Jan. 23, 2005
Finding a nice Jewish boy can now be a rewarding experience

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

In a bid to tackle an increasingly vexing problem in the Orthodox community, a kosher certification agency is using an old-fashioned inducement to address the problem of unmarried women in the community: cash rewards.

It's a throwback to an old Jewish tradition, but with a new twist: Instead of fathers demanding dowries of their daughters' would-be suitors, the Star-K kosher agency is offering $2,000 to anybody who can get a nice Jewish boy to marry a nice Jewish girl from the agency's hometown of Baltimore.

The catch: The couple must be committed to observing kashrut, Shabbat and the Jewish laws of family purity.

"The mitzvah of marriage, sparking a 'kosher match,' and providing an incentive for shadchanim,"-matchmakers-"is the newest focus of Star-K," says the organization's announcement of the program. "Attempting to do its part to alleviate the universal singles 'crisis' the American Orthodox community is experiencing, Star-K is offering a $2,000 cash 'gift' for the successful shidduchim of women in Baltimore's Orthodox community-Star-K's hometown."

The new program, which began officially on Chanukah, underscores the level of concern in the Orthodox community about the growing number of Orthodox singles of marriageable age. By all accounts, it seems, Orthodox men and women are taking longer than ever to get hitched, prompting much hand-wringing in a community that places a heavy premium on family and child-bearing.

With demographic data showing that single Jews are less likely to participate in Jewish communal life than members of a family, and given the biological fact that longer singlehood suggests fewer children-particularly for women marrying later-nothing less than the survival of the community is at stake, some say.

"It's a broad problem. It exists in all sectors of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. The predicament of people "who wish to get married and are unable to concerns the community's leadership," he said. "Anything that helps two Jewish people meet each other and marry is unobjectionable."

The Orthodox Union is not a sponsor of the program.

The problem is particularly acute for Orthodox women, given women's limited biological window for bearing children. That's why the Star-K program focuses on unmarried women "of a certain age"-which in Baltimore is apparently 22 years and two months.

That's the minimum age for eligibility in the program, which is explained in detail on Star-K's website. Payments will be made to matchmakers within 30 days of the wedding, and eligibility is restricted to couples who have met after the program's start date of December 7, 2004.

"We're hoping to raise an awareness among people about the problem, and instead of just talking about we wanted to do something," said Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K and sponsor of the program.

Though nobody has made a claim yet for a reward-the program is only about six weeks old-Pollak said he has heard the initiative already has increased the level of inquiries about single women from Baltimore.

"It's not really a prize, it's more of an incentive to encourage people to get involved and make introductions, to think of girls in Baltimore, and for people who aren't professional matchmakers to think of their friends," Pollak said. "This $2,000 incentive is enough of a reason to do it. For a young couple, that could mean a trip to Israel or a new dining room set. It's a significant amount of money."

Michael Steinhardt, the Jewish mega-philanthropist who spent $11 million to build a cultural center on Manhattan's Upper West Side for the express purpose of helping young Jews meet each other, marry and procreate, said he doesn't believe paying matchmakers $2,000 a pop is going to solve the problem.

"Paying $2,000 to an outside matchmaker isn't going to change the landscape," he said. "What's going to change the hearts and minds of the vast bulk of unmarried Jewish people today and in the future?"

After suggesting repealing the Ashkenazi Jewish ban on polygamy, Steinhardt said, "Serious answers are not easy to come by."