Bert Miller was divorced and eager to remarry, but only within the relatively small pool of Orthodox Jews like himself.
So he traveled from Baltimore to Brooklyn, N.Y., for a date with Mindy, only to find a message that she wouldn't be available until the next day. Wanting to make full use of his time after a trek of 200 miles, Miller called on a matchmaker in New Jersey. While he was there, Miller overheard the matchmaker ask his wife, "Did you get that call from Rachelle?"
"Is that Rachelle Chrystol from Irvington, N.J.?" Miller asked. He had dated a woman named Rachelle Chrystol more than 20 years earlier when he was a student at Johns Hopkins.
Indeed it was. Miller delayed calling her, partly because the matchmaker had indicated, incorrectly as it turned out, that she was not strictly Orthodox. The only reason Miller knows differently is that he decided to call her anyway.
Five months later, he proposed.
"This relationship nearly missed blastoff because of unreliable data," says Miller, who has been married to Rachelle for nearly three years. They have two children, Ellie-Ahna, 2, and Esther Malka, 6 weeks. He resolved to build "a better spouse trap."
What he came up with since that near-miss in 1988 is a widely distributed resume file of single, Sabbath-observing Jews, found mostly among the Orthodox. He calls it Frum-Phile, from a Yiddish word for religiously observant. He drew upon his doctoral dissertation in math to devise a system that would give participants access to revealing data about each other, while guaranteeing full confidentiality.
Miller, 44, lives in northwest Baltimore and teaches math at Woodlawn High School, the Talmudical Academy and Towson State University. He says he aspires to nothing less than to become "the most accomplished matchmaker in Jewish history."
He works non-profit and from a motivation to assist "the physical perpetuation of the Jewish people," he says. "One reason you meet Jews today and not Babylonians is because we have married each other and preserved our identity."
But that identity is threatened by inter marriage. A recent study showed that 52 percent of American Jews who married between 1985 and 1990 had married non-Jews.
Sabbath-observers are more likely to marry each other, Miller says, but they are a small subset of Jews in this country. That means that "in any city outside of New York, there might be only a few dozen appropriate matches," he says, hence the need for matchmakers to expand the universe of possibilities.
Miller's Frum-Phile injects a bit of modern technology into the eons-old profession of matchmaking.
As a more traditional Jewish matchmaker, Margie Pensak, who says she is one of five matchmakers in the Baltimore area, acts as the intermediary herself between singles. She says that whether a match comes through her, another matchmaker or Miller's Frum-Phile, the objective is for marriages to occur.
Pensak, who traces her profession back to creation -- "God was the first one with Adam and Eve" -- says she is part of a North American network of matchmakers dealing with some 800 single, Sabbath-observing Jews.
They all work with each other, she says, because "making a match is like splitting the Red Sea. It's a miracle."
Since Miller began his Frum-Phile about a year ago, he has distributed complete sets of about 300 resumes of Sabbath-observing Jews, evenly split between men and women, among 105 representatives throughout the country.
He is in the midst of launching a similar dissemination of resumes of Jewish singles who are not so strictly observant of their religion, among synagogues and Jewish community centers. So far, 138 such institutions have agreed to accept his data when it's ready. With a flair for marketing, Miller calls this project cHupa Helper, named for the canopy used in Jewish wedding ceremonies.
In Miller's system, the search for a suitable Jewish marriage partner begins with the resume, a full-page questionnaire written in small type. The questions cover obvious information about age, education and previous marriage, but also delve into
personal habits and details of religious observance, such as the degree to which respondents adhere to Jewish dietary laws.
Clients of both Frum-Phile and cHupa Helper are asked to rate, on a scale from "essential" to "don't want," a variety of behaviors and attitudes in a prospective spouse: Willing to share a joint checking account? Must your intended be "modest," "good with children," "easy going," or a "good cook?" A converse rating, from "can't tolerate" to "OK," is available for such household traits as smoking, "perfectly ordered home," "messy home," "bossiness," and "constant yelling."
Photographs are not part of the picture. Miller believes that a person who seems appealing on paper is worth meeting for an evening. "No one should be turned down on the basis of looks alone," he said. "And no one should be dated on the basis of looks alone."
The sheaf of resumes is organized by sex, telephone area code and age, but without last names, phone numbers or addresses.
An inquiring man -- call him Joe -- sifts through the resumes bunched in nearby area codes and settles on Ellen. The resume would list a personal reference to contact, so that Ellen won't be bothered by calls out of the blue.
"The personal reference is the screener," Miller says. It may be Ellen's rabbi, her friend or relative, who would interview Joe and decide whether to put him in touch with her. "If Joe is inappropriate, Joe never gets to contact Ellen," he says.
One optional reference in cHupa Helper, but required in Frum-Phile, is the name of the client's rabbi.
Miller says his scheme cuts out the middleman, the traditional matchmaker, who normally arranges the introductions, based on interviews and counseling with clients. With full access to the resume data, which includes answers to
many of the questions a matchmaker would ask, Miller says, "it's no longer necessary to rely on the misperceptions of a third party."
He charges $12 or $25 a year, depending on how wide a net the client would cast, to cover the cost of photocopying, and his eventual plans for making microfiche files. Traditional matchmaker fees can run several hundred dollars, he says, or more than $1,000 in places such as New York.
"I feel like Louis Pasteur," the matchmaker says. "I have found the cure, the treatment for rabies, and the victims of rabies are not all taking my treatment."