Meet Harold Buzgon. He's 32, well dressed, has short black hair and makes good money as a human resources consultant. He's also dying to date a Jewish girl.
But finding a date can be tough. At his age, the days of easily meeting someone in class or at a mixer are long gone. His location has also proven to be an obstacle: He lives outside of Philadelphia in nearby Wilmington, Del., certainly not the epicenter of young Jewish life.
In his search for love, he often drives 45 minutes to hang out at a Jewish singles event in Philly or spends long hours in front of the computer reading women's profiles and writing clever e-mails.
Since the 1960s and '70s, single Jewish life in the United States has not offered a wealth of opportunities. People today remain unmarried after their 20s, as they pursue educational and career opportunities. They live farther apart from other Jews, and then have to take proactive measures to find a mate through alternative social outlets, namely singles groups and online dating services.
According to Jewish Distinctiveness in America: A Statistical Portrait, a study sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, between 1972 and 1980, 75.4 percent of Jews were married, as opposed to the most recent figure of just 64.6 percent from 1991-2002. According to the "National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01," among 25- to 34-year-old Jewish men, only 48 percent are married; in the non-Jewish population, the figure rises to 59 percent for all men. In the same age group surveyed, 64 percent of Jewish women are currently married, as opposed to 70 percent across the country.
"A lot of it has to do with Jews making investments in education and staying in school longer before getting married and having families," said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, director of research and analysis for United Jewish Communities, the New York-based umbrella organization representing the national Jewish federation system. "One likely effect of later marriage is that it can alter family formation over time. Jews are having fewer children and seeing lower fertility."
But while age can present a barrier to Jewish daters, it is not the only obstacle to finding one's match. In a growing trend, as college graduates find jobs or seek graduate degrees outside their native regions, the Jewish community's net has both expanded across the country and thinned out. There are now a smaller number of Jews in the places where they once traditionally lived.
In 1960, for instance, 67 percent of Jews in the United States – a full two-thirds of the population – lived in the Northeast sector of the country. In 2006, that number stands at just 42 percent, according to Ira Sheskin, project director at the University of Miami's Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies. The percentage of Jews in the South, on the other hand, jumped from 9 percent in 1960 to 24 percent in 2006; in the West, it rose from 11 percent to 23 percent.
"What we see in the Jewish population is what we see in the general population – movement," said Kotler-Berkowitz, noting that people are moving "mostly for economic and job opportunities."
One city where Jews are apparently flocking is Las Vegas. With its warm climate, 24-hour atmosphere and booming job growth spurred by the gambling industry, Sin City, according to anecdotal evidence, has seen a surge in Jewish life. Perhaps not coincidentally, a 2005 study by Forbes magazine – "Best Cities For Singles" – rated Las Vegas as No. 1 in job growth and 11th in cost of living. Overall, the city ranked just 25th out of the 40 surveyed in terms of desirability.
A beneficiary of the growth has been the singles group at the JCC of Southern Nevada, which has witnessed an influx of Jews who are looking for a way to date Jewish. To help them, the group, which is divided into three age ranges, has hosted outings, sporting events and happy hours.
"For the newcomer in town, it becomes like a family when you celebrate Jewish holidays together," said JCC official Alicia Rothschild.
According to Forbes, the best locale for an active single life is the area bounded by the two Colorado cities of Denver and Boulder. The report found that the region has something for everyone, from hiking and climbing in the Rockies to a diverse nightlife – everything from suave to casual. Alison Rabinoff, an event leader with Rocky Mountain Chai, a Denver-area social group for Jewish singles and couples in their 20s, 30s and 40s, similarly reported that Jews in Colorado are finding dating to be not so difficult a proposition.
"Denver has a very young single population," said Rabinoff, 40. "It has a great bar scene, a great art scene, a great outdoors scene. It's a great place to live if you're single."
(Philadelphia placed 12th on the Forbes list.)
While the surge of young Jewish professionals away from the urban Northeast has spurred the growth of communities in Las Vegas and Denver, Jews in other parts of the country haven't fared as well. The decline of the urban centers has meant the establishing of smaller communities in suburbia and even exurbia.
Gone are the days of the '50s and '60s when many Jewish families lived within blocks of one another, as in the Oxford Circle section of Northeast Philadelphia. Of the Jews living in the 12 largest metropolitan areas, 27.2 percent live in the suburbs, the highest representation of any ethnic group, according to the AJCommittee report. Over the past 30 years, more than a tenth of the Jewish community has moved out of the central cities.
