Saturday, Sep 25, 2021

They Call Him “Freddie”

It's an undisputed fact that most people spend the bulk of their time in public places observing other people. Come on, don't deny it. You've done it too. We've all done that, furtively glancing at the pair a few tables down and constructing their life stories out of fresh cloth. The perfectly dressed gentleman with the diamond cufflinks smiling into his chardonnay is certainly an investment banker celebrating yet another closing. And the two middle-aged men gesturing wildly are in the midst of disbanding a long partnership that's suddenly gone sour. The list goes on.

On the rare occasions that we get the real story behind the façade, we discover how laughable our assumptions were. The old maxim urging us not to judge a book by its cover is borne out time and time again. But the habit is hard to break. Besides, admit it. It’s fun.

 

I have a strong hunch that the man I met for lunch last week gets pegged more accurately than most. The well-dressed man is not a banker, but a blue collar worker celebrating a siyum. Those business partners are actually brothers planning their parents’ golden anniversary. But you see Yisrael Friedman across the way? He must be a shadchan!

 

Right you are. Few people fit the bill like Rabbi Friedman. Spend five minutes in his presence and you’re likely to see many of the attributes that make a successful shadchan. Gregarious, outgoing and blessed with a golden tongue and a dry wit, Freddie, as he is affectionately known, has the gift to bring about what the Gemara describes as one of our most difficult tasks. But don’t be fooled by the outsized personality. Freddie Friedman has a quick sense of humor and is fun to be around, but he’s thought deeply about the issues challenging his field and how to correct them.

 

What is most surprising about Freddie’s career is the speed with which it took off. Most well-known shadchanim spent years and years toiling with minimal success before earning a name as someone to be reckoned with. But Freddie’s career is well shy of a decade old, yet he is closing in on his 200th shidduch, bli ayin hara. The bulk of those have come in the last two or three years.

 

“I’ve had a lot of siyata diShmaya,” he remarks. “In this business, it quickly becomes obvious that nothing happens through your efforts alone. Every single shidduch is a story for itself that would never have been seen through without huge doses of help from Above.”

 

– – – – –

 

Yisrael Friedman grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where his father serves as the rosh yeshiva in nearby Skokie. His mother is a scion of the famous Sorotzkin family, renowned the world over as Torah royalty.

 

His childhood and young adult years were typical enough, studying in Edison, NJ, under the auspices of his maternal first cousin, Rav Yaakov Busel, before moving on to Yeshivas Brisk in Yerushalayim and Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood. But for those looking for a glimmer of what the future might hold for young Yisrael didn’t have to look far.

 

“I made several shidduchim before I officially took on the role of shadchan,” he recounts. And qualitatively speaking, he didn’t start small. “My first shidduch was one I pulled off for a cousin of mine. The boy was four years younger than the girl, but they’re happily married.”

 

After about eighteen months in Lakewood, Yisrael was introduced to his future wife. Who was the shadchan’s shadchan?

 

“Mrs. Sarah Yavneh is her name. She is a woman from Flatbush. She is not a professional shadchan, and as far as I know, my wife and I were her first and last shidduch. To be honest, that shidduch itself should give everyone some encouragement. There is nobody who knew the two of us from before our marriage who would have dreamed of putting the two of us together. We are polar opposites. That’s no exaggeration. But for some reason, Mrs. Yavneh thought it was a good idea, and here we are. So if we can get married, so can everyone else!”

 

After several years of marriage, Yisrael began to search for a means of parnassah. Although shadchan wasn’t his chosen field, he maintains that the idea was always lurking in the back of his mind.

 

“My wife claims that she asked me on a date what I see myself doing in a few years time and I told her that I’d like to be a shadchan. I have no recollection of that, and to be frank, I have no idea why I would say such a thing. Being a shadchan is a lot of things, but it’s not the greatest way to make a buck!”

 

NJ Hand, an affordable housing program in Lakewood, had an open position and Freddie took his first position in real estate. The job required lots of talking, convincing and getting things done, and with his skill set, Freddie was a natural. Someone took notice and approached him with an idea.

 

“There was a guy who liked my work at NJ Hand and thought I’d make a good shadchan. He approached me about joining the Gateways shidduch program that was just launching. I figured I would look into it and maybe give it a shot.”

 

The Gateways shidduch program has very little to do with kiruv, despite the eponymous sister program that works to be mekarev those who are far from Yiddishkeit. Based in Monsey, this initiative was open to all, as it sought to bring together the resources and the knowledge of various shidduch professionals under one roof.

