Internet Yenta spurs lonely hearts to find their matches

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Six months ago, Brian Meckler of San Francisco had reached that point in a young Jew's life when interfaith dating becomes risky business.

After all, "What's the point of dating when you stand the chance of finding someone really great for you who isn't Jewish?" the 27-year-old Meckler said.

The Silicon Valley software engineer was in between relationships. And smoky bars and Jewish singles events seemed like exercises in absurdity.

He has met someone special since then. But during his former quandary, Meckler decided to help others in a similar predicament by starting an online Jewish matchmaking service.

Now, he is more widely known as Yenta the matchmaker.

Meckler is one of about 45 franchisers of the national Matchmaker Network, which issues software and mandates professional standards. Meckler runs the only Jewish service in the network.

"There's a necessity for [matchmaking]. It always has been done through small backyard mom-and-pop yentas," he said, but noted that Jewish backyards are more dispersed than they used to be.

The Internet, he says, is a bigger and better backyard.

"A disproportionate amount of people on the Internet are Jewish," and "can take advantage of the Internet in ways that weren't possible before. It's a great way to keep the Jewish community together."

Meckler is not alone in the world of Jewish matchmaking. The year-old Jewish Community Online, which has an online personals listing, boasts 19 matches. Other Yenta competitors online include Quality Jewish Singles and JDate.

Yenta, which has a kitschy and fun format, departs from the others by allowing clients to converse with one other in "chat rooms." They use a special Yenta e-mail account and retain complete anonymity.

"It's dynamic and live. You know who's on when you're on."

That means up to 150 first-time browsers from around the world bump into each other on Yenta's Web site every day. Of those, up to 60 sign up for a free first month and about 30 continue the service for $15 a month after that. With 3,500 people in the database, it's apparent that there's some online chemistry going on.

About 21 matches have been made, Meckler claims, though no marriages have been reported — yet. Users are getting acquainted and sometimes flying long distances to meet one another.

"The first time that someone said, `I'm flying from Milwaukee to Israel,' I thought, `I better get serious about this, because people's lives are changing.' "

Savvy cybersurfers dial up Yenta from Italy, Peru and Texas. Ironically, up to 15 percent of the lonely hearts seeking Jewish mates are from Israel, Meckler said.

"Tilly" of Sweden said in a recent e-mail that she has not met anyone special yet, but "I just got some nice answers. It does not matter, of course — I like to have any contact with Jewish people, feeling so isolated as a Jew in Gothenburg."

The Gothenburg Jewish community was imported from Poland and Germany by Napoleon to invigorate trade in Sweden, Tilly writes. But with 1,500 members today, dating opportunities for Jews are limited.

Another Yenta subscriber, a 45-year-old woman in Cleveland, recently reported that she has found her beshert (soulmate) in Ottawa. He is the divorced father of four; she, the divorced mother of three. Both are observant Jews. Together, they may be the next Brady Bunch, plus one.

"We both felt an instant rapport for one another [online]. We were nervous about how we would like each other physically, and, baruch HaShem (thank God), we were both very pleased" when they met for the first time.

Unfortunately, Meckler was unable to take advantage of his own service. Attending a professional matchmakers' conference, he was disheartened to learn that he should not participate.

"You will scare off your users if they know you're cherry-picking," he was told.

But the matchmaker couldn't be more dedicated to helping others find a match. He spends many hours a week answering e-mail, servicing the system and kicking off neo-Nazi hackers. And that's after he comes home from his day job — developing software for Hewlett Packard of Palo Alto.

"I discovered that I was more of a people person than I thought — answering e-mail after e-mail, even giving advice…`Be careful,' I tell them when they fly somewhere to meet someone."

Meckler is not banking on making a fortune with Yenta. He hopes one day to turn the service over to a Jewish organization.

"Matchmaking is a mitzvah. The more money that is made [by Yenta], the less of a mitzvah it becomes.

"I'd rather it be more successful in the mitzvah department."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.