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[whitespace] Yossi Offenberg
Photograph by Skye Dunlap

Saved by the Bell: SpeedDating director Yossi Offenberg of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco believes his efficient program provides a sane alternative to secular singles scenes.

Love in the Fast Lane

Life is short, and now, thanks to SpeedDating, first dates can be too. High-Speed Dating has busy Bay Area Jewish singles rushing to partake in round-robin romance.

By Mary Spicuzza

YOSSI OFFENBERG stands surrounded by tables for two, ringing what is one of the most famous bells in the Bay Area. The tiny porcelain creation, molded in the shape of a Dutch milkmaid, has earned airtime on national television and mentions in East Coast press.

He stops ringing the little bell and glances at his stopwatch. Then calls out, "Ready, set, speed-date!"

Throughout the whirlwind evening, Offenberg, the Jewish programs manager and SpeedDating director for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, waves the diminutive milkmaid every eight minutes. Each time, the men in the room excuse themselves from the woman sitting across the table, then move on to the next female for another quick, eight-minute "date." These dates may speak again, or they may not. That depends on the ballot each participant fills out at the end of the night and whether two SpeedDaters indicate mutual interest. If they do, it's a match and phone numbers are exchanged. If not, singles can rest assured knowing they invested less than 10 minutes of time and energy.

This Sunday night round-robin dating marathon seemed surreal and very San Francisco at first, but it is only one of the many SpeedDating rituals held in 23 cities across the globe. The fastest-growing singles program in the world, SpeedDating has spread to cities as far afield as London, England, and Sydney, Australia, since its inception in Los Angeles two years ago. New York City has become a SpeedDating haven, and a session was even parodied on HBO's critically acclaimed darling, Sex in the City.

"The world is so pressed for time. Everything is time-based, from fast-food drive-throughs to drive-in movies. The last thing is dating," Offenberg says. "It's an efficient way to not waste your time on someone who isn't right for you."

ON THIS SUNDAY evening, there's no candlelight and little talk of starry-eyed romance, and none of the bump-and-grind sexuality of a neon-laden Johnny Love's singles bar. As the event progresses this pragmatic approach starts to seem far more natural as Offenberg explains the philosophy behind it, which he says is deeply rooted in Jewish traditions.

"SpeedDating turns everything on its head. It's the opposite of secular dating. People say they 'fall in love,' but love should be a process," Offenberg says. "They talk about being 'blinded by love.' We want you to see clearly."

Hence all lights are on in the conference room. There's no pasta and red wine on the table, although SpeedDaters are provided with cans of soda and microwave popcorn during refreshment breaks. Rather than the predictable red rose, each table holds a list of suggested questions, which Offenberg requests be kept private because SpeedDating's popularity is leading to so many copycat programs. But he has no problem talking about what he doesn't want his daters asking.

"Don't ask, 'Do you like sunsets?' Who doesn't?" Offenberg says. "We encourage people to ask real questions of substance. And it's for Jews only, stressing finding a life-partner rather than noncommittal Saturday night romance."

With SpeedDating events booked in San Francisco three months in advance and negotiations in process to bring the program into Silicon Valley by summertime, it seems to have picked an appropriate marketing pitch--"SpeedDating: It's About Time."

Love in the Time of Starbucks

HANNAH AZRAN knows what she wants in a man. She says it was SpeedDating that allowed her to find it. Azran participated in one SpeedDating event last summer and didn't find a match. Still, the petite, curvaceous blonde holds out a diamond engagement ring the size of a Gobstopper and says she owes it all to SpeedDating.

"I didn't have a match, but I started using the SpeedDating tools. I walked into a Starbucks and there was a huge line, and I hate waiting in lines. So I went up to a cute guy and said, 'Don't I know you from somewhere?'" Azran says. "So he let me cut in line."

When he approached her later to talk, she launched--mocha frappucino in hand--into her favorite SpeedDating questions.

"I asked him, 'When was the last time you talked to your mother?' and 'What do you see yourself doing in five years?'" says Azran, a 31-year-old engineer. "I just can't imagine being with someone who doesn't have a plan."

As she talks I try to figure out how the classic blue-eyed blonde beauty could ever have trouble getting dates. Several SpeedDaters keep glancing over as we stand talking in the back of the room. Azran says that she wasn't having trouble finding dates, but just wasn't finding a man she wanted to marry.

"I have four older sisters. I've watched them, their heartbreaks. You've invested a year here and a year there and it can be devastating," Azran says. "I've done a lot of ice cream sundae runs with my girlfriends and gotten midnight calls from friends crying over guys. But SpeedDating is just so logical. The other way wasn't working for me."

Apparently SpeedDating finds much of its fan base in refugees fleeing the traditional dating scene. Offenberg says people's real life experiences and heartbreaks have been a better SpeedDating encouragement than any advertising he could imagine.

"It's terrible how bad the standard dating scene has made things. The singles bars, discos and nightclubs ... as people continue to go there they realize how shallow and superficial it is," Offenberg says. "It's all about how you look, how you dance. People become more and more hurt. We do away with all of the games. We offer what I think is the only sane alternative to dating."

