‘Jessica” is young, frum and fun to be around. But she’s playing the dating game with a handicap: divorced parents, which make her less of a catch in the eyes of traditional matchmakers. Ideally, a friend who’s savvy about setting people up would step in. But you can’t just make that happen … or can you?
A new organization, JS MatchPoint, says you can. And it’s just one of a number of new initiatives — including a website and a Facebook group — that aim to help young Modern Orthodox Jews meet and marry.
These new projects are hardly the first attempts to use the Internet to promote Jewish marital bliss. At 14 years old, JDate is one of the oldest and most popular sites for pairing up Jews of all stripes (although not all its users are seeking marriage). Four years after JDate came Frumster, an Orthodox alternative for those seeking more observant and more marriage-minded partners. And since 2003, another site, SawYouAtSinai has sought to combine the privacy and personal touch of a matchmaker with Internet dating features like e-mailing, profile sharing and even algorithms.
While Frumster, JDate and SawYouAtSinai are all for-profit businesses, the latest projects have a more grass-roots ethos. They seek to achieve their goal of creating more Jewish marriages by diffusing skills, connections and power into the hands of regular folks.
JS MatchPoint, for example, will tap the potential of an existing network by training community members who like to make matches. The “JS” stands for “Jewish singles.”
“I am more apt to go out with someone that a friend has set me up with,” said Jessica. “The problem with dating through matchmakers is that nobody wants to do it. It’s really a nebach way to go. It’s unromantic and lame.”
JS MatchPoint is the brainchild of Sharon Haberman, an Upper West Side mother of five and former lawyer who is receiving advice and support from PresenTense, the social entrepreneurship ideas incubator. She plans to make the organization a nonprofit, although at this point it is still at the business plan stage as she seeks funding.
Haberman’s is the first in PresenTense’s five years of projects to focus on dating and marriage, but it’s one of several that tries to create social change by harnessing or creating networks, said spokeswoman Deborah Fishman.
“People are looking to these networks, especially in the age of social media,” Fishman said. “They strengthen the identity of everyone in the network, as well as expanding the network as a whole.”
This multiplier effect of networks is appealing at a time when Jewish anxiety over perpetuating the Tribe remains intense. Not only are Jews increasingly intermarrying, but they are marrying at lower rates, and considerably later, than Americans in general. American Jewish fertility is too low to replace the population, Haberman said, pointing to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey, conducted in 2000-2001.
The picture probably hasn’t changed much since then, said Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociologist and the author of the 2006 book “Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy.”
“The norm [in American culture] is generally to marry late or not at all these days. The only two groups that are still interested in getting married are Jews and gays,” he said wryly.
Of course, almost every culture has its matchmaking mechanisms, said Namita Manohar, a Brooklyn College sociologist who studies marriage among Indian Americans with a close focus on the Patels, a subgroup concentrated in Florida that, like Orthodox Jews, activate community networks to help arrange marriages.
While observant Jewish singles remain more interested in marriage, and early marriage at that, than their non-Orthodox and non-Jewish peers, even they are marrying later as they pursue time-consuming professional ambitions and bring a long list of both religious and romantic requirements to the search for a partner.
Haberman worries that such high expectations can result in years of unproductive damaging that ultimately takes a psychological toll, but before that point, lots of observant singles enjoy dating.
“There’s the pressure to get married, and the pressure to have fun and enjoy your 20s,” said Michael Krimsky, 26, who is Modern Orthodox, single and the head of marketing for Manhattan Jewish Experience, an outreach program for young Jewish professionals.
There’s even a Modern Orthodox anthem about the temptations of modern life in the pop song “Upper West Side Story” in which the all-male and Orthodox group The Groggers sing, “I wanna move to the Upper West Side and find a single girl and never make her my bride, so what the rent is high, I want to live the life, they all live it up on the Upper West Side.”
Krimsky’s new website, Jewster.com, will combine a profile-based dating service with a comprehensive clearinghouse of event listings, even those hosted by competitor dating sites. Users will decide how much they will pay to subscribe and will be able to suggest and help make improvements.
The site, unaffiliated with Manhattan Jewish Experience, has attracted 20,000 members in its pilot phase. Krimsky and his co-creators are still debating whether it will be nonprofit or for-profit.
“The whole idea behind Jewster is to utilize any and every resource out there on the site,” Krimsky said. “Its resources are going to be shaped by the community itself. We’re trying to make people feel that they’re not just a user, but that they’re directing the show.”
Similarly, Haberman’s organization seeks to empower and inspire amateur matchmakers, like Jessica’s well-intentioned friends, offering them training and guidance from professional matchmakers, psychologists and social workers.
“We are dealing with singles’ lives here,” Haberman said. “It can’t be just, ‘Let’s put this one together with that one and see what happens.’”
JS MatchPoint will draw heavily on the work of YUConnects, a program that facilitates relationships between students and alumni of Yeshiva University and Stern College. YUConnects’ matchmakers, whom it calls “connectors,” attend seminars such as “Building the Connection, Moving the Relationship Forward,” and “Offering Direct Guidance Sensitively and Effectively.”
YUConnects claims 72 matches since its founding in 2008, showing that such a delicate art as matchmaking can indeed be taught, said Director Efrat Sobolofsky.
The Facebook group, “Nu, Let’s Set ’Em Up!” is also trying to harness the potential of volunteer matchmakers. Conceived this past summer by Mimi Hecht, a Crown Heights mom with a professional media background, the group’s motto is “Where my friend and your friend can become more than friends.”
It has almost 3,500 members and is responsible for one match so far, although Hecht, who is Chabad, said she gets lots of messages about dates that are going well.
“I’m hoping to hear even more good news,” she said. “If more people every day banded together to set their friends up, I believe that would be a huge step in relieving what people call the ‘shidduch crisis.’”
To be sure, demand for the services of professional matchmakers persists, as demonstrated by the continued success of SawYouAtSinai, which pairs singles with matchmakers who arrange dates for them only after getting to know them first.
Over 1,400 of the site’s former users credit it with finding their spouse, said Chief Executive Officer Marc Goldmann, but he thinks the site will be able to make even more matches once his employees get access to JS MatchPoint’s training.
Both Sobolofsky and Goldmann are on JS MatchPoint’s advisory board.
“I expect to make her training a requirement,” Goldmann said. “[Haberman] is trying to fill a void nobody has stepped forward to fill.”