By Lauren Markoe
Religion News Service
(RNS) Before you meet your match, you've got to meet your matchmaker.
That's the new strategy of a group of rabbis who are launching a different kind of Jewish dating website called the "J sites" -- JMontreal, JMiami, JBoston and, coming soon, JNew York, JLondon, JBerlin and JHong Kong.
Like most dating sites, users pay a fee and compose a profile. But not so typically, they don't get to browse a database full of potential mates and their glamour shots.
That's the job of the matchmaker -- a man or woman who takes you out for coffee, probes your heart, and then works with the J software to generate a list of potential soul mates.
"The matchmaker adds a human element to the digital element," said Rabbi Chaim Lipskar, who went online with JMiami two months ago and has signed up 150 people so far.
The database gives the matchmaker access to potentially thousands more singles than he or she could otherwise come to know. When a match seems promising, the matchmaker releases profiles and pictures to both parties. If both agree, they can schedule a date.
Jennifer Wise Miller, a married social worker and volunteer matchmaker with JMontreal, requests a call after the first date. Often, she gets much more.
There was the woman, for example, who wondered why her date would ask nothing deeper than where she liked to shop. Wise Miller investigated, and found that the man was nervous about prying or offending. She gently suggested that he could pose weightier questions, and the dating continued.
Rabbi Yisroel Bernath, who founded JMontreal in September and is a matchmaker himself, said he won't stay involved with his matches unless they want him to. But like Wise Miller, he finds that his couples -- he's currently working with 65 -- often want counsel.
"Sometimes," he said, "I'll get a call from a girl in the bathroom in the middle of a date."
So why is a rabbi fielding these calls? It's wonderful to preside at the wedding of a couple you introduced, said Bernath, who runs educational and social programs for Jews of all levels of observance. But the greater goal is what's known as "Jewish continuity."
Among the world's estimated 14 million Jews, about half marry non-Jews -- an intermarriage rate many find dishearteningly high. To facilitate more Jewish-Jewish marriages, Bernath does not question the religiosity of JMontreal's 1,500 or so users.
"The purpose of this is not religion," he said. "It's to save an endangered species." Or, as Rabbi Mayshe Schwartz put it after launching JBoston just weeks ago: "We believe in Jews meeting Jews and having more Jews."
The approach is working, say the J site organizers, who are mostly affiliated with the Orthodox Chabad movement. Australia was their proving ground, where "j-junction" has been operating since 2006 with 11 marriages to its credit.
The strategy is not totally new in North America.
A site called "SawYouAtSinai," established in 2003, also combines matchmakers and a database. But SYAS founder Marc Goldmann, who gave his computer model to the nonprofit J sites and has a financial stake in them, says there are a few crucial differences.
SawYouAtSinai -- named for the belief that every Jewish soul stood with his or her soul mate at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai -- is national and boasts more than 1,100 members married.
By contrast, the J sites focus on people who want to meet with a local matchmaker and marry close to home. "Their matchmakers are spending a tremendous amount of time with each individual," Goldmann said.
He added that the J sites attract Jews from the nonobservant to the very observant, while his site is geared toward the Orthodox.
Then there's 15-year-old JDate, perhaps the most well-known site for Jewish singles. It skips the matchmaker altogether and allows members to communicate through a global database for a minimum of $25 a month. SawYouatSinai charges about half that, and JMontreal costs a minimum of $20 a month.
JDate is also more welcoming to gay Jews, asking whether clients are seeking men or women. J site organizers say they won't turn gay Jews away, but the sites' algorithm isn't set up to accommodate them.
Then there's TheJMom.com, which allows Jewish mothers to play matchmaker by posting photos and profiles of their unmarried children. The site was launched by siblings Danielle and Brad Weisberg, whose mother was already trying to set them up with dates the old-fashioned way.
Warren, a 29-year-old J site user who preferred not to give his last name, said he is not at all religious but nonetheless wants to marry a Jewish woman and help address the Jewish continuity question.
His matchmaker, he said, has got his back.
"I chose JMontreal because of the concept that somebody will actively look for somebody for me," he said. "Traditional dating sites leave you to find your match based on what little information they provide -- which sometimes is not a lot."