For the past 25 years, Rabbi Mark Wildes has connected with tens of thousands of young Jews in New York City, through programming that he has created for the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE).
MJE boasts a beginner’s service, one-on-one learning, basic Judaism and Hebrew classes, Israel trips, retreats, Shabbatons, and other activities for unaffiliated and less affiliated Jews in their twenties and thirties. While Chabad, Aish, and other kiruv organizations do wonderful work, MJE is the only kiruv organization with a proudly Modern Orthodox hashkafa – which is part of its secret sauce.
But there is another accomplishment that MJE rarely gets credit for. What many people don’t know about MJE is that in addition to keeping thousands of young Jews connected to Yiddishkeit, it has also organically helped to make a whopping 382 successful shidduchim!
“I realized pretty early on that there was a side benefit to the kiruv we were doing, when I started seeing singles who met at MJE starting to go out with each other and getting engaged and married,” said Rabbi Wildes. “I also started realizing that there were people meeting at MJE and getting married who I and my staff didn’t even know about. It made me realize this was a lot bigger than I had thought.”
Sometimes, Jill Wildes – Rabbi Wildes’ wife – will get involved in helping to make matches, too. “Most of the successful shidduchim happen organically, but my wife and I do a decent amount of fixing up of singles ourselves,” said Rabbi Wildes. “My wife also spends a good amount of time networking with the rest of the MJE staff as well as with other rebbetzins to see if we can match up some of our participants. However, the best thing, which honestly anyone can do, is to invite singles to your Shabbat table, as we do each week. Just be a little strategic about who you invite and where you sit each person!”
MJE’s headquarters is the Upper West Side, which has traditionally been a haven for Orthodox Jewish singles. However, Rabbi Wildes has noticed some changes in the singles scene since he first founded MJE. “For one thing it’s gotten bigger! There are just more singles than ever before. I do remember there being a more of a culture of singles fixing up each other than I’m seeing now. When I was single and living on the Upper West Side 28 years ago, there were more people trying to fix each other up. I’m not saying it’s not happening at all anymore, but not nearly as much as it needs to. I’ve given sermons encouraging people to think of others, instead of just being bummed if a date doesn’t go well. Why not think of a friend who is perhaps more appropriate? If we took better care of each other, we would all benefit.”
COVID was perhaps the biggest challenge to MJE in its 25-year history, but MJE was able to successfully pivot in several ways. “First, our staff worked day and night staying in touch with our many of our participants via Zoom, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms,” said Rabbi Wildes. “I started a podcast, which has remained and grown since the pandemic and which has become a major part of MJE’s educational work. We also were able to keep our Shabbat minyan going no matter what – we davened everywhere and anywhere we could find a safe place: next to the yoga ladies in Central Park, on rooftops all over the city, under the awnings of Talia’s Steakhouse and Amsterdam Burger. People appreciated the length to which we went to stay open and remained relevant to their lives.”
Singles dating during COVID was a different story. “It was rough,” said Rabbi Wildes. “I strongly encouraged Zoom dating, but people really didn’t like it. I just felt it was so unhealthy for singles to remain alone during the pandemic. So MJE would have Zoom meetings, and as I said, every Shabbat — even if it was cold outside and we were masked –we did get together, and in doing so, we provided a critical social environment in which people could still meet. I remember my wife dolling out the hot cholent on the roof of The Jewish Center to happy young faces who needed both the hot food and some love from their community.”
Most of the MJE singles who get married to each other ask Rabbi Wildes to be their mesader kiddushin at their weddings. “Officiating at weddings is absolutely one of the highlights of my rabbinate. It’s not just me, of course. There are four other rabbis on the MJE staff, and we are all officiating at multiple weddings every year. There is nothing more joyous and nachas nurturing.”
Rabbi Wildes is also smart enough to stay in touch with the MJE participants after they get married, as many of them move out of the city once they begin raising a family. “Our staff stays connected to those who get married, and we do this as much for ourselves as we do for them because it’s a reminder of the impact we have made. This past week alone, my wife and I must have spoken with a dozen MJE alumni families living outside the city, continuing to guide and help them in their new communities and assist them in raising their beautiful children.
“As to which community we recommend they move to, it really depends on the MJE family. Some want the big Teaneck or Five Towns communities, but I find more seem to do better in smaller Modern Orthodox enclaves where they feel like they count more and won’t get lost in the big numbers. Those communities, however, tend to have fewer Jewish day school choices, but like everything else it’s a cost-benefit analysis.”
Rabbi Wildes has proven that a successful answer to the problem of Orthodox singles finding their soulmates might not be to rely on dating sites, shadchanim, and shidduch resumes. When you bring like-minded individuals together in comfortable and non-threatening settings, without the expectations of getting married, then good things occur – and you will see dates and marriages suddenly happen organically.
And there are 382 couples who will vouch for that!