TEL AVIV, May 7 (JTA) At a candlelit restaurant by the sea, Iriet Schulman and Josh Gartenberg lean toward each other and giggle over a private joke. They are here on a JDate-sponsored group trip to Israel and had just checked into their rooms when they stepped into the same elevator of their Tel Aviv hotel and felt an immediate click. “I came here mainly because of the journey and experience and if I do meet someone all the better,” said Schulman, 30, smiling at Gartenberg, 31. “She’s a great girl,” said Gartenberg, a New York filmmaker who happily admits the two have been inseparable since their elevator meeting. Surrounding them is a boisterous gang of newfound friends, clinking wine glasses and posing for photos. They have only known each other for two days, but the group says it feels like a lifetime of connection. Among the laughing, joking crowd is Emily Ross, a 27-year-old midwife from San Francisco. “A trip like this is a great idea because you come here with a bunch of Jewish people who feel like family,” she said. “When else do you meet a group of people on vacation that you identify with about everything?” Like Ross, many on the trip are here in Israel for the first time. Some of the 130 participants are regular JDaters but others, including Schulman and Gartenberg, signed up after seeing ads for the trip. Gartenberg became intrigued after seeing an ad on a billboard in Times Square in Manhattan. Schulman, who lives in Hollywood, Calif., registered after she read an ad in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Participants on what is billed by JDate as “an offline 10-day journey to Israel” came from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and England, and range in age from late 20s to mid-70s. The group landed in Israel on May 3. JDate has more than half a million members and is the largest Jewish singles Web site in the world. The site has sponsored group trips to places like Jamaica and Mexico, but this is the first time is has organized one to Israel. “It’s about emotions,” said David Siminoff, president and chief executive officer of Spark Networks, JDate’s owner and operator. Being in Israel heightens a sense of connection both to Israel as Jews, and possibly to one another as potential love interests and friends, he said. The group is crisscrossing the country touring Jerusalem’s Old City, kayaking down the Jordan River, hiking to the top of Masada and having a boat party on the Sea of Galilee. They are meeting Israeli members of JDate and the itinerary is focused on social activity as well as sightseeing, with cocktail and pool parties and nights out. Taking in the sunset over the Mediterranean, Barry Kushner, 67, from Marin County, Calif., said he was thrilled to finally be in Israel for the first time and was not averse to meeting someone at the same time. “Would I be interested in meeting a woman here, why not?” he said Stuart Rosenberg, a 47-year-old financial executive from Los Angeles, was also seeing Israel for the first time. He downplayed the dating aspect of the trip and said what drew him in was an opportunity to see the Jewish state. “People here are single, they want to see Israel and want to meet people they can connect with,” he said. “If I meet someone, then terrific. If I don’t, I do not care. I came here to experience Israel.” Elizabeth Crews, 40, a special education teacher from Santa Cruz, Calif., sat at a small round table with a mix of new people. She said she was drawn to a trip where “you get to know people over time, things evolve more organically. It’s not a forced setting.” Jesse Arfa, 32, who does custom metal work on motorcycles in Clearwater, Fla., agreed that being in a group setting takes off some of the pressure that can accompany meeting new people. “I came here for a mix of reasons, but it would be great to meet someone. I’m all for the adventure part of it just to be happy and have something good to remember,” he said. Schulman, who is beaming as she continues to laugh and talk with Gartenberg and her new circle of friends, raves, “It’s a fabulous trip.” Her blue eyes shining she adds, “More than I expected.”
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