 

“My job was basically to profile boys. There were plenty of girls’ résumés, but then, as now, there was a dearth of the same for boys. Being from Lakewood and very much in the yeshiva community, I was able to bring in names, profiles and full résumés of boys who were available.”

 

Once a week, Freddie would make the trip to Monsey for what basically amounted to a debriefing. He still was not interviewing girls on his own, but slowly he began to learn more about the people on the other side of the fence. As time wore on, things slowly began to come together.

 

“Being affiliated with Gateways in the beginning of my career was invaluable,” he remarks. “There is no doubt that I’d be out of business without them.”

 

It’s a strange remark coming from a shadchan who seems to do quite well on his own, but he quickly explains.

 

“The burnout rate among shadchanim is something like 98%,” Freddie avers. “It’s a tough business under the best of circumstances. But trying to get things done when all you have is a list of 20 boys and 20 girls is nearly impossible. You’ll work to match up the people you know, and when things go sour and you’re out of names, you quickly give up, deciding this job is not for you. There is no money and no success, and where there is no success, there is no sipuk. Working with Gateways made me privy to a constant flow of names, both boys and girls. This expanded the options I had to work with and provided a much bigger opportunity for success.”

 

But having those names at hand was only half the job.

 

“I can’t emphasize this enough: You need to hustle! Being a shadchan means getting out and meeting people, following up, and familiarizing yourself with as many people as you can. I’ll tell you something. I don’t remember a vort I’ve gone to since starting in this field where I haven’t met a boy who has led to another shidduch. Being out and about leads to success.”

 

Despite all his efforts though, Freddie admits that the early days were rough.

 

“I would spend 80% of the phone call explaining to parents who I am and why they should listen to me. It’s not easy being an unknown shadchan. There’s a barrier there that you have to overcome. Parents rightfully want to know why they should trust you. How well do you know my son? Why do you think this is a good match? What credibility do you have that should make me want to do this with you?”

 

It took time, but success breeds success.

 

“There is no PR campaign like a successful shidduch,” he laughs. “You can try to sell yourself as a good shadchan, but people want to see that you can get the job done. I can tell you this: My first ninety shidduchim took about three times as long as the second ninety.”

 

Speak to an accomplished person in any industry and they’ll tell you that the key to success is to never stop learning. Freddie says that shadchanus is no different.

 

“I’m not averse to being shoeil eitzah by anybody. I’ve discussed strategy and ideas with all of Lakewood’s well-known shadchanim, particularly Tzadok Katz, whom I speak to on a daily basis. Mrs. Tammy Schwebel of Gateways has also been a huge inspiration for me. But there are others who aren’t necessarily shadchanim who still have a lot to offer. Aaron Leshinsky is a yungerman who just recently got married. He was very helpful to me as someone who knew a lot of bochurim and was able to help me navigate what can sometimes be an overwhelming number of names. All in all, there’s always a person out there with an idea to pick up on.”

 

In order to protect the privacy of his clients, Freddie declines to talk about particular cases, but he feels that the challenges that have arisen over his career run the gamut, from the questionable to the queer. And there have been serious things to contemplate as well. Money problems, medical issues and sensitive family situations all have to be analyzed and investigated. But one thing he’s come to learn over the years is that there is no challenge that cannot be overcome if the will is there.

 

“Seeing a shidduch through to the end requires patience, commitment and perseverance. That’s not just on the part of the shadchan, but the parents and the prospective couple as well. I’ve seen how a parent traveled to the ends of the earth to clear up a medical issue that was derailing a shidduch. I’ve watched and assisted as two sets of parents committed to their children’s happiness worked through some knotty financial problems. If the commitment is there, few problems cannot be overcome.”

 

Even as his clientele was growing, Freddie threw himself into other projects as well. He founded Imrei Binah, a school for autistic children, together with his cousin, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin. The Lose-4-Autism program, a weight loss challenge that raises money for the school and has become wildly popular, was his brainchild. He is also a sitting member of Lakewood’s Board of Education.

 

– – – – –

 

The elephant in the room throughout our conversation is the shidduch crisis. The idea needs no introduction. It’s a touchy subject that evokes strong emotions from anyone you speak to and the resolutions you hear vary from shadchan to shadchan, from one communal leader to the next. Freddie Friedman is no different.

