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Last update - 09:31 18/02/2005

Web dating - out; yentas - in

Volunteer matchmaking groups are popping up in Jerusalem's Anglo community, with surprising success.

Once a month, Sharon Friedman gets together with a half dozen friends in Jerusalem's German Colony and sorts through lists of eligible singles in her area. Together, the group works systematically to match hundreds of religious English-speakers. Most of the volunteers have other professions and Friedman, for example, is a literary agent. But she and her friends are also aspiring matchmakers on the side, and apparently, they're not alone.

Volunteer matchmaking groups have been popping up slowly and without much noise or fanfare around the city. When they aren't meeting in a member's living room, many matchmakers exchange information or compare notes, in hopes of creating successful marriages. Private e-mail lists have also begun to circulate among many volunteers, who present their "clients" to each other, together with their pictures - a process one matchmaker compares to "trading baseball cards." Others work closely with www.sawyouatsinai.com, a site for Jewish singles, in which only third-party matchmakers are able to connect between eligibles.

It's something of a communal duty, explains one volunteer, who asked that her name be withheld, but insisted that she wasn't a "typical matchmaker from `Fiddler on the Roof.'" Like others, this Jerusalemite feared an inundation of local singles flooding her already packed matchmaking database.

According to many in the community, Jewish shiduchim [matches] have reached a "crisis" point. "People are not finding spouses and there are more singles than before," says one. "The whole dating system has changed and there's more of a need for a middleman."

Some 25 English-speaking matchmakers, or shadchanim as they are traditionally known, are listed in the Jerusalem area alone, but many of them charge large fees for their services. With specialties ranging from the newly religious to the physically disabled, some professionals can demand up to $1,800 from each side for a successful match. Many professionals also deal with a more Haredi community, and so for modern religious singles these new informal groups have been a welcome addition.

Among Anglos specifically, many young immigrants come here without any family, and so the community needs to assume "responsibility" for finding them matches. According to Na'ama Vinograd, head of the non-profit matchmaking organization Yashfe, the modern Orthodox community is becoming increasingly comfortable with the concept of matchmaking, which until now, was mostly reserved for the ultra-Orthodox.

"That stigma still exists, but we're slowly overcoming it," she said. "The [modern religious] community is getting more organized and we've become more comfortable talking about setting people up in an orderly way. Matchmakers aren't old yentas who try to shove their noses into people's business anymore."

"On dating Web sites, people lie about their age and their personal status," she added. "If someone says that he is single, it doesn't mean that he hasn't been divorced. People have more difficulty lying about these things face-to-face when they meet a matchmaker."

"People feel more comfortable being set up without having to pay a fee to the shadchan," says Chevy Weiss, who owns a public relations business out of Beit Shemesh and works closely with a number of volunteer Anglo matchmakers, among them the German Colony group. "People don't like to go to a professional because it makes them feel desperate. With me, they can just say that a friend set them up."

For many matchmakers, then, the community is expressing a newfound demand that they can't always keep up with. "Bubbies Two" in Beit Shemesh, a matchmaking group consisting of two retired grandmothers who were looking for a constructive way to fill their time, says that demand has been so high that interested singles need to book a meeting with them at least three months in advance. They interview candidates once a week in Jerusalem and work together out of their homes. Interviews are free and for a successful match, the couple is asked to donate a token sum to charity.

"People are willing to try a matchmaker more than in the past because there are fewer places to meet each other," explains retired social worker Miriam Solomon, co-founder of "Bubbies Two." "These singles aren't going to go to bars and where else can they go? They come to us all the time because there is a level of security in a matchmaker that they don't have from other places."

"People come to meet me and see that I'm normal," adds Friedman, who admits that she's something of a rookie in the business. "They see that I have a family, a job and a life."