January 16, 2019

Punch-card love: Finding a match before personal computers

A generation before JDate, there was the Jewish Singles Computer Service. In the 1970s, the days when the mainframe computer ruled (do you remember punch cards?), eons before there was “an app for that,” a citywide, cross-denominational computer program helped single Jews of all ages find their match. For single Jews, Los Angeles can be an achingly lonely town. Spread between valleys, mountain ranges and freeways, it’s a diaspora within a diaspora, and its mountain-to-sea geography has always presented a challenge for co-religionists who wish to co-mingle.

According to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ 1977-8 “Jewish Los Angeles — A Guide” around 500,000 Jews were living in L.A. at the time. “Unfortunately,” it also pointed out, “difficulties abound for the Jewish single.”

The Jewish community, the guide concluded, saw “the single, regardless of the reason for their marital status,” as a “loser or a misfit, who is incomplete.”

Could the cold, calculating “brain” of an IBM computer recalculate that conclusion?

Rabbi Edward M. Tenenbaum (1918-2010), who served as the executive director of the United Synagogue’s Pacific Southwest Region from 1964 to 1983 and again in 1989 through 1990, had more training in performing weddings than in computer programming; yet he attempted to alter the hard math of Jewish matchmaking by leading an effort to create the West Coast’s first Jewish singles computer dating service.

In 1960, Tenenbaum had moved to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania, where he served as a rabbi at three synagogues; in 1977, he told the Valley News that his goal was “to bring Jewish singles together, encourage a stronger sense of Jewish identity, and introduce singles who might otherwise never come to know each other.”

“In a little village, the matchmaker knew people intimately — better than a computer could,” he added, but “the matchmaker was limited to the people he knew and how many people can one person know?” Tenenbaum is also remembered as having been the rabbi at Temple Beth Zion on Pico Boulevard from 1965 until his death.

As it turned out, the need for a Jewish single to expand his or her potential list of other eligible Jewish suitors was brought home to Tenenbaum in a very personal way.

As Susie Nusbaum, one of Tenenbaum’s three daughters, tells it, in 1975, “I was young, and my personal life was very static.” At the time, she was the only unmarried Tenenbaum daughter.

“You get out of college, and you start losing the ability to meet people, except at bars,” Nusbaum said. Adding to her difficulties in meeting people was that in 1971, she was in a terrible car accident and was no longer able to work at her job as a court reporter.

“My mother, Florence, was very worried about me,” explained Nusbaum, who recalls a conversation her mother had with her father.

“OK, Eddie, under your auspices in United Synagogue, you have a Women’s League, a Men’s Club and a camp for children,” Nusbaum’s mother said. “You don’t have anything for an adult Jewish single. Eddie you’ve gotta do something,” she said, recalling a computer dating program she had heard about on the East Coast.

“What she really wanted was for me to get married,” explained Nusbaum, who was in her 30s.

Her father, after responding that he “didn’t know anything about computers,” soon approached his daughter, who he thought had a head for it, with the prospect of starting a program.

She agreed.

But the original program used in United Synagogue’s Metropolitan Region “was not written very well,” Nusbaum said. “People were not matched up well.” 

Volunteering her time, Nusbaum got to work creating a new approach. Beginning in 1974, she interviewed psychiatrists, lawyers, educators, teachers and social workers to develop criteria for the dating program. She sought out “anyone who could give me some input as to what a good matching program would entail,” she said.

Along with areas that have become the norm in dating programs, such as occupation, income, education and whether you smoke, the questionnaire asked the respondents to define themselves, as well as their desired match, by Jewish background — whether they were affiliated with a denomination, level of kashrut, whether they had converted and which of their parents were Jewish.

This was prior to 1983, when Reform Judaism changed its definition of a Jew to include patrilineal descent — and while the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Chavurot had already passed a resolution on this issue in 1968, self-definition nevertheless presented an issue. “People always didn’t think you’re Jewish if your mother was not Jewish,” Nusbaum said.

“Some people were very upset. And I understood that,” she said, and she explained to those whose only Jewish parent was their father that she felt obligated to operate under Conservative guidelines. “I had to take their applications out of the mix,” she said.

While she was developing the questionnaire, her father found a programmer, Myron Berliner.

Berliner, who grew up in Lakeview Terrace, was a football star at UCLA in the 1950s and is in the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, was a programmer who had gained experience with computers working in the aerospace industry.

