The Yente of Fiddler on the Roof is pushy, intrusive, and an incorrigible gossip. But for the Jewish singles in the little Russian town of Anatevka in the early 1900s, she was their only option to find a suitable match for marriage. Fast forward more than a century, and Sholem Aleichem’s depiction of the Jewish shadchan (matchmaker) is obsolete. Yente is now the friend in Jerusalem tagging his friend in New York on Facebook, telling him to check out this woman’s profile; she seems like a perfect fit. Yente is the harried suburban mom trying to juggle full-time work, kids at home Zooming into school, and a barrage of new WhatsApp notifications from her online matchmaking group. Yente is all of us.
So much of our grocery shopping, our banking, and our social lives were already online, but nothing brought us closer or faster to a completely virtual world than COVID-19. Suddenly all of us, even those who work full time or attend school, were at home day in and day out, glued to our laptops, our tablets, our phones. And absent the serendipitous moments filled with romantic possibility interwoven into normal life in a normal world, Jewish singles looking to meet their soulmates began taking advantage of a new trend: communal crowdsourced matchmaking.
Simone Rebhun, a 35-year-old mom and interior designer from Englewood, New Jersey, reasoned that while people were stuck at home, the prospect of doing anything even mildly constructive that only required them to sit on their couch would be enticing. Still, even she was surprised when the informal shidduch (matchmaking) WhatsApp group she created this past November for men and women in her neighborhood took off like wildfire, with tens of people joining hour by hour until the group maxed out at 256.
“My husband and I have five single siblings between us,” explained Rebhun, “and with 2020 being such a weird and worrisome year, I felt like I needed to do something positive to help the singles in my life and in my community.”
The concept is simple: People post photos and resumes—some formal, some more informal write-ups—and then people match away. The relatively small neighborhood group Rebhun created on a lark has generated hundreds of dates and some ongoing relationships, though exact statistics are only as good as the feedback from the singles and the matchers (and the feedback is not great). A lot of the suggested matches are coming from people who know neither single person, but are simply invested because they care about creating more Jewish couples.
Also surprising to Rebhun? The number of singles posted who categorize themselves as non-Orthodox but are still willing to utilize such a forum, especially one with the word shidduch in the title. “Singles normally not OK with matchmaking are OK with this precisely because it’s so casual and doesn’t even feel like they’re using a shadchan,” she said. “It feels like they’re part of a community where so many people, even one they don’t know or who know them, are invested in seeing them get married.”
It’s communal crowdsourced matchmaking, if you will. And it’s become an emerging trend ever since COVID-19 forced singles into giving up their bar-hopping and club-going, or for the more observant Jewish singles, their crowded Shabbat meals or post-synagogue Kiddush scenes, with throngs of decked-out singles looking for a love connection between elbows and over lukewarm cholent.
Rachie Shnay of the Upper East Side was spending weekends in Englewood at the beginning of the pandemic and saw how quickly the neighborhood’s WhatsApp shidduch group took off. So the millennial jewelry designer with a significant Instagram following—over 11,000 followers with many more following her regular public Insta stories—created Mazel Matches, a similar WhatsApp group but open to citizen matchmakers from any geographic location. She created one WhatsApp group after another, with each one reaching max capacity within hours.
“I had to stop after four WhatsApp groups,” said Shnay, who spent four days barely eating and sleeping as she helped broadcast each shidduch resume and picture that came into each group. A friend who works at Google helped her streamline the process by setting up a public spreadsheet with each single’s info listed; there are over 500 singles listed with more than 1,000 dates between them, and 2,000 people look at the spreadsheet intent on creating couples. “The cool thing is that there’s so many amazing and accomplished singles posted that it’s destigmatized the process for everyone, including those like secular Jews who might not have ever wanted to be posted in something like this,” she said.
On a slightly larger scale, there’s CoronaCrush (subtitle: creating Jewish couples in quarantine), an international Facebook group for people to post their single friends and for singles to post themselves. “We were just doing it for fun in the beginning, although I had an idea that it might catch on pretty quickly,” said CoronaCrush co-founder Ian Mark, a 32-year-old Ramaz graduate who made aliyah a few years ago and works in tech. “People were spending a lot of time alone in quarantine, and I think that really forced the realization that they just didn’t want to be alone anymore.”
Mark and his co-founders watched as the group climbed to 10,000 members after only a month; currently, the group counts nearly 19,000 members from countries that span the globe. It’s created five engagements so far and launched regular Zoom speed-dating events—30 so far, generating over 15,000 dates. But much of CoronaCrush’s success comes from its interactive crowdsourced matchmaking.
“People posting about their friends can be really descriptive and personal in their wording,” said Mark, “and in a sense, you’re acting like a shadchan for your friends. Whereas apps like JSwipe are more of a solo activity, CoronaCrush is a real interactive community, with people constantly tagging friends on profiles they think align with them. It allows everyone to enter the matchmaking process, almost like network dating.”
