A few months ago, Natalia Loshakova did not believe in online dating.
After all, the Jewish Dnepropetrovsk native has many friends, and is "not desperate," she says.
It still feels awkward, says Loshakova, 22, to check her e-mail first thing in the morning, and she's not used to looking forward to the phone calls she gets from the man she met on www.mazeltov.org.ua, a new Dnepropetrovsk-based Web site for Jewish singles
"I can't believe it, we haven't met but I like him so much already," Loshakova confesses. For about a month, the two communicated online and then switched to phone calls. Now they plan to meet in person.
The two-month-old Web site is for Jewish singles in Ukraine. It was created to solve a specific problem: In a country where the Jewish community is relatively small, with a major population center in Kiev but small, scattered communities elsewhere, young Jews say it's difficult to find Jewish partners.
Unlike similar dating services in the United States, this one has a clear goal: marriage and Jewish children. There's another difference as well: This one accepts only halachic Jews, those who have a Jewish mother or who have converted under Orthodox auspices.
The idea was hatched last winter by Udi Ben-Ami, Israel's consul general in Dnepropetrovsk, and local Chabad rabbi, Shmuel Kaminetski.
"It has always disturbed me to see how many single Jews in Ukraine can't find someone to marry," Ben-Ami says, adding that he's met many Ukrainian Jews in their 30s "who never got married, because they couldn't find a Jewish spouse."
Potential clients are required to meet with an approved rabbi and produce evidence that they are Jewish.
"We are worried about losing our people, and so we try to help them build pure Jewish families," Kaminetski says.
He says this requirement also makes it easier for users, who do not have to ask about their prospective partner's Jewish status before engaging in conversation.
One of the site's other goals is to bring young people from intermarried families back to Judaism. Kaminetski says that he won't reject applicants who show a "genuine desire to find a Jewish partner and convert. We encourage everybody with Jewish roots to start the conversion process, and we want half-Jews to come back" to the faith.
Currently the site features profiles of some 100 users. About 1,000 more are on the waiting list to get passwords, according to the site's administrator, Lisa Goldenberg.
Most of the users are 20 to 40 years old, with a slight majority of men, Goldenberg says. There are some users from Russia, Israel and Germany "who seek Jewish partners from Ukraine," she says, and although they are still few in number, the site hopes to encourage more foreign Jews to register. The site currently operates only in Russian.
"We have only opened recently, so we don't really have any couples or marriages yet," she says. "But I see that people are writing to each other and I've been getting positive responses already."
In addition to contacting each other through e-mail, users can IM each other privately. They are encouraged to put up their photographs, says Goldenberg, but in keeping with the site's traditional approach, men and women are only able to view pictures of the opposite sex.
"We think it's understandable. Jewish Orthodox tradition does not accept same-sex relationships," she explains.
There's also a certain censorship process. "We don't put up photos that are too revealing, such as those that show a person in a swimming suit," Goldenberg says.
And the site does not operate on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Although the site's founders say their Web site is being advertised in Jewish communities and publications around Ukraine, Hillel members in Kiev were surprised to hear that it even exists.
"I suspect they may just be careful about Hillel, because we welcome people who are both halachic and non-halachic, as well as non-Jews," says Osik Axelrud, Kiev Hillel's longtime director.
That does not mean that Hillel members are not concerned about finding Jewish partners. Quite the contrary, they say.
"I did not think of the national identity of my future husband much before I got into Hillel, but now it seems natural that my life partner should be Jewish," says Alexandra Oleynikova, 19, who has been active in Kiev Hillel for three years.
Hillel, she says, should ideally be a great place to meet a Jewish girlfriend or boyfriend, and many people join the organization with such hopes. But, she jokes, "girls get disappointed very quickly, because, unfortunately, boys count for only 30 percent of Kiev Hillel."
Axelrud points to 11 marriages within Kiev Hillel in its 10 years of existence, "and we'll probably have a couple more soon."
Axelrud also says that the young men in the group are more concerned than the women with finding a Jewish spouse.
Taras Tverdokhlib, 22, is one of them. He grew up in an intermarried family - his father is Ukrainian - and was never pressured to go out with girlfriends of a particular ethnicity.
"I dated non-Jewish girls in high school, but since I started going to synagogue two years ago, all of my girlfriends have been Jewish," he says. "I've decided for myself that I need a Jewish girl."
Tverdokhlib likes the new Web site, and approves of its strict acceptance rules, saying there are so many dating sites already that this one "would not be needed" if it didn't have this specific goal.
But Oleynikova doubts the project will succeed. She says having to show proof of a Jewish mother will scare off many users.
"I want to meet somebody, and they make me show my documents?" she says. "It seems a bit weird."
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