Frum Dating in the Digital Age

Illustrations: Yosef Itzkowitz. Yosef Itzkowitz is an artist, author and poet. His published work can be found on Amazon, under the name Yosef Paper. He is currently studying illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and can be reached at yosefitzkowitz@gmail.com.

 

To Molly Abikzer, meeting her husband Joey was truly bashert.

Molly is Ashkenazi; Joey is Sephardic. Three years ago, she was living in St. Louis and he was in Los Angeles. Though Molly and Joey are Orthodox and in their thirties, they had not even one mutual Facebook friend. (This despite the fact that Molly has 2,000 Facebook friends!)

“It was like God said, ‘How am I going to get you two together?’” she says. “His answer: JSwipe.”

In recent years, the Internet and smartphones have changed how people do virtually everything in recent years, from Torah learning to grocery shopping. Not surprisingly, technology has affected how people meet and date—and the frum world is not immune to this drastic shift.

Love at First Swipe?
JSwipe is one of several online platforms Orthodox Jewish singles use to meet. The mobile app, created in 2014, pushes one suggestion at a time to members—profiles are usually heavy on photos—and they can swipe right if they are interested, or left to pass. If both people swipe right, it’s a “match” and they can begin to chat through the app.

Ahuva,* a single in her mid-thirties, who considers herself on the right end of the Modern Orthodox world, stays abreast of what’s popular among young people because of her job working with young professionals. “When I first went on JSwipe four years ago, it was pretty new, so there were only a few Orthodox options,” she says. “I was done swiping in a few minutes.” Now, says Ahuva, who lives on the Upper West Side, JSwipe is being used by quite a few of her friends. “There’s less of a stigma attached to dating apps.”

While many single people agree that platforms like JSwipe inject an element of fun into online dating, there is skepticism within the Orthodox community whether a “swiping culture” is likely to nurture focused relationships leading to marriage. Even Abikzer admits her success with JSwipe may be somewhat of an anomaly.

In contrast, JWed—formerly known as Frumster—positions itself as a dating site for “marriage-minded” Jews. Created in 2001, it was one of the first dating sites for the Orthodox community. Members create a profile and browse others within selected criteria. They can decide who to contact, and if or when to take the conversation from online to an in-person date. With about 10,000 active users at any given time, the site claims to have made more than 3,180 marriages “and counting.” According to CEO Ben Rabizadeh, the site’s sweet spot is singles in their thirties and forties, and members’ locations are representative of the English-speaking Jewish population worldwide.

Sarah is a nurse in her thirties who lives in a small Midwestern city. She uses JWed and has also been a member of SawYouAtSinai, an online platform that connects members with matchmakers who scour the site’s database and make suggestions of potential shidduchim.

Sarah appreciates the autonomy offered by JWed. “I prefer to use JWed and have personal choice in who I’m connecting with,” she says. And, she adds, with JWed, as opposed to JSwipe, the “more robust profiles give you a chance to see more of the person,” and decide to connect based on “less superficial factors.”

A newcomer to the online Jewish dating scene is Forj, which uses artificial intelligence to recommend matches to its users. Los Angeles-based founders Yossi and Shira Teichman designed the app to offer “an alternative option” for people burnt out by dating. “It’s a platform to help them find their life partners as smoothly and painlessly as possible,” says Yossi. The app guides users through an extensive sign-up process, including a series of multiple-choice questions about themselves. “Their responses enable the app’s advanced A.I. to ‘understand’ each person in a meaningful way,” explains Yossi, and the deliberately lengthy questionnaire also filters out non-serious daters. “Forj then matches users based on sophisticated algorithms, which are designed for long-term compatibility.”

Shira explains that she and Yossi are passionate about creating a platform combining cutting-edge technology with relationship compatibility research that feels “fresh, relevant and also dignified,” she says. “Being on Forj is like having an intuitive best friend who really gets you, and who can scan the globe to handpick your most compatible matches.” The Teichmans report nearly 15,000 app users, who range from age eighteen to seventy-plus; Forj’s largest cohort is between twenty-four and thirty-four.

Though artificial intelligence in shidduchim is new, society as a whole has gotten used to online dating. In fact, in 2016 Psychology Today estimated that by 2040, 70 percent of people will have met their significant other online.