Another benefit to community-based matchmaking? Less work for singles.
“You have to be constantly swiping and responding and advocating for yourself on apps,” explained Shnay. “With something like Mazel Matches, you have thousands of people looking at your profile and each of those people has a wealth of connections. People will call you to find out more about you, ask questions, see if you’re a good fit for the person they have in mind. It’s not all on you, and you don’t get that with JSwipe.”
Of course since time immemorial, people have always been meeting potential spouses through the recommendations of friends—that’s nothing new. Nor is the concept of web-based matchmakers a novel idea in the Jewish community. There are scores of Jewish matchmaking-based websites like Saw You at Sinai and YUConnects, a platform for Yeshiva University students, alumni, and those in “the greater Y.U. family” (i.e., those who have no scholastic connection to Y.U. at all). But since the pandemic has forced a virtual revolution, these two ideas—that of friends’ introductions and online matchmaking—have melded together to create this new phenomenon.
The pandemic has also forced some new realizations for singles who have felt being lonely in a new and unprecedented way.
“More than anything, what COVID has taught singles is the importance of having a significant other,” said Binyomin Kreisberg, a 30-year-old married matchmaker in Riverdale.
Kreisberg has long been making matches; first on his own, then with his wife of two years, Ayelet Schabes, 29. Together, the couple has five successful matches resulting in marriage and children under their belt; clearly they’ve accumulated the street cred to dispense dating advice, despite their young ages. Part of Kreisberg’s sage advice is discouraging singles from moving to popular Jewish single neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Washington Heights.
“I think neighborhoods like those are these weird bubbles that enable people to prolong their fun post-college lives,” he said. “When you’re caught up in the everyday bustle of normal life working, hanging out with roommates and friends, well, it’s very easy to be single. Now a lot of them are home with Mom and Dad and they’re like, oh shoot, this is reality.”
As a result, said Kreisberg, he’s seeing more religious Jews who would not normally go to a shadchan, and some Jews who are not religious at all, go the matchmaker route: “They’re realizing that JSwipe, JDate, and Tinder are superficial ways to get to the heart of what a person is looking for.”
For Schabes, the biggest challenge is convincing singles to “let go of the wish sandwich,” which for many Jewish singles means a pedigree school or specific career, and to consider possibilities that might not be in their strict set of personal preferences—something that seems especially simple to do now.
“Because of COVID, not everyone can so easily go out on in-person first dates, so why say no to a Zoom date or a phone conversation?” asked Schabes. “You’re not investing all that much.”
That philosophy makes sense for Eliyahu Horowitz, 35, from Queens.
“I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to incur the expense and spend the time commuting on dates that ultimately don’t go anywhere,” said Horowitz, who also highlights the discouragement that grows in a directly inverse proportion the longer one spends on fruitless in-person dates. With Zoom, Horowitz noted, you’re not wasting an evening but maybe half an hour.
“Of course Zoom dates are still limited because it’s hard to gauge how attracted you are to someone through a video screen,” he continued. “But you can tell if there’s conversation and some level of compatibility, and the attraction part can be figured out when you meet in person later.”
That new forced reality for many singles—virtual interaction before they take the step of meeting in person, with various levels of safety precautions given the current environment (Schabes aptly calls this “COVID kashrus”)—is a welcome part of our new reality of dating, according to many professional match facilitators.
“Talk is becoming the new sex,” said Michelle Frankel, a Reform Jew and former attorney who decided she liked the business of love more than that of the law. Now Frankel is a professional matchmaker who owns Jewish Match NYC, with offices in Manhattan and Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Her clientele, which largely comprises secular and traditional Jews in the tristate area, is pretty evenly split between those whose philosophy is “I gotta live my life, so I’m going to keep dating in person despite COVID,” and those who are more cautious and sticking to Zoom dates for now. For those clients, said Frankel, physicality is both the challenge and the opportunity.
“A lot of people in the past have misplaced physical intimacy for connection,” she explained, “but now so many singles are really diving into talking and connecting on what really matters before they ever meet in person. That’s fantastic for sustaining relationships in the future.”
While a new idea to many secular Jews, ask any Orthodox Jew who attended a yeshiva high school and they’ll tell you this was exactly how the Jewish prohibition against premarital physical contact between opposite sexes, called shomer negiah, was taught. While we were naturally leery when our earnest teachers presented the Halacha as an opportunity to develop romantic feelings based on verbal and emotional connection, and a beautiful and effective indicator of a lasting relationship, perhaps there’s something to it, after all.
“I’m really hopeful that CoronaCrush and other similar virtual forums are making dating a more values-based process and changing people’s superficiality,” said Mark. “I hope that sticks around even after COVID is over.”
Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.