Web-Savvy Elders Cast Their Lines on the Net

By Jill Suzanne Jacobs

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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‘I will mark Valentine’s Day religiously by thanking God for sending me Don. I really believe He did,” said Harriet Fernandez, 61 — my mother, the newlywed. “It couldn’t have just been a coincidence. It is true bashert,” she said. My mother and Don Fernandez, 64, met last February. In October they married.

Falling in love, my mother said, can happen “at any age.” In some small way it’s nice to know that I played a role in her happiness. It was me — and my JDating sister — who suggested that she log onto JDate.com, where she met Don.

Debates about whether the Internet can serve as a vehicle for divine intervention are better left to the rabbis, but one thing seems certain: The ranks of AARP-aged individuals looking for love on the Internet are swelling.

There are nearly 10 million Americans over the age of 55 who live alone, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The number of single older adults — including divorcees, widows and widowers — increased 16.6% since 1980, according to the authors of “Older Couples, New Romances: Finding and Keeping Love Later in Life” (Celestial Arts Press, 2002), Edith Ankersmit Kemp and Jerrold Kemp, a wife-husband duo who met and married when they were 66 and 75, respectively.

And it is singles over the age of 55 who make up the fastest-growing segment of today’s Internet users, according to Joe Zink, special projects coordinator for the online dating service eHarmony.com. After all, today’s seniors live longer and are healthier, and increasingly likely to opt for a cruise to Chile over a weekend in the Catskills. Like their younger counterparts, they now tend to be more active, alert, sexual — and Internet-savvy.

Adults over the age of 55 account for 25% of the 3 million members of eHarmony, whose clients are matched according to “29 dimensions in compatibility” determined by answers they’ve provided on a lengthy personality questionnaire. On JDate, seniors constitute 5% of users.

Both sites boast about their “senior success stories”; for its part, eHarmony.com counts 55 Jewish senior matches made in the past year alone.

Take Lorraine Greenberg, for example, who reconnected with the love of her life — a boy she’d had a crush on when she was a little girl in Des Moines, Iowa. “I just admired him so much and thought he was the cat’s meow my whole life,” she said. “I wanted to marry him since I was 10 years old.”

Fast forward to 1999, when Lorraine followed her therapist’s advice and logged onto JDate, 13 years after her divorce. On the site, she made contact with a friend from her Iowa youth, who passed on her old flame’s number. A week later, the two met at a cozy Indian restaurant in Studio City, Calif. “The old feelings just came back,” Greenberg said. “I said to him, ‘We’re in between spouses and jobs, what are we going to do?’ He said, ‘I’m going to eat dinner.’”

Sure, they ate dinner, but Greenberg had grander plans. In December of 2000, they were married by a cantor in the presence of two of their children and three grandchildren. They now live in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

The number of sites catering to such potential partners — i.e. senior singles — are sprouting up quickly to meet demand.

Merav Knafo, 31, created one such site, SilverFishing.com; its motto is “we’ll hook you up.” Also a co-founder of GefilteFishing.com, Knafo said that online dating appeals to seniors because “people over 50 are far more likely to be selective and seek a serious, quality partner.” Online dating allows an individual to weed out possible partners without having to sit through an uncomfortable dinner.

Once senior adults leap over the technological hurdles, the Internet can be an excellent tool for finding a partner, said Jerrold Kemp, who with his wife wrote “Older Couples-New Romances: Finding and Keeping Love in Later Life.” More mature adults often are looking for specific traits in a partner.

Online dating services have search engines that allow surfers to seek out prospects based on such criteria as age, religiosity, location and even height. In addition, such Internet services tend to have clients fill out extensive essays on everything from their idea of a perfect date to the kind of relationship they are seeking. Jewish sites allow clients to specify how often they attend synagogue and describe their kosher observance. Gefiltefishing.com asks clients to describe their favorite Jewish holiday, the role of Judaism in their life while growing up, and their connection with Israel.

It can be a daunting process. Often, as in my mother’s case, it’s the senior adults’ children who provide the initial push that gets them logged on.

For her part, Greenberg described online dating as “a fun thing to do.” Plus, she said, “You don’t have to go to the bar to meet people.” Things have changed, she added. “If you go to those socials, there’s nobody there. They’re all on JDate.”

Dina Tanners, 56, of Bellingham, Wash., spent months working on the lengthy essays about herself the dating site had requested. One question, Tanners said, asked what she liked to do on a first date. She said she remembers thinking, “I haven’t dated in 25 years! I don’t know what I want to do on a first date!”

Once Tanners finally posted her information, Howard Cockerham, 61, took notice. The two, who lived some 400 miles apart, agreed to meet in Seattle one March 2000 night after the Sabbath. They stayed out on that first date till 2 a.m., talking. A romance blossomed and a year and a half later they married, in December of 2001, at Seattle’s Congregation Beth Shalom — in front of their five children and one grandson.

Married for more than two years now, Tanners said it seemed the match could only have been made in heaven. “We both feel it was bashert,” she said.

For some seniors who had unhappy first marriages — ended by divorce or death — romance later in life is proving to be a lot more satisfying. After all, seniors tend to have a firmer grasp of who they are than their younger counterparts, as well as a clear idea of what they’re looking for — and what they don’t want.

Greenberg’s first marriage brought her little happiness, she said. But she sings the praises of second chances.

“We’ve been very, very happy,” she said of herself and her husband. “I still pinch myself every morning. I can’t believe I’m married to him. I think he’s just a dream.”

Jill Suzanne Jacobs, author of “Hebrew for Dummies” (Wiley & Sons, 2003), is a Jewish educator and writer in the Boston area. Unlike her mother, she has yet to meet her match on JDate.

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