The breakup had been painful, but Rivka was looking to get back on the dating circuit.
“I don’t think I ever would have seen myself going through an online forum to date,” said the recent Ivy League graduate living on the Upper West Side, citing a background in mixed-gender educational and social settings. “I just thought that I would meet somebody naturally — that’s how most of my past relationships had been.”
“And its merging of old-school and new-school technologies occupies a potent middle ground in a fast-changing Orthodox dating environment.”
But a matchmaker, of sorts, beckoned. Rivka (not her real name), a veteran of the Modern Orthodox dating scene, thought the “human touch” — rather than the impersonal, algorithm-driven technology that brings people together on sites and apps like JDate and the Tinder-inspired JSwipe — had potential.
Her matchmaker is part of a newly launched program called JLIConnections, a partnership between the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and the popular Orthodox dating site SawYouAtSinai, which relies mostly on matchmakers browsing online dating profiles. JLIConnections uses campus Jewish educators who know the students as matchmakers rather than SawYouAtSinai’s randomly assigned shadchans. And its merging of old-school and new-school technologies occupies a potent middle ground in a fast-changing Orthodox dating environment.
On the new-school side of the equation stands Alan Avitan, a 28-year-old businessman with a close-cropped beard and a ready smile who lives on the Upper West Side. The enterprising bachelor has parlayed his recognition as one of the most right-swiped (meaning “liked”) men on JSwipe, the popular Jewish dating app, into a new gig. Last year Avitan launched “The Right Swipe,” in which he offers his finely honed advice to Jewish singles looking to improve their online dating and social media profiles. (“Tell a story” with your dating profile with photos that reveal a range of interests, not “just five photos of your face,” he urges.)
So far, Avitan says, 40 young eligibles have sought his services, and he’s a frequent speaker at Jewish singles events around the city.
On the more traditional side stands Tova Weinberg. The 64-year-old, Pittsburgh-based shadchan has been a matchmaker for Jews of all stripes for most of her adult life and was involved in the founding of SawYouAtSinai. Because of the impersonality of dating apps, she says, her business is booming.
Somewhere in between lies JLIConnections, and the now-happily dating Rivka.
Leah Gottfried, creator of “Soon By You,” a witty web series about Orthodox dating, sees the range of options available to Orthodox daters as a net positive. “Now you have different ways of meeting people and are not just stuck or forced into doing it one way,” she said. “Apps and sites are empowering, because they give people the option of moving away from relying on other people — there’s something for everybody now.”
David Yarus, who founded JSwipe in 2014, does not see the app as supplanting matchmaker-based options, but rather as expanding opportunities for successful matches. Though different options work well for different people, JSwipe, he said, has resulted in “hundreds of people empowered to find love on their own, swiping in their community or worldwide,” on a scale that no individual matchmaker can parallel.
At a time when navigating the dating scene seems more fraught than ever, those committed to the matchmaking system believe a middleman (or woman) can be essential. Weinberg advocates for the value of having an “ombudsman” in the dating-for-marriage process. In contrast to what she characterizes as “environment of wandering,” created by apps in which daters keep seeking a more perfect person in an endless sea of possibilities and never allow a relationship to develop, a shadchan helps encourage communication and compromise to help a couple build a rapport.
Weinberg laments that websites and apps have to a significant degree taken the place of singles events that allowed people to “meet interactively” and build relationships based less on initial attraction. She notes that her clientele has “increased tenfold” in recent years.
Avitan, however, takes a swipe, so to speak, at the shadchan-based model of SawYouAtSinai, where matchmakers peruse profiles and suggest potential matches. On an app like JSwipe, “you’re cutting out the middleman,” he said. “You know what you’re attracted to, you know what you’re interested in; it’s tough for someone else to make those decisions for you.”
“On an app like JSwipe, “you’re cutting out the middleman,” he said. “You know what you’re attracted to, you know what you’re interested in; it’s tough for someone else to make those decisions for you.”
As the gig economy creates increasing expectation for intensely customizable and immediately accessible services — from ride sharing to grocery delivery — questions about the usefulness of a standardized matchmaking system that involve less input on the part of the user continue to emerge. And while SawYouAtSinai and its affiliates are traditional in their commitment to the importance of the matchmaker, their payment model — based on couples paying matchmakers directly upon a successful engagement — hews neatly to a model similar to Uber and other on-demand direct service companies. (SawYouAtSinai matchmakers are not employees of the company with regular salaries, but are paid directly by clients only when they arrange a marriage; $2,000 is a standard fee.)
“As the gig economy creates increasing expectation for intensely customizable and immediately accessible services — from ride sharing to grocery delivery — questions about the usefulness of a standardized matchmaking system that involve less input on the part of the user continue to emerge.”
In contrast, Avitan charges his clients for consultation not based on success but by the hour. His one-hour consultation offerings range from a $90 “Social Media Revamp” to a $150 “Get Smart About Online Dating” session.
For Sarah Kasdan, an OU-JLIC educator at Cornell, the program isn’t just a service to students (undergraduates are given gold membership for free, graduate students are charged half price and alumni are given a discount while SawYouAtSinai has monthly membership fees) but an opportunity for educators to deepen their relationships with students. “We hope that students see this as another way we want to look out for them, and be involved in their lives.”
JLIConnections, which operates on 21 college campuses and serves nearly 4,500 students a year, was started at the initiative of Rabbi Reuven and Shira Boshnack, the OU-JLIC educators at Brooklyn College. When asked what this platform adds to existing options, Rabbi Boshnack emphasized “the personal touch.” He explained that “so much of the OU-JLIC programming is relationship-driven. You have the human touch, not a nice person from Washington Heights, Teaneck or the Five Towns but your OU-JLIC educator.”
Yoel Ackerman, who has just launched a Facebook group called “Frum Shidduch Resumes,” believes that since matchmakers are typically paid, “oftentimes, the shadchan might only have his or her own best interest in mind and is simply trying to marry you off quick without realizing that the match might not even be a good one.”
Ackerman started the Facebook group in order to “to simplify the shidduch process and make it easier for Orthodox singles to date by breaking down some of the barriers that they might face.”
A project begun in memory of Ackerman’s father, the group’s rules state that those looking to date for marriage should post their “shidduch resume” and only that. Group members can reach out to each other directly if they are interested in what they see, or can ask a group administrator to reach out to someone they are interested in to see if there is a mutual spark.
“A single person looking for marriage is already limited by relying on others to help him or her out,” Ackerman told The Jewish Week via email. “If I want an ice cream from the store, do I hire a middleman to introduce me to the ice cream? Of course not! I will go to the store and pick out my own brand of ice cream with my favorite flavor at the right price. … If you want action, then you’re best off doing it yourself.”
The group has not yet led to any matches, but has over 90 members.
As for Rivka, the recent Ivy League graduate on the Upper West Side, the push and pull between dating apps and the “human touch” played out in her own, ultimately successful, search for a mate. For a short time while she was using JLIConnections, she also had a JSwipe account, which she deleted after a few weeks. The day before she deleted it, though, she matched with a guy — the guy who is now her boyfriend. They never actually connected through the app, but soon went on a date set up through JLIConnections. They now joke about it, but Rivka marvels at the difference in the two platforms.
“If we had met through JSwipe, our relationship probably would have developed very differently,” she said. “We wouldn’t have gone in knowing all the things we knew about each other.”