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High above Times Square, the next revolution in Jewish matchmaking is dramatically displayed upon an eye-catching billboard.
The call to "Experience Israel," emblazoned in white upon a blue background, is not new to the thousands of young American Jews who arrive in Israel every year on programs designed to impart a stronger sense of Jewish identity and attachment to the Jewish homeland.
Yet this new initiative by JDate.com - the popular Internet dating site for Jewish men and women - brings together on-line romance, tourism and Zionism in an unprecedented way.
According to Gail Laguna, an executive at Spark Networks, JDate's parent company, JDate has in the past organized cruises, ski trips and other travel-related events so that its members could meet each other offline. For the first time, however, the company is now organizing a trip to Israel: "It all begins in Tel Aviv, the city that never stops," the midtown Manhattan advertisement reveals.
"The trip to Israel is an extension of JDate's mission," Laguna told The Jerusalem Post concerning the nine-day trip, which will take place May 2-11. "It's important for our members to understand their culture and traditions."
In addition to the large billboard which appeared last week, the company plans to market the trip to its members in direct e-mails. Currently, JDate is expecting over 200 of its members to join the trip.
"There are so many misconceptions about the country, due to which people may be afraid to go, and we feel that being with 250 other people might alleviate such insecurities," Laguna added.
Interested JDaters will be able to fly to Israel from New York, Los Angeles or Miami. Packages including air fare and hotel accommodation range from $2,689 to $3,439, depending on the point of departure and the chosen form of accommodation.
The trip's itinerary promises a series of dinners, cocktails and parties in diverse locations throughout the country, mixing visits to heritage sites such as Masada and the Western Wall with dancing, sports activities and outings to trendy nightspots. In Tel Aviv, the visitors will be hosted at the Intercontinental Hotel. In return for the publicity offered the city on JDate's Times Square billboard, the Tel Aviv Municipality will also host a series of events.
"Although JDate is ultimately an on-line community, we think it's important to have an off-line extension to make it more of a community," Laguna said.
University of Haifa President Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, whose latest book is a study of love in the age of online dating, told the Post that he believed bringing online romance offline is an important step in getting to know potential partners.
"Love is not only about personal qualities, it's also about chemistry and attraction, and this kind of trip gives people an opportunity to find out if it exists," he said, adding that a trip whose narrative was related to Jewish identity could certainly facilitate the process of getting to know a potential partner.
"The more contexts you know a person in, the better your sense of who they are," Ben-Ze'ev said.
As the New York-based ethnographer Barbara Kirhsenblatt-Gimblett has noted, the trips of young American Jews to "experience Israel" are at heart a modern rite of passage, in which tourism and Zionist ideology provide the context for an experience of personal change.
"The Israel Experience is a way that American Jews address a perceived crisis of Jewish continuity right where they live, in the United States," Kirhsenblatt-Gimblett remarked in a recent article.
Seen in this context, the JDate trip offers the promise of personal transformation through a particular prism - that of finding the love of one's life, and of marrying the discovery of Israel to the potential discovery of a spouse.
During their trip, American JDaters will have a series of opportunities to meet Israeli Web site members (all profiles on the company's Israeli site, JDate.co.il, automatically also appear on JDate.com).
Yet if newly enamored JDaters from the US whisk away their Israeli sweethearts back home, will that be good or bad for the Jews? Jewish Agency spokesperson Michael Jankelowitz did not appear to be concerned.
The Jewish Agency itself, Jankelowitz said, advertises on JDate.
"That is where people go today, and it brings results," he said.
The trip, he added, was designed "to show the centrality of Israel in Jewish life," making the country into a rallying point for many issues and positioning it at the heart of what he called a "global Jewish partnership."
In the same spirit of the Tourism Ministry's latest advertising campaign abroad, Jankelowitz said, the JDate initiative was about making Israel appear "sexy" - young, trendy and appealing.
"I think it's a golden opportunity to educate people in the language of 2006," he said.
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