Rabbi Neil Sandler and his "Beshert" celebrate on their wedding day.

Rabbi Neil Sandler and his “Beshert” celebrate on their wedding day.

BY MARCIA JAFFE / AJT //

Is your rabbi a “romantic”? Is there a beshert theme for couples destined to meet?

What are the threads of how these solid couples courted to make the important decision, or as Tina Turner crooned, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”

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In a shallower time back home in Tennessee, as a child I remember how much scrutiny we unfairly placed upon the beloved rabbi’s family. His wife was a “brash” New Yorker, not known for white-glove southern gentility.

The ladies analyzed her clothing, her canasta playing, her chewing gum popping, and her accent; and we reported on what the rabbi’s children brought to school in their lunch box. The magnifying glass was not so kind.

I became fascinated with the topic some years ago after renting the movie “Arranged”, available in the Fulton County Library System. A young teacher suffers through a series of bizarre, unpleasant dates arranged by a professional matchmaker.

A Muslim female coworker is in a similar predicament; the denouement is endearing with all sides winning in the end.

More recently, NBC’s Rock Center did an unflattering segment, interviewing young adults in Crown Heights who were escaping a structured Jewish life, destined for early prearranged marriage (and the inability to study secular topics like science).

The next day, NBC pulled the link from the internet.

“We don’t marry whom we love, we learn to love whom we marry,” the featured rabbi in the segment said.

A few years ago at a Lunch and Learn, I asked a Kollel rabbi if he was able to choose his own spouse and got an amazing answer. He was about to give up after his 99th arranged date when – Bingo! The 100th girl was “the one.” It was almost enough to make one lose hope and confidence, but not a man of faith.

Most of us would hesitate at not having the luxury of time to examine and commit to a lifelong mate.

Rabbi Shmary Gurary, Director of Development at B’nos Menachem School in Brooklyn, married a local Atlanta Chabad rabbi’s daughter. He estimates that 70 percent of today’s religious marriages are arranged by paid matchmakers versus 20-30 percent with friends and family doing the introductions – typically at age 20-22.

Around the third and fourth date, the groundwork for a decision is being laid, the fifth date being the “clincher.”

Rabbi Binyomin Friedman, of Congregation Ariel, was not looking for marriage. His wife of 31 years, Dena, was teaching the matchmaker’s child in Baltimore when the matchmaker exclaimed that she had a dream that Dena married Friedman, who was in his family’s petroleum business.

They dated for 10 weeks, were chaperoned, and never at an event alone.

Friedman at that time was “fuzzy” about his future involvement in Jewish life. After the wedding, he became a Post-Modern Orthodox rabbi. His advice for a happy marriage, “absolute commitment, divorce is not an option. Whatever it is, you can work it out.”

Chabad of Georgia’s Rabbi, Yossi New, through older siblings on both sides arranged a date at Prospect Park in New York with 19-year-old Dassi. New, 22 at the time, said it was love at first sight. He knew she was it.

“I needed one minute.”

Dassi, concerned about the safety of being taken to a sketchy New York Park, needed a few more meetings to make the commitment; fast forward to nine children and 14 grandchildren.

“Pick wisely,” New says. “Find a spouse who is humble and self effacing, and make her the most important thing in your life.”

Dassi is just that and a wonderful teacher in her own right.

In terms of a more restrained courtship, New says it works because starting with respect is better than falling right into love.

“At first you allow space and have borders, and don’t proclaim love,” New says. “After marriage it’s easier to retain the respect and transition into love. Respect is the defining dynamic.”

Of course, he laughs at the extreme from “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye and his wife sing, after 25 years of marriage, “Do you love me?” with the response, “Well, I suppose I do …”

Many Conservative and Reform Rabbis met their spouses through summer camp or Jewish teen organizations, and well-meaning friends at first being “just friends.”

B’nai Torah’s Rabbi Joshua Heller met his wife Wendy when friends arranged a much-needed car ride back from camp. Rabbi Heller, with the bravado of a young man “big shot” with a rental car, extended a 45-minute drive through a circuitous route in New York traffic to two hours to spend more time with Wendy.

That’s what you call a “wild goose chase”; but no one got goosed, I can assure you.

The next date was not smooth. Wendy announced that she would not marry the young Heller. Surprised by her boldness, Heller reminded her that he had not yet asked her; but he persevered. Eight months later they were engaged. Heller muses that it was somewhat of a “bait and switch.”

He was on the IT administrative side at the Jewish Theological Seminary, while she was pursuing a Masters in Jewish Education. When he later decided to be a congregational rabbi, she went into business and IT.

Heller believes that if, “it’s meant to be, you will meet.”

He and Wendy unknowingly overlapped several times in near misses, as they were both at the same concert in Jerusalem; he even went to her house for a meeting on a night she wasn’t home. Paths crisscrossed. According to Heller, “listening and respect” are the key to a happy marriage.

Rabbi Neil Sandler, of Ahavath Achim, courted southern Susan in Jerusalem at Hebrew University. They met through mutual friends and knew each other for five months before dating.

Both were committed to Jewish roots and values. Susan said she lived a “sheltered” life in Louisiana, exposed mainly to Reform Judaism. In Israel she began her spiritual journey by learning to speak Hebrew and keep kosher.

Rabbi Sandler’s decision to become a pulpit rabbi came after the marriage. Susan felt that becoming a rabbi’s wife was a natural progression as she is a Weinstein Hospice social worker and has touched many of our lives in very emotional times, myself included.