“Everyone tries online dating at some point,” agrees Rabizadeh of JWed. “Originally, our members were outside major demographic areas . . . people who for some reason were not ‘mainstream.’ Now it’s a fully acceptable way to meet people.”

Dr. Efrat Sobolofsky is the director of YUConnects, which is hosted by SawYouAtSinai and uses the same service model and technology with a focus on Yeshiva University alumnae. She has observed this community’s sanction of online dating in the years since YUConnects began in 2008. Dr. Sobolofsky reports the recent celebration the site’s 351st engagement—a couple who met through YUConnects and discovered they live in the same Manhattan apartment building.

Opting for Tradition
Of course, online dating has not penetrated the entire Orthodox world. Shaya Ostrov, a therapist based in Far Rockaway, New York, notes that in general, the Chareidi sectors prefer a more traditional approach to dating. They have not taken to online dating, as they are less comfortable with Internet use overall; although he adds, “Even Chareidim use dating sites like SawYouAtSinai as they get older, when they feel they have used up the pool of people they know.”

Rachel, who considers herself “Yeshivish,” is a divorcee with three children who lives in Brooklyn. In her late thirties, she refuses to use online dating sites. Having been burned once, she is too scared of possible dates “misrepresenting themselves.”

Ostrov, the author of several books including The Menuchah Principle in Shidduchim, Dating & Engagement, recognizes that online dating sites offer the value of connecting people with individuals they may not have otherwise connected with. But from his perspective, “it offers no effectiveness in relationship development.”

Moshe, who considers himself right-wing Modern Orthodox and is in his mid-twenties, has plenty of friends who use JSwipe, YUConnects and SawYouAtSinai. Yet he personally feels the best way to meet someone is at a “singles Shabbaton or just organically through friends.” Right now, he’s not on any dating sites but he’s also in a serious relationship (yes, he met the young woman at a singles event). Overall, though, he views using algorithm-based technology to find dates as positive. “The broad range and variety of dating sites are perceived by the Modern Orthodox community as a whole as a boon,” he says, “which is not the case in the Chareidi world.”

While twenty-nine-year-old Avi, who considers himself Modern Orthodox, has many reservations about online dating sites, he sees the potential in them. “It’s good for a lot of people because, frankly, it’s hard to be set up,” says the New Jersey native. “These sites give you direct access to tons of people.” That being said, the only dating site he belongs to is YUConnects, which he describes as “more of a ‘Why not?’ than anything else.”

Bringing Dating To You
Opportunities to meet people online can be particularly beneficial to singles faced with limited options. For example, David is divorced and lives in an out-of-town community, sharing custody of his son. It is not an option for him to relocate to New York—widely recognized as the epicenter of frum dating—in the hope of meeting someone.

“Online dating sites are a game changer for me,” he says. “There just aren’t shomer Shabbat single women in my age group where I live, and I can’t just pick up and go to a different city at any time.”

Sarah has noticed that, in addition to the challenge of living in a city with few Orthodox singles, people stop thinking of suggestions once one reaches a certain age. “My dating life wouldn’t exist if not for online,” she says simply. Ahuva agrees. “Using these apps makes me feel like I’m doing my hishtadlut.”

Dr. Sobolofsky notes that dating sites have actually been a major asset in organizing in-person events for singles, which adds an additional opportunity for people to meet and network. “Through a growing database of online members, we can more easily invite a group of singles in a given age group and location to an event in their neighborhood,” she says.

“Screen”—ing Your Dates
Of course, access to more people can be a double-edged sword, and some platforms—as well as many of their users—are vigilant to avoid unpleasant encounters.

For example, Forj takes several steps to verify users’ identities, from their profile picture to their gender and location, as well as their Jewishness. All profiles on JWed must be approved by the site before they are posted. “Honestly, a surprising number of profiles never see the light of day,” says Rabizadeh, often because the potential user isn’t Jewish. “We also monitor the site to catch profiles that slipped past or those flagged by user feedback.”