 

“Let me begin by saying that there is a shidduch crisis,” he clarifies. “It is not overblown. I just got a text from a father who told me that his daughter is back from a great seminary for two years now and she hasn’t gotten a date. That’s unthinkable. There is a notion out there that has been accepted by some that the crisis is simply geographical and unique to out-of-town communities, but it doesn’t really exist among the residents of Brooklyn, Monsey, Lakewood, etc. I strongly disagree. Although I concede that the number of girls who are left out in the cold is much higher in out-of-town communities, I feel that the root cause of the issue lies in the fact that there are simply a greater number of eligible girls than eligible boys. The way that manifests itself is by leaving some girls without a prospective match. Unfortunately, those girls usually live out of town. Because their location is less desirable, they are simply the last to get picked up. But that doesn’t mean that the problem is geographical, just that they bear the brunt of the issue facing all of our communities.”

 

The NASI project, a program that has focused all its energy on decreasing the age gap between potential chassanim and kallahs, was really the first to lay out before the public the concept of age as the fundamental problem. They have offered monetary incentives to shadchanim, urging them to encourage shidduchim with little to no age gap, as well as issuing public proclamations urging bochurim to begin dating at a younger age. Freddie endorses their efforts.

 

“The age gap needs to be corrected. But to address the problem as a whole, we need to completely overhaul the whole system. In the meantime, I don’t think it has to be an all or nothing approach. I understand that at this point, totally eliminating the concept of going to Eretz Yisroel to learn doesn’t look likely. But why does that preclude a bochur from entertaining shidduchim before he goes? Let’s assume a bochur has completed three or four years of bais medrash and is set to go to Eretz Yisroel. Why can’t he go out with a girl over bein hazemanim? If it doesn’t work out, he’s free to go to Israel and try again next bein hazemanim. The very worst that’s going to happen to him is that he’ll get engaged. I don’t buy the idea that once he begins shidduchim, he can’t put it on hold and learn well over that zeman that he’s overseas. It’s not a stirah.”

 

Where Freddie offers a unique perspective is in the way he connects the dots between the age gap and the other problems that emerge during shidduchim.

 

“I think that there is a chain reaction that can be traced back to the fact that this is a boys market. I’ll give you an example. The number-one objection I get from parents when I redd a shidduch is money. I hate to say it, but if the girl has no means of support, it is often very difficult for her. This has only developed because there is a dearth of eligible boys, and it has become the norm for the girl’s side to provide the bulk of support. If the boy’s parents were providing 50% of the young couple’s needs, finances would be a neutral topic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents of boys tell me, ‘I gave x number of dollars to support my three daughters and now I’m getting my payback.’ Why should it be this way? Why should you be less invested in your child’s success just because he’s a boy? I’m telling you that a mid-level accountant who has five daughters simply can’t afford to marry off his kids. I’m not talking about someone in chinuch or someone who is poverty stricken. If you’re not making $200,000 a year, you can’t do it. That’s just not normal. It has to change. If we can change that attitude and level the playing field a bit, it would go a long way toward alleviating the crisis we have now. It would I’m sorryremove one of the biggest negatives, the lack of money.”

 

One of the ideas that have been bandied about is bolstering the number of shadchanim working full-time in shidduchim, as well as placing many of those shadchanim in out-of-town communities. Freddie agrees that this would be helpful, but he insists that this wouldn’t eliminate the issue.

 

“Let’s analyze this. If you put a shadchan in Baltimore, or Chicago, or Detroit, and had them focus exclusively on their community, what you would get is an element of chayecha kodmin. The shadchan would hopefully be successful in getting more dates for girls from that community, which in turn would lead to more marriages. This would ameliorate the issues facing out-of-town girls. But it wouldn’t change the fact that there are still more girls than boys due to the age gap. So it’s true, the problem won’t be so visible in a place like Detroit, as more of its daughters will be getting married, but it would still leave a girl in Brooklyn or Monsey without a shidduch. Please don’t get me wrong: I think increasing the number of shadchanim is a good idea. There’s room for another 100 shadchanim making 100 shidduchim a year, and nobody makes 100 shidduchim a year. Halevai that we would be able to increase the members within our ranks. And I do believe that with more shadchanim, more shidduchim will be made, because they will have the skills necessary to pluck guys out when they are younger. So it would definitely help. But I think that we can’t lose sight of the main issue with which we are faced.”

 

Barring an epiphany on the part of the greater Jewish community, today’s shidduch-eligible girls are trying to play the hand they’ve been dealt. Is there something they can do on their own to help their cause?

 

“Like I said, money is the number-one issue. If a girl can save money and kick it back to her parents, or put it away to help support herself upon her marriage, that’s a significant advantage. And it’s important to realize that being a great girl has its own, built-in advantage. If a girl has an outstanding résumé, someone will notice her.”

 

As a Chicago native, Freddie is intimately familiar with the challenges faced by out-of-town families and it bothers him a great deal. But what’s most frustrating to him is that much of that wound is self-inflicted.