“Susan is seen as much more than a rebbetzin as she has a career where her own interests lie,” Rabbi Sandler said. “One has to ask, ‘Is the spouse ready for the attention of living in the spotlight cast on a rabbi and his family?’”

Susan certainly is that and more; but she had to give up New Orleans oysters and jambalaya. (Although, she says, I make it with okra and trout – a form of cholent remoulade?)

Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Brad Levenberg – married 13 years – started dating his wife Rebecca after a year of friendship in NFTY, the Reform youth movement.

“Our story illustrates that shared memories and common experiences establish a ‘fast track’ for romance,” Levenberg said. “We started where many other couples had to arrive after months of dating. And because of that initial familiarity, it was easier to realize that the one I was looking for was by my side all along.”

Rebecca cherished the “rabbi’s wife role” because she was so quickly welcomed into the community, the lives and homes of Sinai congregants.

“It’s a joy to have such a close circle of friends,” Rebecca explains.

Young Israel’s Adam Starr met his wife Talya as a 14-year-old friend at summer camp.   Years later, when romance entered his mind, Talya asked him to fix her up with one of his friends. This could throw a wrench into the bravest of hearts.

On a second false start, Talya mentioned that her roommate suggested that she go out with his roommate.

“Could he arrange that?”

Starr took his stand and said that he was intending to ask her on a date for himself. Starr still charms his wife with flowers for shabbas.

Tayla did not know she was going to be a rabbi’s wife until after marriage. Starr admires how she opens their home for meals and as a teen hangout. They have four children, ranging in age from six months to 12 years old.

Starr recalls their wedding in January 1999 in Connecticut; guests came to perform their “schtick” in Falcon “fan gear” for Super Bowl Sunday. Little did they know, they would end up here in the Falcon’s home base.

Maybe they expected the Falcons to be a little more reliable.

Starr advises couples to be proactive in dealing with issues.

“Sweeping under the rug doesn’t work,” he said. “Problems do not magically disappear.”

The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg met his wife Karen also at summer camp where she was the waterfront director. At the time, Rabbi Berg was not leaning towards being a pulpit rabbi. They married two years later. Karen, a high school English teacher, is now an SAT coach, so she can be more flexible rearing their three children.

Rabbi Berg’s “Aha!” moment came when the obstetrician looked at the sonogram and stated, “The baby looks fine,” followed by a pause. “Actually the other baby looks fine too.”

Elisheva Ingber met Karmi Ingber, spiritual leader of the fast growing Kehilla Congregation, passing out flyers while studying in Jerusalem. Elisheva was on a Hillel trip and took the whole group to see the talented young guitarist perform. Elisheva, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, was not a religious Jew at that juncture.

Based on meeting Karmi’s circle of friends, she was impressed as to how “smart, normal, cool, and interesting a religious life could be.”

Six months later they were married. She notes that she made the decision to become observant by what she wanted for herself and not “for” him.

She advises that romance should lead from the top down.

“Head first: are your priorities on the same track? Second: go with the heart, emotions and comfort level.”

Seven children later, Elisheva says, “Showing each other true respect and love are key elements; but the passion in marriage is kindled by practicing the laws of family purity. Medical professionals and therapists reinforce that periods of abstinence keep romance alive.”

The Ingbers make a great team. If you haven’t attended a Kehilla event, you should.

California-raised Brooke Rosenthal, wife of Ahavath Achim’s Laurence Rosenthal, also had several “near meets,” since they both unknowingly worked in the Jewish Federation building.

He opened the door for her; she asked him where the vending machines were. Friends tried to get them together despite the passing logistics. Both hung out at the same music venues on Sunset Boulevard; both were on a spiritual path (she had just returned from Israel; he was starting rabbinical school), and both were grieving over the loss of their fathers.

Brooke was half-heartedly on Match.com when she just picked up the phone and said, “Let’s go to lunch.”

Eighteen months later, they were married. She advises young people to make sure to balance the practical with the romantic, “Don’t gloss over what you want out of life.

Matching the key issues is as important as the heart.”

She compliments Rabbi Rosenthal for his sentimental gifts on holidays – even though she knows he gets them at 11 p.m. the night before.

“Breakfast in bed is always a big hit!”

Getting through the rocky times in marriage, she cautions, “Don’t get stuck in your own point of view. Otherwise it’s just defense and offense.”

The Rosenthal’s stay busy with four children, all under 8-years-old.

There is a tidbit of knowledge you should know about rabbis and dating. In 1998, Orthodox Rabbi Yaacov Deyo invented speed dating in Beverly Hills. He brainstormed with entertainment industry executives who developed game shows.

They calculated how to use excel spreadsheets to keep track of singles and twirled his grogger (noise maker) at 10 minute intervals to force the room of singles to switch partners; so noted in a New York Times article by Pagen Kennedy.

He is responsible for inspiring Jewish and Gentile matches all around the world where couples table hop for maximum efficiency. Deyo has a trademark for Speed Dating and is proud of the zichus (merit) created by his good actions.

Being a progressive town, including attitudes about gender roles, Atlanta also has many female rabbis with unique challenges and motivations  – to be explored in a future column.

With my outdated college minor in Sociology and many decades of life experience, I maintain that our rabbis have exceptionally happy marriages. Perhaps they had friendship first or friends who knew them well put them together.

Rabbis are by nature compassionate, complimentary and have counseling “thought processes” which enriches coupling. Maybe a higher spiritual destiny brought them together. G-d has to know who can handle seven children.

“Love is as perennial as the grass” (Desertera 1927) – especially in our Land of Jewish Milk and Honey.

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