As an added precaution, Sarah asks for references before moving from online to real-life dating. “My people are going to contact his people,” she says, “because when you meet online, no one you know is vouching for him.” Many people will, however, check with their friends online says Dr. Sobolofsky, who asserts that checking references has changed drastically in an age of social media. “They’ll ask friends of friends they find on social media.” It is rare, singles say, to not find someone who knows someone who is familiar with a prospective date.

Jonathan, a thirty-two-year-old attorney in New York City, confirms that everyone checks out potential dates on social media, which he feels can be helpful in determining if a potential shidduch is suitable or not. “Social media only says so much about a person,” he says, “but sometimes there can be clear indications that someone just isn’t a good match.”

While it can be convenient, Avi feels that the common use of social media to “check out” a potential date isn’t always so positive. “[It] gives access to everything about everyone,” he says. During a date, he notes, everyone is preoccupied with making sure they don’t let on how much they know about each other.

Additionally, some fear that the endless options offered by dating sites and apps serve to increase “pickiness” and may make daters who are already somewhat commitment-phobic even less willing to commit. As Ostrov puts it, “Never have so many people dated so many people, and and yet find themselves alone.”

Social Media and Shidduchim
The Pew Research Center has been tracking social media adoption in the US since 2005. Back then, 5 percent of Americans used at least one social media platform. By 2018, that number had grown to 69 percent of the public, or as high as 86 percent in certain demographics. Pew reports that Facebook is the most widely used, but social media also includes Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and WhatsApp.

As a full-time shadchan for Connections, the shidduch division of Gateways, Fayge Rudman works with singles over age twenty-five from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy. She sees a clear connection between the rise of social media and the growing challenges in dating for frum people.

“The number-one thing that has changed is that it’s all picture-based,” she says of her twenty-plus years of experience with shidduchim. “People see pictures and say no right away. They get the gorgeous headshot provided by the prospective date, but then they look on Facebook and see real-life pictures. Getting a ‘yes’ for the first date has become much harder.” She adds, however, that getting a couple to the second date—and beyond—is pretty much the same as it has always been.

Social media gives an ersatz experience that something is happening . . .
when nothing is happening.

From a parent’s perspective, Linda agrees that dating seems to be based more on externals. She tries to network for her thirty-three-year-old son and compares it to when her other children got married several years ago. “Social media allows people to say no very quickly,” she says. “Rather than getting to know someone at face value, you’re getting to know them only at Facebook value.”

Avi suggests social media, especially Instagram, is detrimental to dating in a deeper way. “Everyone is trying to look perfect,” he says. “Because everyone is always ‘having the time of their lives,’ it has created an ‘olam sheker [a false world].’ It’s not accurate and I think it creates unrealistic expectations.” Avi adds that it can be difficult when a shidduch “doesn’t work out, and you still see the person constantly on social media.” That level of connectedness, he says, “isn’t helpful to anyone.”

From his years of experience “trying to help people date well, get married and stay married,” Ostrov believes the damage of social media is significant for singles. “Digital media is a cold media,” he says. “It offers no emotional continuity or caring. People get hurt and disappointed and feel left out. But it’s hard to make room for a real relationship when they’re so deeply involved [in a social community]. A relationship is a two-person experience, when they share their lives and express vulnerability in a safe way. None of this can exist on social media. [Social media] gives an ersatz experience that something is happening . . . when nothing is happening.”

Of course, it’s not all bad news. Many point to the good that has come out of these social platforms.

“WhatsApp is very impactful for dating,” Jonathan notes. “A lot of matchmakers have WhatsApp groups, and so do many singles. Lots of ideas [for shidduchim] come up that way. I’ve gotten calls with suggestions from those.” In fact, Jonathan is more likely to accept a suggestion for a shidduch from a WhatsApp group—where the people know him personally—than from online dating sites.

Many programs aimed at singles frequently use social media to reach people. Additionally, individuals and organizations use social media to create vibrant online communities that may serve as both valuable support and networking opportunities, particularly for those who share certain circumstances, such as divorced singles.

The Texting Tangle
Online messaging is a staple of dating sites, but ironically, this type of communication may complicate relationships as much as it facilitates them.

