A sad-faced orange Star of David flashed across the iPhone screen as we swiped left on “James” (not his real name). The gentleman was listed as Orthodox and kosher, which is way too religious for my friend whose JSwipe account I was test-driving. With a swish he was gone. “Shalom.” and onto to the next nice Jewish boy (or nice Jewish girl if we wanted to go that route).
This wasn't even my own account on JSwipe, which has been described as the Jewish Tinder. JSwipe is neither the first nor the most recent Jewish dating app. It launched about nine months ago in timing with Passover (because nothing says love like a story of slavery and eight days of eating a cracker that will ruin your digestive system). Since then, the app has gained over 165,000 users in more than 70 countries, according to its founder.
What was more fascinating to me is that both Orthodox and non-religious Jewish friends had been using it and talking to me about it in the past month.
Although you can filter for only Jewish options on many dating sites, and even denominations of Judaism on others, JSwipe's layout somehow made it all easier. You could check off Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or the vague but sufficient “Just Jewish,” which I assumed meant “I need someone with a circumcised penis who read at least one line of Hebrew around his 13th birthday.”
There is also “other” and “willing to convert” (more on those categories later). In addition, there was even a spot to mark whether you were kosher, which is actually a big deal if you really like bacon or, like me, expend too much energy attempting to resist it.
There are no Woody Allen-style stuttering neurotic attempts to lay out complicated religious philosophy or existential questions about the existence of God; here were quick yes-and-no markers to the Jewish lifestyle practices that could make or break a relationship.
Unfortunately, yours truly couldn't get in on the fun. I actually downloaded the app last summer and was embarrassed because none of my friends seemed to use it. It crashed a lot, and I gave up. Now it can't open on my phone due to what appears to be software incompatibility.
In my mother's most adorable and depressing comment on my dating life, she immediately offered to buy me a brand new iPhone for the sole purpose of letting me use JSwipe. Twice.
I declined, but not because I didn't want to use JSwipe. Within a few swipes, I was already feeling that burst of romantic optimism you need the first day of the (Christian) new year. Perhaps because I have always been Semitic-minded in my romantic preferences – hey there, James Deen, Paul Rudd, Skylar Astin (Lipstein) – but the guys on JSwipe seemed more attractive than the usual dating site bunch.
A 20-something with dark brown hair, showing off buff arms in a wifebeater (with the insignia of Jewish fraternity) flashed by on the screen and against my better judgment, I swooned a little.
At least since the Shtetl days when East European Jews would visit their local shadchan (matchmaker) to pair up singles in suitable matches, the people of the book have been obsessed with matters of the heart – sort of. Marriages were not so much about romance as making suitable pairs and making sure Jews stayed with Jews and kept the small and heavily persecuted population alive. You didn't marry in isolation. Marrying another Jew was not just a personal simcha (joy), but one for the community.
One would think these same concerns would not influence Jews, especially Jewish millennials of 2014 who tend to identify less with Judaism than previous generations.
According to the Pew Research Center, almost a full-third (32 percent) of Jews born after 1980 describe themselves as having no religion, more than any other age group.
A solid majority of 58 percent of Jews who got married after 2005 chose a spouse outside the faith, compared to the 17 percent of American Jews who got married before 1970. Not only are we less governed by the traditional guilt and pressures to marry in the faith, but American society is less anti-Semitic and gentiles like marrying us, too, including some members of U.S. political royalty (most recently Chelsea Clinton in 2010).
And yet we keep devouring the ever-increasing array of Jewish dating apps and sites and Facebook groups--why?
For some, it’s the desire of a shared background and cultural values, but there is also a certain desire to perpetuate and strengthen the Jewish community itself.
“I have a survivalist instinct,” said Ben, a 28-year-old New Yorker. “I believe in the historical pressure put on our community. People have been trying to kill us for thousands of years. We've managed to survive, and I want to be a part of that tradition. I don't begrudge anyone who married outside the faith. I think in modern times interfaith marriages are important. But there's a ton of value for me in my background and my history, and losing it would be a shame. As much as interfaith couples say it doesn't happen, it does.”
Ben is not Orthodox or particularly committed to adhering to traditional Jewish laws. In fact, while Ben actively seeks to date and marry someone who is Jewish, he sets his filter on JSwipe to cut out matches who are kosher, saying it was “too much of a lifestyle difference.”
Here's the weird thing about being a non-Orthodox Jewish single seeking other Jews: you don't want to seem too Jewish, or rather, you want to convey the right level of Jewishness you want in a partner (or a hookup).