Azran agrees. She proudly reports that her new fiancé, who just proposed in January, will have dinner waiting for her when she gets home.

"Yossi always says that God created Adam and Eve. Adam was the demo model and Eve the finished project. That's why I wouldn't move in while we were just dating," Azran adds. "No huppah, no stupa!"

The break ends and Hannah strolls back to the welcome table. I notice that the two men sitting nearby who had overheard our conversation are now wearing facial expressions of fascination and terror--seemingly thinking about their five-year plans, or lack thereof.

One of the men says, "Good God!--she's the SpeedDating poster child!"

Modern Matchmaking

SPEEDDATING provides efficient alternatives to singles spots and dating services. But Offenberg is quick to add that it's not a dating service, it's a cultural program deeply rooted in a cultural philosophy.

"The goal is really to create a thriving Jewish community," Offenberg says. "The philosophy really stems from shadchan, the matchmaker."

A centuries-old figure in the Orthodox Jewish community, a shadchan--usually a mature woman--would introduce young men and women she believed to be well suited for love and marriage.

"The shadchan would know you, know your strengths and your weaknesses," Offenberg says. "SpeedDating took that concept and contemporized it. We believe people should meet cerebrally."

Just as Azran found love at Starbucks, with a man who has a solid five-year plan and talks to his mother regularly, SpeedDating hopes to introduce people who find out right away whether the person holds qualities important to them. The theory follows the principle that once people get too intimate, they can no longer see each other clearly.

"We have an advantage over the other system--history," Offenberg adds. "The Jewish system feeds on 3,000 years of history. We have the ability to draw on that experience."

Most of the SpeedDaters that night say that they want to marry another Jew, but few define themselves as Orthodox.

"I'm not super religious. I'm more of a high-holidays Jew," a man identified only as "Scott No. 8" says. When asked how he would feel if he met an Orthodox woman SpeedDating, he answers, "Meeting an Orthodox Jew would almost be worse than if she had no religion."

SpeedDating volunteer Diane Fischer has no interest in dating non-Jewish men. The stylish brunette, decked out in brown leather pants and snakeskin boots, says that she meets guys all the time. But she wants to meet Jewish guys.

"When I moved here, I was set up about 13 times in the first two weeks. It's easy to meet guys, but hard to meet Jewish guys," Fischer says. "I think it's a great venue. In one shot--one night--you're meeting so many people."

She adds, "All my life I've said life is short, too short to waste time. Either there's a connection or there isn't."

Time Bandits

RICK NO. 10 SEEMS relieved as he walks over to my SpeedDating table. Since several of the women signed up that night didn't show, the shy redhead gets to spend his first round talking with a reporter instead of a real date. He says he's never been to anything like this before and had only recently gotten an email from his sister about it.

"It's an interesting scene," Rick says. "When I first told my friends in Sebastapool about it, they thought it had something to do with methamphetamines."

He explains that he has had trouble approaching women at bars and singles events in the past because so often the women there are hanging out in groups. He hopes SpeedDating will allow him some one-on-one time.

"And I'm constantly looking for new ways to be rejected," Rick says.

If Yossi Offenberg has his way, the current explosion of SpeedDating programs will help guys like Rick find countless opportunities to dodge rejection. He hopes to soon make the South Bay program in Palo Alto the latest addition to the growing list of high-speed hot spots, which includes Austria, the Ukraine, Australia and France. The only spot the program isn't selling out is in Israel.

"The program originates from a Jewish concept. And Israel is starting it now, but they're late on the map," Offenberg says. "Israel doesn't need it as much as we do."

In the Bay Area, new programs will accompany the increasing numbers of SpeedDating events. On March 18, Offenberg will bring Rabbi Yaacov Deyo, the inventor of SpeedDating, to speak at his presentation, SpeedDating Kit: Going Beyond the First Date. Besides programs in Kabbalah, Hebrew classes and an Introduction to Judaism course, Offenberg also teaches classes titled Love, Dating and Marriage, and Hello, You Must Be My Soul Mate.

"I mean, this is the most important decision of your life. It can cause 90 percent of your happiness and 90 percent of your misery," Offenberg says. "We're taught everything in school except how to find the right person for you. The question is, if you had met your boyfriend here, would you two be going out?" he says with a raised-eyebrow smile.

By the end of the evening Rick's nervous edge has been replaced with what seems to be exhausted contentment. He says that whether he will SpeedDate again depends on whether he's had any matches this time.

"It's easy to mistake politeness for attraction," he says.

But if he doesn't, there are plenty of others willing to try. San Francisco's SpeedDating events are booked for the next three months, with dating hopefuls settling for the wait lists instead.

Offenberg says, "It's been so popular we are working to license it legally to the non-Jewish world."

Volunteer Diane Fischer adds that they're looking into giving the Dutch milkmaid a rest and upgrading to a new bell.


For more information check out www.jccsf.org.

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From the February 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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