Whirlwind Courtship, Jewish Style

"SpeedDating" brings singles together for a round of seven-minute tryouts

A kosher café in Sheridan Hills offers its Thursday-evening patrons the smell of tomatoes and garlic simmering from the kitchen and an Old World décor of dark woods and lace curtains. The menu has its fair share of bistro delicacies, but the forty- to sixtysomething folks who fill the place aren't here for the chow. They're here for love.

The men appear sedate; most are dressed in golf shirts and keep to themselves, already sitting at tables waiting for the soiree to begin. The women are better coifed: There are plenty of pearls, satin shirts, and Dooney and Bourke handbags milling about. There's also lots of whispering among the girls as they press their adhesive nametags to the fronts of their shirts and sneak glances at their prospects.

Not Babette Kulka. She's already taken a seat and is chatting up the chubby man sitting across from her. With a gold-tone bicycle pin fixed to the front of her yellow sundress, Kulka has an easy demeanor that stands out in a room full of fidgeting.

Babette Kulka beams at the prospect of finding Mr. Right
Sherri Cohen
Babette Kulka beams at the prospect of finding Mr. Right
Fast talk and true love: SpeedDating gives participants a chance at both
Sherri Cohen
Fast talk and true love: SpeedDating gives participants a chance at both

"You have to try all avenues. I don't rule out any," says Kulka.

That's why tonight, she's trying SpeedDating, a singles soiree sponsored by a local chapter of international Jewish educational center Aish HaTorah. Located in West Hollywood, this local chapter of Aish has offered classes on everything from Torah studies to how to shop kosher, with a focus on educating young Jews about their heritage. Born last year at an Aish HaTorah center in Los Angeles, SpeedDating arrived in South Florida a few months ago, and according to Aish workers, the steady rush of phone calls shows that Jewish singles are hungry for dating alternatives.

"There are certain things about the singles scene that people are really uncomfortable with," say Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, executive director for Aish HaTorah in Hollywood. "The smoky bars, the pickup, is he serious, is he not serious, who knows, he could be an ax murderer…."

"It's such a nonthreatening program," adds Mimi Jankovits, director of development. "It's so there on a consumer level that we're not selling them anything. We're answering a need."

That's pretty much how Kulka sees it. After getting a divorce 16 years ago, Kulka moved to South Florida to pursue a lifelong love of sun worshiping and sports. Kulka has cycled her sprightly self 3000 miles across the country from California to Delaware. She has sea-kayaked off Mexico, has scuba-dived assorted oceans, and recently became a triathlon coach after competing in Iron Man Florida. Along the way she's met plenty of men but no one who fits her near idyllic bill: adventuresome, athletic, and Jewish.

"I'm fussy. I look at it this way: It's better to be happily single than unhappily coupled. And at my age, I know what I would like in a person that I'd spend the rest of my life with," she says with a pert nod.

Kulka says she dates several times a month, mostly through introductions made by close friends. Although she's tried ads and the Internet, she's wary of both. "On the Internet you often find yourself feeling compatible with someone who doesn't live here. And I don't want to move," she says. She found her way to SpeedDating after meeting an Aish worker at a dinner party. Kulka liked the concept: a quick sequence of timed mini-dates made up of Jewish singles more than willing to shell out a mere 15 bucks for a shot at a love connection.

"I like the idea of seven-minute [dates] because you don't have to listen to a lot of drivel you're not interested in," she adds.

At the café the stragglers have checked in, and the crowd's small talk has swelled to a noisy jabber. Rabbi Nightingale pops his thumb and forefinger into his mouth and calls the crowd to order with a shrill whistle. The giggles and the shuffling cease, and Jankovits bounces to the front of the room to explain the rules.

For the next hour or so, 21 women will station themselves at individual tables. After the allotted time is over, the men will musical chair­it to the next table. Couples can patter about anything except age and income. When Jankovits asks participants to skip questions about professions as well, the crowd collectively moans. With that, she clangs a brass bell and belts out, "Ready, set, date!"

The crowd dives in, and staccato questions swirl about the room: "Have you ever done anything like this before? Are you widowed? Do you like animals?"

At table 15, Kulka holds her own, making eye contact and showing fresh interest in each subsequent date. When a serious gray-haired man asks her about her life goals, Kulka tosses her halo of blond hair and offers a frosted-lipstick laugh. Her reply is light but truthful. "I like to be outside in the fresh air and in the sun," she says.

After each date, singles fill out a two-question survey asking whether their potential beau or beauette was courteous and whether they'd like another stab at getting to know the person. At the end of the night, facilitators gather cards and make matches. Kulka gave thumbs up to three men, two of whom returned her interest. She has since had dinner with one and looks forward to hearing from the other.

SpeedDating seems already to have led to a few speed engagements. Since the program's first run in April, one couple is shopping for rings, and a man recently informed Aish that he was on the verge of proposing.

Kulka says she definitely would try the program again, but she might not get the chance. Aish workers say that of the thousand-plus calls they've received about the program, the largest waiting list belongs to the 40-to-58 age slot, with more than 200 women on the waiting list. The reason for the wait? Lack of men. Nightingale speculates that older men are less likely to seek partners their own age. "Older men don't have a real honest perception of themselves. They're like, "I'm 55 and I don't look it!' and meanwhile they're combing their hair over their bald spots," says Nightingale.

Despite the odds Kulka remains ever buoyant. "I can't make dating the focus of my life, but it's one of the things I do that I enjoy," she explains. "I look at the world through rose-colored glasses, and I truly believe there's a man out there searching for me.

"I'm forever hopeful."

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