According to Kotler-Berkowitz, as the Jewish population continues to spread out, it's becoming more of a challenge for the Jewish infrastructure to service them: "Educational services, synagogues, social services – it becomes much more of a challenge when you have a dispersed community than a concentrated one."
A Second Job
Filling the void is the Internet, which for Jewish singles has meant that the Web now plays a pivotal role in meeting people. JDate, one of the most popular Jewish dating sites, claimed in a recent story in Forbes to have 70,000 active users. To be sure, there are thousands of others who are using other online sites.
One such computer dater is Billie Pierce, a one-time Philadelphian. After marrying at 20 and divorcing without children shortly after, she found herself back on the market at 32.
"I went on a lot of dates, and it kind of became a hobby," said Pierce, who after the divorce moved to Manayunk in the hope of finding a more vibrant social life. "It was kind of like a second job. I wanted to get married. I wanted to have kids. I wanted my husband to be Jewish and I [was] going to do this until I found him."
One day, she entered a JDate chat room and after watching peoples' comments, noticed that "Candyman" had an interesting take on life.
"These little non-sequiturs kept coming up," recalled Pierce, who began messaging the man, only to find that he lived all the way in Memphis, Tenn.
Pierce thought the distance would be too much but kept chatting anyway, realizing that Joe – the bearer of the "Candyman" handle – seemed to be a great guy. She eventually flew to Memphis to spend New Year's Eve with him. A night ending with a horse and buggy ride sealed the deal of a lasting relationship for the couple. They are now married and live in Memphis.
Buzgon's experience, however, has not had a fairy-tale ending. Web-based encounters led to two relationships lasting nearly six months each, but he has found that, many times, looks can be deceiving.
"Some people are not that truthful," lamented Buzgon, who still plugs away at the Internet. "They don't know what they really want."
For those similarly turned off by the online world – or just looking for another dating outlet – Philadelphia has spawned CO2, a division of the Collaborative, a Jewish singles group. Events run by CO2, which means "Collaborative squared," tend to shy away from beer-fueled happy hours, leaning more toward wine-and-cheese nights or margarita tastings.
They also tend to have a bit more food, attract people more formally dressed and may cost several dollars more than a typical Collaborative affair, which is normally geared toward the graduate-student population.
And in the suburbs, a group called the Mercer-Bucks Jewish Singles has emerged, running events like picnics, Passover seders and happy hours.
"It was because there was not enough opportunity to connect with other Jewish singles. There was not enough opportunity for networking," said Jane Gerb, 42, president of the Mercer-Bucks group, of the decision to organize. "I expected to show up at the first one, give out my phone number and then be done after two or three times. It doesn't work that way."
But at Philadelphia's chapter of Aish, an organization that provides education and social outlets for Jews, officials have embraced a different tactic: speed dating. With seven dates lasting just seven minutes each, participants can initiate a point of contact, if there's interest. Conversely, a bad match can stop before it goes on too long.
After each "date," individuals fill in a 'yes' or 'no' on cards. If both participants say 'yes,' they can look forward to going out on an actual date.
"When you meet somebody for the first time, you can figure out pretty quickly if you want to spend two hours with them," said Rabbi Yacov Couzens, executive director of the Aish chapter, noting that 50 percent of participants end up going out on second dates.
Couzens said that speed dating may provide an avenue to getting singles to marry younger.
"The older we get, the more set in our ways we become and the more inflexible we are in marriage," said the rabbi. "If you've had a long history, it makes it more challenging to be truly intimate."
But with all the speed dating and Internet stories out there, there are those, like bachelor Steven Rasner, whose quest for a spouse has led to more traditional sources of help. A successful dentist in Cherry Hill, N.J., Rasner, 51, recently got divorced and has turned to a professional matchmaker to get his personal life back on track.
"I don't have that many nights that I can sacrifice during the week," said Rasner. "You plan these dates and sometimes you know in five seconds that it's not going to work out."
So, in stepped Joanne Ward and her Master Matchmaker service. Each of her "client friends" gets to see a picture and talk on the phone with someone first, hoping to strike up a connection before an actual date.
"Many times people don't tell the truth all the time on the Internet," said Ward, whose clients are about 35 percent Jewish. "At least with a matchmaker, they are accountable. I am accountable for the match."
Even though Rasner describes himself as "unbelievably picky," Ward assured that sooner or later she'll set him up on a date that will strike his fancy.