UPDATE: The dating site has now officially changed its name! This article refers to it by its olds name, but moving forward it is “Yente Over the Rainbow.”
Dating within a minority can be difficult—ask any Jew looking for a Jewish partner outside of Israel. So being another minority within such a small group can be really frustrating. It’s unclear how many LGBTQ Jews live in North America, but assuming they’re proportionate for the population, and keeping in mind that the numbers grow smaller as we adjust for preferences—gay women, for example, want to date other women, not gay men—the options can be limited.
Thankfully, a new website is here to fix all that. It’s called “Saw You At Stonewall,” and while its mission is to set up LGBTQ Jews, by doing so it also brings to light specific issues queer Jews face when straddling multiple worlds.
Its founder is Joanna Halpern, who knows how frustrating it can be to try the usual options.
“It’s really difficult,” says Halpern, “You go on JSwipe, you swipe twice and you’re done.”
Halpern is a gay woman who, fed up with limited dating app options, did what she and queer Jewish friends had been talking about for years: She made a site of her own. As a coder, she was able to almost singlehandedly create Saw You At Stonewall. The site’s name is a combination of popular Jewish dating site Saw You at Sinai, and, of course, the Stonewall Inn/riots, since it targets those in the middle of the Venn Diagram of Jewishness and queerness. The site recently finished its beta run, and Halpern is gearing up for a full launch.
“I think it’s such a niche market,” she says, but “this niche really wants it badly because it’s so small.”
Halpern is 25, but still an undergraduate at McGill University (in addition to going to seminary before college, she took time off school to work in web development). She grew up Modern Orthodox in Calgary, and went to High School in Toronto. While no longer Orthodox, she is still active in Jewish life, including an LGBT Jewish group in Montreal called JQueer. But it can be difficult navigating the disparate worlds of her various identities.
“The intersectionality of Judaism and queerness is a really tough space,” she says, “Because a lot of queer circles are also very radical politically and that makes a lot of Jews feel excluded.”
So, Saw You at Stonewall is more than a dating site—it’s a space for Jews to be fully queer, and for queer people to be fully their Jewish selves.
While the site may change a great deal between now and its official launch (no date set yet), Halpern wanted to address a lot of issues that come up for LGBT Jews when designing SYAS. For example, same as for straight Jews who are accused of ethnocentrism racism for wanting to in-date, queer Jews find they are often misunderstood. Or there’s the fact that there are more hookup apps for any gender or sexual orientation, but SYAS is geared towards long term relationships. After all, as partners consider building a life together, that’s where Jewishness comes to the forefront.
Another important value is that of privacy. Subverting almost every model of online dating, users will not have the ability to see other users until they’ve been matched, since privacy is so important to LGBTQ folks.
Halpern recalls going on JSwipe in Calgary and encountering a woman-seeking-women that not only wasn’t queer to Halpern’s knowledge, but had a boyfriend. She confronted the woman, who confessed she set up an account just to see who she would recognize. “It’s just funny to see,” Halpern recalls the straight woman saying.
“It’s not funny. It hurt me. This is peoples lives, and coming out is a really big deal,” says Halpern. “There are so many people snooping who just want to see who’s queer, and thats really personal information.” Being ready to date “doesn’t mean you have to be out to the whole world.”
Also somewhat unusual for a dating site is Saw You at Stonewall’s personal matchmaking aspect (Saw You at Sinai does have something similar). Volunteer matchmakers will work with users not only to help them find a date, but to help design profiles, and open user’s options of who they’d be willing to date. This ties to one of the site’s other defining features: Sliding scales rather than labels.
In the beta, users selected on a spectrum, how attracted they were to masculinity, or to femininity, and did the same to romantic attraction (separating them out make the website inclusive to asexual folk). Users don’t have to pick a letter from the alphabet soup that is LGBTQIA+.
“There’s a stigma against bi people,” Halpern offers as an example of where labels can be limiting, “or some people hate the word lesbian.”
Then, for religious observance and identity, there’s a checklist with options—lots of options: about kashrut, Shabbat, denominations, all with the ability to emphasize the importance of certain practices over others. Like queerness, Halpern knows that Jewish identity is a spectrum, or rather a huge series of intersecting spectra. And while the personal matchmaking will be a draw to the site, users will also have the ability to opt for an algorithm-only option.
Or at least, that’s the current plan. There are a lot of aspects of the project up in the air. There’s funding, for example: While open to some sort of sponsor, the site will almost certainly be pay-to-use to sustain itself. In the meantime, as start up capital, Halpern is making the very Jewish move of liquidating her Bat Mitzvah assets. Then, there’s the issue of the name.
Halpern insists that Saw You At Sinai was “very very nice” about the whole thing when they called, and told her to take her time, but did remind her that her project’s name would be a trademark infringement of the older dating site. And so, Halpern is currently looking for a new name when the site officially launches.
Current ideas include: Keshet Connections (keshet means rainbow), Stonewall Shadchan, Matzo Ball Mensch, Jew Like Me, and Yentr (as in, Yenta the matchmaker+Tindr). Halpern is also fond of the name Unorthodox Union, but fears the OU would not be as forgiving as Saw You at Sinai.
Halpern ran the beta version of the website for about two weeks last month. The test program, using matchmaking volunteers from Orthodox LGBT organization Eshel and beyond, featured about 30 queer women around Canada and the U.S. (mostly New York, surprise, surprise).
“People that are desperate for a site like this are willing to date anywhere,” says Halpern, “…Unless they’re from New York.”
The SYAS team got some positive feedback from beta testers, but it’s too early to see if love has struck. In the meantime, though, word is out. Halpern has put about 220 people on a waitlist, and received emails asking when she’s going to launch the website (She doesn’t know, yet. She’s sorry—she’s working on it!).
If you don’t need the site’s services, but want to help, you can get in touch—they are still looking for volunteer matchmakers. And for gay, trans, asexual, whatever you are that makes it difficult to use traditional dating sites in your quest for Jewish love, Halpern is happy to help.