“When it comes to dating, texting is detrimental because there are no rules,” says Avi, the New Jersey native. “There are accepted norms, but one person’s assumptions could be different from someone else’s.” Avi feels that texting adds unnecessary stress to dating relationships. “It used to be you would go on one date a week, maybe two,” he says. “Now, it’s constant maintenance. At 11 pm, I’m brushing my teeth and wondering, ‘Do I have to text her good-night?’ Or worrying, ‘Why isn’t she responding?’” He adds that people tend to feel comfortable saying things via text that they wouldn’t say in person. “It creates fake intimacy that isn’t meaningful,” he explains.

Ostrov believes that texting is destructive to relationships. “It is an impulse-driven medium,” he says. “You cannot use texting, or even e-mail, to solve problems. You can only create problems.” He reports that people come to him when an engagement has been damaged or broken. “They show me long threads of texts,” he says. “It started with a question, and forty texts later it’s a fight. You think you can use texting to cut to the chase. But the hole gets deeper.”

Rather than getting to know someone at face value, you’re getting to know them only at Facebook value.

Rudman from Connections notes that for dating couples, texting between dates can be a real problem. “Anything can go wrong,” she says. “It’s too much; it’s not enough. Or, sometimes, they text so much there’s nothing left to talk about on the date.”

“Texting breaks down the ability to communicate,” says Linda. “It’s an efficient way to make plans or a grocery list. It’s not good for conveying emotions.” Jonathan, the New York attorney, concurs. “Speaking on the phone or in person, you can pick up on nuance,” he says, which is vital in dating. “There’s less of a chance for mixed messages in a phone conversation than in a text message.”

Dr. Sobolofsky has noticed that in-person conversations are more awkward for some people as they become more comfortable interacting online. “It seems that because of technology, there are those who are hesitant now to approach someone and start a casual conversation,” she says, which used to be the norm. “Some may prefer first to text the other person before making a first phone call or approaching them directly.” All told, however, Dr. Sobolofsky believes the new possibilities offered by technology lead to many positive results. “It’s definitely a tech-savvy world,” she says. “People are connecting in so many more ways.”

David, the divorced dad, embraces everything technology has to offer in dating. “For me, it’s great,” he says. “I’m dating someone now who lives in a different city. I couldn’t do it without texting and video chat. We check in several times during the day, and we Facetime to say good-night. It helps to be connected in a way we couldn’t be connected otherwise.”

Sarah, the nurse, tries to maintain her sense of humor as she navigates the ambiguities of online dating. “Right now,” she says, “I’m ‘corresponding’—what do you even call it? We haven’t met yet!—with someone I met on JWed. We have been talking on the phone and texting for several weeks.” As she prepares for her first video chat with him, she remains cautiously optimistic, not unlike what one might expect before a first date. “Every bit of technology in this world can be used for good or bad,” Sarah says. “If it aids and assists in bringing two people together, then it’s being used in an amazing way.”

In the two years since her wedding, Molly Abikzer freely shares her JSwipe success story to encourage singles to take advantage of online dating platforms. “Technology allows for a medium where you can meet someone or connect two people who you may may not otherwise have thought of outside of your computer,” she says. “It’s one more vehicle for Hashem to allow people to find their soulmates.”

Rachel Schwartzberg works as a writer and editor and lives with her family in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

Rabbi Reuven and Shira Boshnack founded JLIConnections to help their students.

Matching OU-JLIC Singles
Launched in 2018 by OU-JLIC, JLIConnections is a great new way for OU-JLIC students and alumni to find their bashert. High-tech but without the impersonality of most dating sites or apps, JLIConnections draws upon the successful matchmaking technology of SawYouAtSinai, while providing students with a personal OU-JLIC shadchan.

Found on more than twenty campus throughout North America and Israel, OU-JLIC places Orthodox educator couples on college campuses to help students navigate Jewish life on campus.

“OU-JLIC is a good place to meet someone coming from a similar background, with similar interests and life experiences, all of which can be very useful when looking for a spouse,” said Rabbi Reuven Boshnack, who spearheaded the program with his wife, Shira. The Boshnacks have served as the OU-JLIC educators at Brooklyn College for the past twelve years where they have been heavily involved in setting up their students. “So much of the OU-JLIC programming is relationship-driven. JLIConnections offers the human touch, not a shadchan who is essentially a stranger but your OU-JLIC educator.”

To learn more, visit jliconnections.com.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2019.