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Devout singles looking for love in all the right places

Religious matchmakers, clubs, Web sites abound

Friday, February 14, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Scott McWilliams didn't believe that God had chosen one woman for him -- until he met and married the woman of his dreams through Equally Yoked, a club for Christian singles.

"They say God gives you the desires of your heart -- and he literally does. I wanted somebody who was intelligent, who was Christian, who could talk and carry a conversation and who smiled a lot. She nailed it," he said as he sat with Helen, his wife of four months, in their Monroeville apartment.

Susan Jacobs, 26, an Orthodox Jew from Squirrel Hill, met her boyfriend at a conference on modern Orthodoxy.

Before then, Jacobs had tried matchmakers, singles events, and even two Jewish Internet dating services, Jdate.com, a pan-Jewish site, and www.Frumster.com, for Orthodox Jews.

"A lot of people think it's strange to be so intent on dating and marriage -- that it's too business-like and not romantic," said Jacobs, a journalist. "However, if you are a person who is very devoted to a particular religious lifestyle, then you want to meet and marry someone who shares that lifestyle, and you'll do what it takes."

The Internet, where the greatest growth in faith-based matchmaking has taken place, now has many sites to help Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others do what it takes to find a suitable mate.

Most offer a limited free trial. Membership varies from $5 per month to $50 per month, with discounts for annual payment.

Christiancafe.com has served 400,000 people since its launch in 1999. Most members are from the United States, with many ethnic backgrounds. About 10 percent are black, said Sam Moorcroft, 36, the president and co-owner.

Even older Christians date by Web. A reporter who logged on to www.Christiancafe.com as a woman over 65 received a list of 104 non-smoking men over 65 in the Eastern U.S.

Moorcroft intended to open many niche dating sites operated by members of the designated religious or ethnic group. But Christiancafe.com grew so quickly that he has made only one other successful launch: www.Jewishcafe.com serves primarily secular Jews.

Some sites are quite specific. www.Straphael.net, named for the patron saint of single people, is geared toward conservative Catholics. It provides opportunities to explore priesthood, sisterhood or marriage.

Other sites serve multiple faiths. Neil Clark Warren, a Christian psychologist who founded www.eharmony.com, matches couples according to faith and 28 other qualities. His study of more than 5,000 married couples identified 29 shared characteristics -- such as character, adaptability and spirituality -- that predict a happy marriage.

Eharmony.com members complete a long personality questionnaire and are matched only to others with whom they share all characteristics. It has registered 663,000 people since August 2000 and averages 150 marriages a month.

Scott and Helen McWilliams met in a more traditional way, through Equally Yoked, a national group with a Monroeville office. Its unromantic name comes from an image of two oxen plowing together, which St. Paul used to stress the importance of Christians marrying Christians.

The Pittsburgh office has 500 members and has produced 50 marriages since 1997.

Diana Clifford, owner of the local office, interviews prospective members and runs criminal background checks on them.

Before Equally Yoked, Scott McWilliams, 32, tried secular dating services but found people misrepresented themselves in ads and a singles network didn't produce women who liked to go to church. A United Methodist marketing engineer who had attended seminary, he wanted a woman who believed in Christ as strongly as he did.

He joined Equally Yoked in 1998. Other members, male and female, became his closest friends.

Helen McWilliams, 37, had been in a long-term relationship that didn't work out, then tried and failed to meet compatible men through volunteer work. A devout Catholic, she wanted a practicing Christian.

Her first Equally Yoked event was a Christmas dance. But longtime members were so busy with each other that they ignored her. So Clifford asked Scott McWilliams to ask her to dance. Within two weeks each was convinced they had found the right one.

Clifford won't cite membership fees, but Scott McWilliams said he paid far less than he did for a secular introduction service that provided him with only two dates.

In Squirrel Hill, matchmaker Tova Weinberg is renowned for her computer database of eligible Jews. She works for free. Now 48, she began 24 years ago because she was appalled at the high rate of intermarriage.

"I started setting people up and had a knack for it," she said.

She works with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. She won't accept anyone whose mother isn't Jewish unless the client has converted to Judaism.

She rejects people who seem unstable. She asks about hobbies, personality, family background. And she checks references.

In the end, she suggests several matches, and serves as intermediary.

"I do it by gut," she said.

Most Hindu and Muslim services bill themselves flatly as "matrimonial." It is often the parents who place the ad.

Hindu sites often designate caste and ethnicity. Hindu Matrimonials International, www.hindu.fsnet.co.uk, includes Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Farsis.

The parents of a 20-year-old Texas-born college student placed this ad on behalf of their daughter:

"Radha is highly religious and loves to take part in Pumas and ceremonies. We are looking for a Bengali Brahmin medical student from India or the U.S. He must be religious and have similar interests. Must be well built and at least 5'10" tall. All other professionals are also welcome."

www.Zawaj.com is a Muslim site with over 30,000 members. Ads come from many countries. But of the 2,000 newest members, nearly a third of the men and a quarter of the women were from the United States.

There are ads from people whose primary goal is to marry a U.S. citizen. But most focus on faith.

The Islamic Society of North America runs www.isnamatrimonials.com. The first profile in a search for men in their 40s was a 48-year-old native of Iraq, now a U.S. citizen, who described himself as a Shiite of average religiosity, open to a wife of any faith.

But ISNA's premier matrimonial service is a dinner at its annual convention, where about 500 people register for an opportunity to meet a prospective spouse -- or the parents of a prospective spouse. All names go into a computer database that generates lists of matches.

The guide for filling out a registration form warned that too many women -- or their parents -- wanted only a physician while the men insisted on a highly educated beauty.

"We do not believe that anything is wrong with that except that our beloved prophet Muhammad has advised us to marry primarily for piety and religious adherence," it said.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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