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This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Visit www.jta.org .
New York, March 31 (JTA)--Jennifer Lifshitz thought she would be a shoo-in to win Adam Mesh's heart on NBC's reality TV dating show, "Average Joe: Adam Returns."
After all, said the rabbi's daughter from Buffalo Grove, Ill., Mesh was a nice Jewish boy probably looking for a nice Jewish girl--and how many others would there be?
Lifshitz was in for a surprise.
When she walked into the Palm Springs, Calif., house she would share with 18 other women as they vied for the affection of day-trader Adam Mesh, 28, she noticed what many viewers of the popular TV show also did: A disproportionate number of the contestants were Jewish.
The show's most conspicuous Jewish character had underestimated how prominent the Jewish factor would be in the show.
"It's hard to find your nice Jewish boy," Lifshitz said. "And there he was on national TV. When I found out he was Jewish, I said, 'Oh my God, that's my perfect man.'"
The show grew out of the original "Average Joe" series, broadcast earlier this winter, in which a beautiful entertainment announcer named Melana Scantlin was presented with 16 average-looking men vying for her affection.
Contestants were eliminated in each episode. Mesh made it down to the final two--but lost to a model type who had been added late in the show.
Nevertheless, NBC received so many letters and calls expressing interest in Mesh that the studio decided to launch another "Average Joe," this time starring Mesh as the romantic prize.
NBC solicited about 500 applications from women who had tried to contact Mesh through the show or who answered a casting call. Several also were contacted through a computer database generated by Eharmony.com, a Web site designed to find matches based on similar personality traits.
"I have always said that if someone asks to set me up on a date, I would prefer the girl was Jewish," he told JTA. "However, if you fall for somebody, that's more important."
Producers said they didn't go out of their way to seek Jewish dates for Mesh; the 19 who were chosen for the show happened to reflect the applicant pool.
"I was using a friend's instinct," said Andrew Glassman, one of the show's executive producers, who said he asked himself when selecting the final candidates for the program, "Is this someone I would fix him up with?"
Glassman called Mesh "every Jewish girl's dream."
Lifshitz said Mesh's Jewishness was a deciding factor in her romantic interest. She said she fell for Mesh when he was vying for Scantlin's heart on the original "Average Joe" series.
"He was supposed to be average, but he's so above average," Lifshitz, a 24-year-old graduate student in social work, told JTA in a phone interview.
When she figured out Mesh was Jewish, she sent an application and video for the version of the NBC series starring Mesh, she said.
Religion didn't become a major focus of the four-part series right away.
But behind the scenes, Lifshitz said, there was tension over Adam's religion, as women wondered whether faith would play a role as he narrowed down the group each week.
"Some girls were worried, 'If I'm not from New York, will he pick me?' or 'If I'm not Jewish, could he pick me?'" recalled Lifshitz, who was eliminated in the third episode.
Yet Mesh didn't seem to focus on religion when it came to choosing a possible soul mate.
Though he has made public appearances at Jewish communal events, like the United Jewish Communities' recent young leadership conference in Washington, he said he has dated non-Jewish girls in the past and is just looking for love.
"If I was working with a girl and I didn't know her religion and fell in love, that's the priority. It's all about the girl I liked the best," Mesh said.
Glassman said he knew before the second Average Joe show that religion was not an overriding factor for his star.
"We know that Adam fell in love with Melana in the first series, so we know religion is just not a determining factor for him," Glassman said.
In the final episode--to be broadcast April 5 at 10 p.m.--Mesh must choose between a Jew and a non-Jew, Glassman said.
When the non-Jewish finalist asks Mesh if her religion represents a problem for him, Mesh responds that it doesn't, Glassman said.
Mesh describes the girl he ultimately chooses as "outgoing, confident, stylish, affectionate and honest."
"Right now NBC is my dating service," he said.
"A lot of young Jewish girls look at him as the great catch," Glassman said, but so do "many girls of other faiths."
Some Jewish viewers said Mesh's religion has made the show more interesting for them.
"Subliminally, we have something in common," said Yael Torbin, 26. That's partly why Mesh--whom she doesn't find very attractive--is an appealing figure for her.
In the second episode, Lifshitz--whom one contestant called "the rabbi's daughter gone wild"--may have resonated with a Jewish audience as she told Mesh about a recent trip to Israel, and later confessed her insecurities to the camera.
"So many of us are curvy or have prominent features, and that's something I struggled with: I don't look like your typical all-American girl," she said in her interview with JTA. "I can't be the only person who would feel that in that situation, and I wanted people to know that what we see on TV is not always the norm."
For Lifshitz, having Jews on the show was significant.
"For me, I'm excited that there are Jewish people on these reality TV shows," she said. "Often there's not, but it's nice to see representation of yourself out there."
"My friends and I definitely feel more of a connection with this show than with 'The Bachelor,'" Boston University student Alexandra April, 22, said of another reality TV dating show. "It's not like we like Joe Schmo because he's hot."
Because Mesh is Jewish, "it becomes more real," April said. "One of his other qualifications, other than just nice and great, is Judaism. It's an unspoken qualification."
Jewish viewers said they hope Mesh goes for the Jewish girl in the final episode.
"Personally, I think it would be nice if he picked a Jewish girl," Torbin said.
"I would be kind of upset if he didn't," said Sandra Mizrahi, 24, of Teaneck, N.J.
Pointing out that, in the long run, Mesh may have more in common with a Jewish woman than a non-Jew, April said, "He should go with his heart, but his heart should be saying Jew.'"