By Hannah Lee
Aleeza Ben Shalom has always happily served as a networker or a “connector,” bringing together people whether it was about housing, cars or furniture. Her successful connections, made through her Shabbat hospitality at her family’s table and her volunteer work for the SawYouAtSinai dating website, have led her to launch her business, “Marriage Minded Mentor,” in February 2012. To date, she has brought 14 clients to the wedding chuppah and another eight are engaged.
Her 132-page book, Get Real Get Married, hit the stores on Tuesday. With clients from the observant community, her shortest match took four months from introduction to marriage (Those two really knew what they wanted!), while the longest match took about nine months. Her clients in the general public need more time.
Raised Conservative and formerly known as Lisa Caplan, Ben Shalom studied Jewish studies, children’s literature, and environmental studies at the University of Pittsburgh. While attending a retreat with IsraLight, a kiruv (outreach) organization founded by Rabbi David Aaron, she found both meaning and purpose in a life structured by Torah and mitzvot (commandments). Overnight, she began to observe Shabbat, swapped out her trendy wardrobe for modest clothing covering her collarbones, shoulders and elbows, and already a vegan, she started keeping kosher.
Also attending the same retreat was Gershom Ben Shalom, although they were both dating other people. They dated for three weeks, got engaged, and were wed in four months. This is not what she recommends for anyone else, but as her mother noted to her, “You’re not flaky, but this [rapid transformation] is flaky.” Her parents nonetheless supported her decision and they are delighted in their four grandchildren (and another on the way). The Ben-Shaloms have been married for 10 years.
Ben Shalom says a matchmaker has to work in three levels: in fact, in act, and intact. The first goal is the one that’s most familiar to us, but a successful matchmaker has to also walk the client through the process — “in act,” as well as support the client through the inevitable ups and downs of relationships — “intact,” to keep them together. Even after the wedding, she fields calls from former clients asking if some particular issue or conflict is typical to other marriages. She is even planning a sequel to be titled “Stay Real, Stay Married,” for a society where 50% of marriages end in divorce, as do 20% of Orthodox Jewish commitments.
Recently, Ben Shalom spoke at a non-Jewish event attended by women aged 18-65, and she saw that her message, that you have to be marriage-minded to get married and stay married, resonated with the audience. She realized that her message is universal: that marriage is a lifelong process of growth and connection.
She offers her clients a pithy lesson of one, five, and ten. One: you have to pick one goal to focus on. If marriage is your goal, then choose no more than five mentors to assist you. Who qualifies as a mentor? Ben Shalom advises to choose someone who has been married for more than five years and who has shown wisdom and a history of good decisions. Then, choose ten or fewer people to date until you pick your spouse. This directs dating in a healthier way, so that one thinks carefully about whether a person is worthy of dating for marriage.
Older singles can be particularly fragile, but they usually hide their vulnerability: They present themselves as accomplished, financially stable, and able to live independently. How do we, who are not matchmakers, help these people? ”Engage in open dialogue,” counsels Ben Shalom, “and ask what does the person need at that moment.” Check back each time, because the emotional terrain is very volatile and someone who’s ready to meet people one month may be exhausted emotionally the next one, so that person may wish to simply join your family for a Shabbat or Yom Tov meal, with no expectations for a shidduch.
Successful clients are stable: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Some clients have met with Ben Shalom’s refusal to arrange meetings during a period of transition. She also readily refers clients to other professionals for therapy, diet counseling, or personal organization (clutter management).
What does she think of speed dating (a phenomenon that’s not so popular in the Philadelphia area, where singles have the opportunity to sit and engage with each other individually in a focused, limited time — usually several minutes)? This may work for some people, but Ben Shalom finds it emotionally challenging, and it is not amongst her top techniques. She is more a proponent of “inspect what you expect,” and her clients do not go on blind dates without evaluating the particulars of a prospective date.
The dating scene in Philadelphia is unlike those of New York and Los Angeles, where there are so many singles, that they don’t feel the need to get married. “They are practicing to be single,” said Ben Shalom, “not practicing to get married.” Moreover, people tend to leave New York once they do get married for more affordable communities, in order to be able to raise children.
Are the rabbis doing enough for singles? The times are changing fast, so while individual rabbis may be helpful, they are not unified in their efforts. In earlier times, all Jews in any particular area knew each other, and so it was easier to facilitate with matches. In our times, Ben Shalom advocates the use of a “dating resume,” or dating profile. In addition to personal statistics and biographical data, she asks her clients to reflect on who they are and what they are looking for.
A crucial advice by Ben Shalom is not to look for what the mentors want instead of what you want, because that could lead to shaky relationships. As for highly-specific documented demands such as the dress size of the kallah (or mother-in-law!) or the color of the tablecloths, Ben Shalom asks, “are their head and heart in line? The color of the tablecloth may be a surrogate for family minhagim (customs), but is the person marriage-minded? Can he or she stay married?”
Ben Shalom hosts a weekly radio show at Jewish Talk Radio, and blogs at the Marriage Minded Mentor website.