“It's not necessarily something I'm exclusive about but I'd like to focus on dating someone who is Jewish,” said Victoria Reuveni, a 27-year-old Jewish sexologist in the Los Angeles. “It's not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it is kind of a top priority.”
Anecdotally, Jewish millennials, especially ones that aren’t traditionally Orthodox, are wildly heterogenous--and their dating app desires change with one’s mood. As one Jewish male friend once told me about his OkCupid filters, “I usually set it for only Jewish girls…except when I’m horny.” (Tinder and OkCupid are both owned by IAC, the parent company of The Daily Beast.)
JSwipe definitely gives off less of a hookup vibe than others. Almost everyone I spoke to said they have used JSwipe because they are specifically not just looking for a booty call. “Even people I spoke to a while back, it didn't get too steamy. It's definitely much dirtier, much faster on OkCupid,” said Reuveni.
JSwipe is less than a year old, and founder David Yarus says he’s already aware of at least one marriage that occurred thanks to the app--and the Almighty.
But, as with many dating apps, you may get matched with people where the pairings don’t even necessarily lead into a conversation. Sometimes, a tech glitch means you are prevented from looking at other users. “JSwipe is currently under heavy load,” flashed across the screen, one night as a friend and I looked at it. “Oy vey!”
It was hard not to take it as a sign, a personal comment on my own Jewish dating failings. My friend said she felt the same way, as if the technical issue was a subtle judgment that she had exhausted all the available Jewish men in Manhattan to no avail.
Ultimately, I came to peace with the fact it was a sign of bugginess (especially since a few others complained to me about technical difficulties with the app), but JSwipe can make the Jewish singles world feel eerily small.
A 28-year-old woman in the Bay Area said she “matched with a guy from elementary school,” and as a result, “felt like I couldn't swipe no to him.” She regretted that. “Then I learned he can't spell and is a manager at a CPK,” she said. “He is also like 5'3".” She ultimately ditched JSwipe after about a week and found her current, non-Jewish, boyfriend on OkCupid.
Actually, for every familiar face you may see on JSwipe, there are definitely a fair few you wouldn’t expect--namely people outside the tribe. There’s a reason for the “willing to convert” or “other options.” Yarus didn’t give me exact numbers on how many people registered with the app aren’t Jewish, but I found a gentile JSwiper within about 12 hours of seeking out the general population of users.
Brian, a 31-year-old who lives in Brooklyn, said he didn’t think twice about signing up for JSwipe. “I just figured why not. I’m already on OkCupid, Tinder, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel. I figured why not throw JSwipe into the mix,” he said. Brian hadn’t started swiping away yet by the time we spoke, but said he wasn’t listing himself as “willing to convert” and had made it clear on his profile that he was not Jewish.
Brian’s decision to join isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in 2004, the New York Times wrote about people who signed up--and paid--for JDate who weren’t Jewish. Yarus said he’s not surprised. “I remember seeing a tweet that said ‘Going on my first JSwipe date, and neither of us are Jewish',” he laughed. “I think it’s great. It's a testament to the quality of the app. We are for anyone and everyone who celebrates Jewish culture and is interested in having that be a part of their lives now or in the future.”
Still, he admits JSwipe’s “core intention is finding and providing nice Jewish boys and nice Jewish girls.”
Yarus also works for Birthright and Hillel, two major Jewish organizations that have prioritized building social bonds and--tacitly and overtly--encouraging Jewish relationships.
However, he is hesitant to take too strong of an opinion on intermarriage, which is one of the biggest hot button issues in modern American Jewish society (perhaps only rivaled by discussions on Israel and the Middle East).
“Intermarriage rates don't surprise me based on my work with the Jewish community,” is the most I get out of him, and he admits that he personally is trying to marry someone who is Jewish.
However, Yarus acknowledges that the issue of increasing intermarriage rates gives a certain social mission to JSwipe, at least to him. “Frankly, it makes what we're doing all the more exciting knowing it's not just another thing. I hope it's making a real impact on people’s lives.”
For my friend, a small minority of JSwipe matches materialized into conversations, and none have materialized into dates. One of the guys I interview about JSwipe says he’s only made it onto one date in the past couple of months of using JSwipe and nixed a second because the girl was “too eager.” All the old rules of dating apply in its new technical setting, it seems, and no app or website will change that -- even if, like JSwipe, it answers to a higher authority.