-based Orthodox school for girls) who is looking for a “Tom Cruise lookalike who says Tehillim (Psalms).”
Weinberg has also had male clients tell her that they are gay but haven’t come out yet to their parents. Other men have told her they aren’t interested in her matchmaking services because they have a non-Jewish girlfriend they don’t want their families to know about. In those cases and similar ones, Weinberg stays quiet, doesn’t make a match, and leaves the client to sort out his or her issues.
In fact, Weinberg got into matchmaking not to help Jews who are already observant, but to help prevent intermarriage. When Weinberg and her husband, Joel, moved from New York to Pittsburgh, where he works as a physician, he kept bringing home Jewish doctors with non-Jewish spouses or girlfriends. Weinberg did not want to speak to the non-Jewish partners due to her distress about intermarriage, but Joel told her to stop complaining and instead do something about it.
Weinberg’s matchmaking career had unofficially started before she moved to Pittsburgh. When she lived in New York in her early 20s, she got to know a philanthropic woman named Else Bendheim, who would host single men and women – 30 of each gender at a time – at Shabbat dinners. Bendheim told Weinberg that she would sponsor more singles events if Weinberg would host them.
Weinberg recalls having one wealthy client who did not want to marry someone who needed him financially. She thought the wealthy man and one of her other clients had a future together, so she lied to the man that her other client was an heiress. The match was successful, and the man thanked Weinberg for lying because he would not have gone out with the woman he loved if he had known she was actually penniless. Weinberg explains that it is the “matchmaker’s touch” to perceive aspects of others’ character and the reasons why two people would work together, even if the attributes perceived aren’t on the “list” of what a single person says he or she is looking for in a partner.
Asked about the role of technology in dating, Weinberg says there is a “sickness” in that singles think more potential mates can magically appear, and dismiss suggested matches for trivial reasons like a girl’s hair being too curly. She says there are those who think online dating is as simple as Starbucks: “Take skim milk with caramel and a dash of Splenda, [and] they are getting all they want.”
Weinberg, who has been married more than 30 years, has five married children and 13 grandchildren. A large family photo in her home was taken at her youngest son’s recent wedding. How did the couple meet?
“He ran after her on the street,” she says proudly. For those not bold enough to make such moves, there are matchmakers like Weinberg and dating websites like SYAS to help Jewish singles do what it takes to find their soul mates.