Berliner recalls meeting Tenenbaum while working as “a volunteer for the Southern California Jewish Federation,” he said. Berliner partnered on the project with programmer Mel Kaye, who helped with the coding and processing.

“It took two and a half years to develop the questionnaire and the program,” Nusbaum said.

To gather participants, Nusbaum visited dances and various Jewish groups, including ATID, United Synagogue’s college-based organization, to speak and hand out brochures.

“You will be matched to those people with the highest degree of compatibility with you,” read the brochure, which promised the applicant would receive a list of “up to 5 names and phone numbers” for a six-month service fee of $18, which covered three computer match runs.

“$18, ‘chai,’ was my father’s touch,” said Nusbaum, who, after collecting 1,051 profiles was ready for the first run.

Except there was “a bug” in the program, said Berliner, and it wouldn’t run correctly.

Wanting to make good on her promise to get results back to the applicants within two months, Nusbaum came up with an unlikely solution — turning her family into a digital computer.

In November of 1977, she gathered together her sisters, brothers-in-law and parents and announced, “We are going to hand-match these people based on the program,” she said.

“I explained exactly how the program would work,” said Nusbaum, who told the assembled group how certain categories, such as levels of kashrut, age and whether an applicant would date someone who was “handicapped,” had to be “absolute matches,” she said.

With her family seated around a large table, she recalled starting with a large pile of questionnaires, and then category-by-category, as the forms were passed to the next person, resorting the shrinking files, until finally, each form was matched with at least one other.

While they were sorting, however, a glitch in even this method occurred.

“‘Where is your application?’” Nusbaum remembers her mother asking her.

“I don’t really believe in this stuff,” Nusbaum responded. “I don’t want to be matched by a computer.” 

“ ‘We are not sending these out until you put your application here and we match you up,’ ” her mother insisted.

Succumbing, Nusbaum filled out the form and became application 1,052.

With the “computer Tenenbaum” humming again, the matching took a week. Letters were then typed up and sent out.

Soon, Nusbaum began getting feedback.

“I was shocked. People called up with all kinds of responses,” Nusbaum said. It ranged from things like “I had such a good date,” to  “You didn’t send me what I ordered.”

For the people who were unhappy, she would look up their application, often finding that the applicants had not been exactly forthright in their responses, especially in describing their weight.

By the second run, in 1978, the programmers had gotten the program up and running well on an IBM 1401 mainframe computer located in the Bay Area. “I actually had some pretty good dates,” said Nusbaum, who was becoming a believer in the system she had created.

It was on the third computer run, in 1978, that she was matched with Bob Nusbaum. Bob said it was his first run, although he’d already gone out with two matches. “I was a believer,” said the computer salesman, systems analyst and programmer.

Bob said he called her up and the two went on their first date — on April 1 — to a Pico Boulevard restaurant and then to a Flamenco show at a Spanish restaurant. The two began dating.

However, there was another glitch. Susie Nusbaum, at the same time, was dating another match. “I dated both Bob and this other guy for a year and a half,” she said. Then, the “other guy” asked her to marry him. But “I really wanted to marry Bob,” she said.

Explaining the situation to Bob, she asked: “What do you think?”

Bob, who had been married before, asked for some time to think. “All the check marks were in the right place, but it didn’t work,” Bob said of his first marriage.

Finally, he proposed.

“The one thing nobody can predict, nobody can program, is the chemistry that two people have,” Susie said.

After only a three-week engagement, “I hardly had time to call my matches,” Susie said — a chuppah was spread in 1979. And theirs were not the only one. According to a list compiled by Susie, by August of 1981, the program, had found matches for “4,400 Jewish singles” resulting in “88 subscribers’ marriages.”

“I would like to know how many children and grandchildren came from all this?” asked Susie, who ran the service until 1983, when Roz Gidan took over.

The program, which was also run for Jewish singles in Seattle, ended its run in 2000 — JDate began in 1997. In 1998, the Jewish Journal reported that as a result of the service, “at least 150 couples have met and married,” though the number of offspring is a question best left for the demographers.

As for Bob and Susie Nusbaum, they have two children and one grandchild — and counting.

Edmon J. Rodman will be giving a presentation titled “Who Knew? The Remarkable Inventions and Innovations of Jewish Americans You Never Heard Of” on Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. at the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine. Tickets are $10 for JCC members, $12 for non-members. Call (949) 435-3400, ext. 303 for more info.