Midway through JDate's first annual Tu B'Av get-together, Nurit Ze'evi, product manager of the Internet-based Jewish dating service, halted the music and Israeli folk dancing taking place. With marked enthusiasm, she turned to the audience of 50 and began to expound on the significance of Tu B'Av - an obscure, forgotten love holiday created 4,000 years ago, when women, dressed in white, arrived to choose male suitors. Looking around the room rented from Congregation Mogen David, I gathered that the lecture might have been a waste of breath - judging from the median age of the partiers, they undoubtedly remem-ber the days when the ceremony was new.
Yes, the initial shock following my arrival at one of JDate's rare offline parties was that a few professionals in their 30's seemed to be the youngest people there. This was even more surprising since, in its three years, JDate has captured such a massive membership of young adults of the Internet generation. Expecting GenX, I encountered GenZzzzzz.
JDate, with a membership nearing 150,000, is the leading online Jewish singles service, where chat rooms and extensive profiles allow one to meet singles all over the city, the country or even the world. Launched in February 1997, the Beverly Hills-based business is the brainchild of Alon Carmel and Joe Shapira, two Israeli-raised entrepreneurs in their mid-40's. Carmel and Shapira weren't hi-tech mavericks - Carmel ran a real estate company, while Shapira worked in video manufacturing. Yet after a decade of working together on various business ventures, the longtime friends decided to try something in new media."Joe was single at the time, and he got on the Great Expectations mailing list. We looked at it and said, 'Wow! This would be a perfect business for the Internet,'" recalls the long-married Carmel.So they targeted Jewish singles.
Since Shapira dabbled with Internet technology, the partners didn't turn to outside help to realize their online concept. They struck a revenue-sharing deal with Lewis Weinger of Stu & Lew Productions, whose mailing list was instrumental early on. Since its debut, JDate has grown rapidly, culling members from as far as Russia and Australia.
"What drove the traffic to JDate was word-of-mouth," says Carmel.
Word-of-mouth is why one woman says she is among those who have gathered on this night, as she cagily denies that she is a JDate member. An older woman of South American/Polish descent, whose online pseudonym is "Blue Eyes," seems more forthcoming when she says she loves what JDate offers.
"It's fun for me," says Blue Eyes. "Sometimes when I'm bored, I go into the chat rooms."
I see a 30-year-old acquaintance of mine - a cute, effervescent woman we'll call "Davida." She says that she has never contacted anyone on JDate - rather, men have always contacted her. When she first joined, she routinely received 10 messages a day. These days, since JDate restructured its pricing plan, Davida gets only about two e-mails a week. And although she has yet to meet her perfect match, her JDate experiences clearly have not left her jaded.
"I've actually had good luck that I haven't had any crazy people," says Davida. "I've met lots of friends, just nothing romantic."
On this Tu B'Av eve, Davida is enjoying some casual socializing but is disappointed by the turnout, which she diplomatically describes as "out of my age range. "
Then Davida tells an interesting story. About two years ago, an enterprising Redondo Beach woman, fed up with communicating with her fellow JDate members online, used the chat room to invite members to her home for a JDate house party. Accord-ing to Davida, some 200 people showed up ("Much more than here," she notes, eyes darting around the hall). The house party attracted a cross section of age groups, a lot of energy and fun JDate-inspired kitsch, such as a book of member profiles that the hostess composed for her guests to leaf through. The party was outstanding, according to Davida.
Perhaps that is the true by-product of the JDate experience: occasionally a love connection; more often, access to a thriving community. After all, as Davida puts it, she has heard of many people marrying thanks to JDate, but the stories are always as distant as a lighthouse beacon blinking off the coast of Maine - a friend of a friend of a friend.
On the other hand, Blue Eyes leans in and informs me, "I know one person who met someone through JDate and they are living together in a condominium. It worked for them!"
An attorney at the Tu B'Av function tells me he recently joined JDate after attending a wedding and learning that the couple had met through the site. In fact, JDate boasts that 900 known weddings have so far resulted from unions facilitated through its service.
Optimistic if unsupported statistics notwithstanding, the two men behind JDate do not fancy themselves as modern day Cupids.
"We are actually not matchmakers," Carmel stresses. "The people themselves are the matchmakers. We just give them a medium to present themselves."
Since JDate's popularity exploded, Shapira has married (and no, he did not meet his wife through his own site), and Carmel and Shapira's umbrella com-pany, MatchNet, has expanded to include singles sites catering to Australian, British and German singles. But JDate remains a special enterprise for its founders.Says Carmel, " Here I've found myself a business where when I wake up every morning, I know people will be happy."