 

“Look, most of us are parents of both boys and girls, so we’re familiar with both sides of this equation. It therefore never ceases to amaze me when I call a mother in Cleveland who has both a boy and a girl on the market and one who laments the hardship her daughter has in finding a date, yet she won’t contemplate allowing her son to go out with a girl from Detroit, because it’s too far away! Why are you perpetuating the problem that is affecting your own child? Trust me, this has happened. More than once. It bothers me, because these parents know the problem, they know that in the long run it’s trivial, and they know how harmful this perspective is.”

 

He also has a bone to pick with the attitude of some out-of-town boys.

 

“In today’s day and age, it’s extremely common for boys and girls to be frummer than their parents. This is true all over, but it’s a lot more pronounced in out-of-town communities, where a large portion of the older generation was brought up with a weaker Jewish infrastructure, hence a weaker Jewish education.

 

“Now, their children have made great strides. Their son attends top yeshivos, both here in America and in Eretz Yisroel. Their daughter goes to a mainstream Bais Yaakov and to BJJ or Hadar, or any other top-of-the-line seminary. They both come home and enter shidduchim. The son won’t even glance at a girl who essentially has the same résumé as his sister. He’s only going out with the most choshuve names from the tri-state area, while his sister has to take someone with a mum. It defies logic. I can’t understand how this can be allowed to happen, where boys who see the plight of their sister won’t entertain such a shidduch.”

 

Yet, despite his gripes, Freddie is an outspoken advocate of out-of-towners. “I think that the generalizations made about them are unfair. To some extent there is a certain mold that every community fits into, but the exceptions to the rule are so large as to render the entire rule irrelevant. I can find you a Flatbush girl who is more ‘out-of-towny’ than one from Baltimore. It’s a matter of upbringing, and to simply generalize and say that they can’t be what I’m looking for is to completely negate a whole segment of potentially wonderful shidduchim.”

 

– – – – –

 

Looking back at the past couple of years, Freddie can ruminate on his success. He’s made some high-profile shidduchim, including the recent one between the Kornfeld and Rechnitz families. But he admits that if all you’re looking for is a comfortable salary, shadchan is not the way to go.

 

“Do the math. On average, you have to make something north of 25-30 shidduchim a year to make a salary that a Jewish family can live on. Money is not a motivating factor to go into this business full-time.”

 

On the flip side, Freddie isn’t shy about advocating for proper remuneration for shadchanim.

 

“Personally, I’ve never asked for a dime from any of the mechutanim who have been involved in my shidduchim. I take whatever they have offered me. But I don’t think that $1,500 is too steep a price for a mechutan to give the shadchan who has invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears in his child’s shidduch. That should be a pretty basic rate. I think that effort should be properly acknowledged. Look, no one stiffs the band, right? No one goes up to the band leader or the florist after the chasunah and says, ‘Sorry, but I can’t afford it.’ So I understand that some people can afford more than others, and that’s fine, but acknowledge the effort. I have friends who’ve been paid in goods that were essentially worthless. I don’t think that’s right.”

 

Does he have advice for someone looking to join the ranks?

 

“Be prepared to grow a very thick skin. You’re going to get yelled at, be ignored and be verbally abused. You’re going to think that you did everything right, and you’ll find out that someone hates you for it. I remember in the early days, I once put hours and hours into a shidduch and took a verbal beating from one of the parties involved. It really upset me, so I called Rav Shmuel Fuerst, the dayan of Agudas Yisroel in Chicago and one of my mentors, seeking some sympathy. After I recounted the story, I told him that I wanted to quit the business. ‘You should,’ he said to my surprise. ‘If you can’t handle the abuse, you’re not cut out for this business.’ And then he told me a vort. The posuk says, ‘Ach tov vochesed yirdefuni.’ He explained it homiletically: Those whom you do chesed with, they will be the ones who are rodef you.”

 

“You also need to commit your life to this. You need to make yourself accessible to those who seek your help, regardless of who it may be. This can take many forms, be it text, email, or phone. I’ve just hired a secretary to help me sift through all my correspondence, because when someone reaches out for help, you want to be able to be there for them.”

 

Leaning over, he shows me one of his two phones. Believe me, he needs a secretary. Maybe two. There are many messages that need attending to.

 

– – – – –

 

The next time you run across Freddie Friedman at a vort, a chasunah, or a restaurant, you’ll surely think, “That man must be a shadchan!” And you’ll be right, but it’s not just the personality that makes him successful, because with Freddie, a lot lies beneath the surface.

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