Once a month, on Friday night, up to 1,300 people--all Jewish, all single--find their seats in Adas Israel Synagogue in Northwest Washington. This phenomenon is known as the "singles service."
Religious institutions have traditionally been family-oriented. Since Washington temples have begun welcoming Jewish singles into their congregations, the response has been overwhelming.
"I was moved to action," says Stephen Listfield, associate rabbi at Adas Israel, "after reading an article about singles, in which a Washington discothe que owner maintained that 30 percent of his Friday-night clientele was Jewish. If he could get Jewish people to his disco on Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) I could get them to my synagogue."
"The Jewish community is only beginning to recognize its responsibilities to its neglected singles who are forming an increasing segment of the population," says Dr. Reuben Gross, a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor.
"Thousands of singles are experiencing loneliness, anxiety and pain about their status. Our community owes it to its singles to help overcome these hurdles."
"People tried sexual freedom and found that it was not so great. They have swung around to more traditional values," claims Joan Hendrickson, owner of the Georgetown Connection, one of the country's first video dating services.
With dating becoming a more pragmatic process--witness the rise of specialized dating services--singles are trusting less to chance and looking more in "markets" already narrowed down for them. The growing list of specifically Jewish singles activities is part of this trend toward more deliberate searching for the "significant other."
"Meeting people takes work. We are lucky to have a place where we can go to meet a variety of people," says a 30-year-old secretary. "Before Adas, I had to rely on meeting people randomly--whom I happened to sit next to on Metro, was fixed up with, or met at a party. Half of the men were married, and the other half were not Jewish, and that's important to me."
Following the service, singles are invited to an oneg Shabbat (a social reception). There, as Rabbi Listfield puts it, "biology takes over . . ."
"I really was not looking for what most people think of when they refer to singles events," says Amy Ripps, singles program coordinator at Adas Israel. "I went because I wanted to become active in the synagogue, and so it happened, I met my husband at one of our activities . . ."
Liz Sedaghatfar, a Northern Virginia housewife met her husband at a coffeehouse organized by Hillel, a national Jewish organization operating on college campuses. "I'm not particularly 'religious,' but used to go because I made a conscious decision to marry someone who was Jewish."
Because there are so many programs for unmarried Jewish adults in Washington, The Council of Jewish Single Adult Clubs was formed as an umbrella group to oversee activities and prevent scheduling conflicts. The council maintains a 24-hour information line with a recorded message describing events from Sunday brunches to folk dancing to white-water rafting.
David Weintraub, a 31-year-old physicist at Johns Hopkins University, and "the voice on the Information Line" for the past two years responds to as many as 400-500 messages a week that callers leave on the answering machine.
"Surprisingly," he says, "the majority of the calls are not from people new to the Washington area. In fact, many callers tell us that they have been in the area for 10 years and weren't interested in participating in Jewish activities. Now, however, they are asking: 'What's around for Jewish singles?' "
Why the increased interest? "The bar scene, which was so popular and glamorized, has begun to 'turn off' many singles," claims Weintraub. "There is a stigma attached to any single event, but we slowly see less and less of it."
Most people think of "singles" as the never married between about the ages of 25-35. Most people are wrong. Often, there will be 25-year-olds and divorced and widowed 55-year-olds at the same event, with all ages in between. A number of groups in the area cater specifically to "mid-life" singles.
"We have a lot of people who come to the events who have absolutely no Judaic background whatsoever, but decided they like dating Jews or being with Jews," says Weintraub. "We even have some non-Jews and married people who come. This creates some interesting problems once in a while."
Says Ripps, "I've seen social butterflies, intellectuals, people in their early twenties, people in their early fifties, single parents who bring their kids--there is no such thing as a 'typical' person."