June 18, 2010 — -- It's the kind of story that millions of desperate singles are desperate to believe: Boy meets girl online, boy and girl find love, boy and girl get married.
People really do meet online and sometimes it really does work. But one network of dating sites seems to have found a special formula for getting couples to click.
In the massive world of web-based matchmaking, Spark Networks is finding success by creating a narrower and shallower dating pool. It is creating sites for everybody from Greek singles to Catholic singles to Asian singles to deaf singles, even single Latter-Day Saints.
Spark boasts 32 dating sites in all. Adam Berger, CEO of the Spark Networks, calls it "niche" dating.
"Niche dating makes people instantly feel comfortable," said Berger. "Imagine yourself walking into a party with 10,000 people. Great, you might be able to find the five people that you're really excited about, gravitate to, but that can be a little intimidating to people. What you call a niche dating site, we call a tight-knit community. People instantly feel comfortable and know they're among people who are just like themselves in many different ways."
What about the critics who say it's hard to find a genuinely nice partner in the ocean of anonymous online daters?
"I understand where they're coming from, but clearly we are evidence that you can meet a nice person online," said Berger. "We have lots and lots of success stories across all of our sites, and we have generational success stories. [There's one] group of people whose brother and sister met, and then another couple met and then another couple met. ... Sixty-three people a day find their soulmate on JDate."
JDate, which caters to Jewish singles, is Spark Networks' most successful and popular web site. It claims 750,000 active users. And it has won over the "faithful."
"I have learned that it is a miracle of the Jewish world," said Rabbi David Kirshner. "It is a modern-day miracle ... through the vehicle of technology and communication, to connect all these different souls that would otherwise never meet. You know, in the old days they used to have these matchmakers, the kind that are personified in "Fiddler on the Roof," Yenta, who was putting together the people of the community. And this is doing it electronically, their beliefs, the backgrounds, their passions, and then connecting them one to the other. And to find so many people in so many different worlds, able to connect this way, it's great. My grandmother used to say, she used to say there's a lid for every jar, and JDate makes that happen."
Spark Networks: 'The Tides Have Changed'
But can you really meet someone on the computer? Is that the right way to do it?
"I think the tides have changed, because a lot of Jewish grandmothers are calling me up and sending me e-mails, believe it or not, or seeing me outside of services saying, 'You have to get my grandson on JDate,'" said Kirshner.
Why would a Jewish grandmother support this kind of technology? Kirshner says it's simple.
"I started keeping track, and more than 70 percent of the weddings I do are couples that have met on JDate," he said. "And that's why it's a miracle, because it works."
Kirshner is such a believer he now offers free JDate subscriptions to congregants. It's isn't just about romance.
"I think the Jewish people put a lot of focus on marrying other Jewish people," Kirshner said. "It's what our survival is really contingent upon. So we know when we struggle with the effects of intermarriage, that we struggle with a whole host of other issues. So for us it's important for Jews to marry other Jews."
Kirshner said there was even a discount.
"There's a Rabbinical discount," he said. "Not unique to me, to any rabbi who wants to do this for their congregation so that they're encouraging their kids or their congregants to meet people who are Jewish."
While JDate may be the most well-known of the dating web sites, Spark's other niche web sites are booming.
"ChristianMingle has probably been one of the sites that's grown faster than any other lately, and I think people are just gravitating back toward values and finding out that marriage is a good thing, long term relationships are a good thing," said Berger.
But Libna Diaz, a devout Christian, said that going to a dating site at first seemed counterintuitive to her faith.
"What kind of tends to happen when you are a person of faith, you're trusting God to just bring this perfect match for you, and I think for some time I was in that mindset where I thought, 'OK, he's just going to drop right out of heaven exactly how I want him,'" said Diaz. "And I came to the realization that my faith without deeds and works is dead."
Tonight, she's getting ready for her date with Marc Tsavaris, whom she met on ChristianMingle.
"When I saw his picture I was like, 'That's a very professional picture,'" Diaz said, laughing. "So I clicked on the profile, and sure enough he's a model by profession. And then just his self-description reflected someone who, number one, is very passionate about their faith like myself, and just wants to love God with all they are."
The two met for dinner.
Tsavaris prayed: "Father God, thank you for bringing us here today, this evening, to celebrate your glory, to celebrate your grace."
Later the couple visited Sabin Howard, a sculptor for whom Tsavaris has posed.
"We need to have him do one of his raps for your video," Howard told "Nightline." "He's such a showman."
"All right," said Tsavaris. "Check it out: 'I turn my back on temptation, / It's time to make a statement, / I don't follow no religion, / What I got, it's based on relations, / Jesus understands what I'm facing, / I talk to him and he's patient, / Plus he knows all the secrets / I got locked up in my basement.'"
"I think there's definitely some chemistry there," said Diaz. "Yeah, absolutely."
"Yeah, certainly," Tsavaris agreed. "We have a very clear connection when it comes to building with the Lord first. But most importantly, when we have conversations about topics that are primary in our lives.
Spark Networks: Call-In Centers
Subscriptions to Spark Networks sites cost from $9.99 to $39.99. And for those who find making connections to be not so easy, Spark Networks offers even more help.
The company maintains call centers where Spark representatives help love-starved subscribers find ways to improve their profiles and dates. The center takes more than 1,700 calls a day.
And if coddling callers isn't enough, Spark also caters to subscribers in person, organizing real-world socials, parties and mixers, and speed-dating events.
All of these tactics have helped make Spark Networks a $45 million-plus business. But rival companies are catching on. A growing number of new web sites are aimed at specific groups of singles -- every lonelyheart subset from pet owners to dwarves.
"Nightline" eventually met the three interconnected JDaters that Spark Networks CEO Adam Berger had told us about.
First up were Lori and Jeff Levenson.
"I thought he was Italian... I didn't think he was Jewish," Lori said of Jeff. "I even made him show me his bar mitzvah picture."
After Lori and Jeff married, Lori encouraged her brother, Evan Kutner, to get on JDate.
He married a woman named Carly, who then told her brother, Danny Edelstein, to get on JDate.
Which is how Danny his met future wife, Jordana.
Today, the three couples laugh about their time in the dating pool.
"I had a guy propose to me on the second date, on the Staten Island Ferry!" said Carly. "It was a nightmare!"