How do you meet a spouse? The answer used to be supper quizzes and speed-dating for young people, whist drives for the older generation and matchmakers with well-thumbed address books for the strictly Orthodox.
But now, people tend to look online. “Find your chosen one” reads the home page of Derek Saker’s website JWed, which claims to have helped thousands of couples to meet and marry.
JWed is just one of a number of apps aimed at bringing Jewish couples together, but unusually is specifically targeted at people who want to get married to a Jewish partner.
“If you want to meet people, date, play the field, there are plenty of other places you can look. Our customers are serious about marriage,” says Saker.
He has a file full of correspondence from satisfied clients. One New York woman replied to a message from a London man. They set up a phone date which lasted two hours and there-after spoke every day. Five weeks later, they spent a week together in New York. “It was like something out of a movie,” she wrote, “I was swept off my feet.”
Two weeks later she came to London. They got engaged within three months of contacting each other and married three months later. “After we’d known each other for two weeks, I knew we’d get married.”
Another letter tells the tale of a 47-year-old widow from London who linked with a 54-year-old divorcee in Queens. Because the man was travelling to Paris to see his daughter, they met up in London. They got engaged and now live in Edgware.
Another woman had been trying to find a partner since she was 19. She discovered JWed in her mid thirties. “When you first start dating, you have a laundry list of qualities. But you narrow it down to a few vital features. I had got sick of people feeling sorry for me.
“And it was particularly depressing because they were forever trying — unsuccessfully — to hide their feelings. On Jwed I found a guy I liked the sound of. We met up and he was very real and we had a lot in common. We were engaged after six weeks.”
Two years after the sudden death of her husband, a 63-year-old widow joined JWed. She met a 67-year-old man. “He had integrity, was gentlemanly, well spoken, cultured. After going for dinner with him, I went home feeling elated. We later married at the home of my oldest son.”
The app is simple. You just fill out an online form. Unless there is any problem with your application, within a matter of hours you can be scrolling through the Jewish singles. If you want to communicate with someone who takes your fancy — to chat or arrange a date — you have to pay the subscription of $18 a month.
The form asks you to list aspects of your life — where you live, job, marital status, and whether you have a get (religious divorce). It also asks about your level of observance and whether you are a Cohen. Members — there are currently around 60,000 — are encouraged to supply a photo. And they have to state their build — from slim to “heavy set”.
The system has proved particularly popular with women, who form around half of the membership. According to Saker they feel that they have nothing to lose. “They are less inhibited. It doesn’t matter if they are 23 or 63 — they feel that they are in the driving seat.”
Orthodox women are particularly keen on the service. “The marriage scene can be a very dismissive environment for Orthodox women. A guy can have ten women lined up. A girl will be waiting for the phone to ring. There are few opportunities for social interaction between men and women.” Saker says Charedi rabbis may oppose online services, but this won’t stop the community from taking part.
“Everyone in the frum world is online. If you are lonely and you want to get married, you will do what you have to. “
The site asks about levels of religious observance. Around 64 per cent claim to observe Shabbat. “There are a lot of nuances,” says Saker. “For some people, observing Shabbat might just mean having Friday night dinner at home. For others it might mean not switching on lights, cooking or driving.” Around a quarter of members could be described as Charedi or strictly Orthodox.
The clientèle is international. Around two thirds are in North America, but the rest are mainly in Israel and Europe, mostly the UK. Most users are English speakers.
Saker is proud that all membership applications are screened by a small team of people. As an experiment, I logged on claiming (falsely) that I had been recently divorced and was given a get (bill of religious divorce) the following year. I got an email giving me 24 hours to explain why there was a delay between the religious and civil divorce.
“We screen every application,” said Saker. “We reject more than we accept — many of them are spam or they send a picture of a half naked woman, or they are just asking for sex.
“And if we have any doubt, we ask them to provide a passport or driving licence, just to ensure they are not completely bogus or that they are lying about their age.
“The reason why we ask about delays in getting a get, is that some manipulative men will deliberately delay giving a religious divorce, as a way of pressurising their ex-wife. We think this sort of behaviour is unacceptable and we’ll refuse to enrol men who do this.”
There is a limit to how much screening JWed can do.
“We are not policemen and we are not mind-readers.”
The system is designed to flag up problems. “If a man contacts a range of women from 20 to 60, we’d probably get in touch to see whether he is serious about finding a marriage partner.” The system won’t allow people to contact others where there is more than a 20 year age difference. Christian messages and overtly sexual introductions are blocked.
Naturally there are pitfalls. “No-one has ever been physically attacked, but we have had fakes and fraudsters and romance scammers. We weed out most of these before they do any harm.
“If someone seems dodgy, we send out an email to anyone who has been contacted and tell them to terminate contact with that person.”
JWed has to exercise caution in dealing with complaints about individuals “Sometimes people make false allegations because they have been rejected by a prospective partner,” says Saker.
The lockdown has led to a growth of demand among the older clients. “A lot of people have got divorced in the last few months. They can’t see people face-to-face, so they’ve gone online.” Normally the over-60s have an aversion to technology, but now they are overcoming this, says Saker.
His oldest customer is 93. “He’s been trying to find a partner for some time. I think he’s enjoying the quest.”
Another growth area is among the young. Many of the newer members are between 18 and 28.
“I think this is because social interaction has been curtailed. In the past many people were reticent about using an online dating medium, but they are taking the opportunity to try it out.”
The website was started in Israel in 1997 and Saker, originally from South Africa, took it over in 2001. He is based in Edgware, customer services are run from New York, there are five programmers in Israel and the PR and social media presence is handled in Los Angeles.
As with all dating, presentation is important. “You need a good photo. You have to look presentable. And you have to give some real information about yourself. It’s not enough just to say that you are sincere or kind. You have to focus on what you want and what you don’t want.’
He is one of his own happy customers. “I had got divorced and I put up a profile and met Devorah. She couldn’t come to America, where I was living, so I had to move here. I had to pick up and start again.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. If you’re looking for the right person, you have to expand your horizons in terms of geography. And if you go online, that’s possible.”