It’s rare to find a Jew who hasn’t heard of JDate. Responsible for bringing countless members of the community together in matrimony, a whole generation of young people has grown up taking photos for upload to its hallowed webpages. But 20-something Jews, permanently attached to their cellphones as are most millennials, have many other options now for finding “the one.” Aside from actually meeting people face-to-face (G-d forbid), phone apps are being touted as the way forward.
The apps attempt to connect an array of Jewish singletons – if you both “like” each other, then you can chat. The market leaders, more established JSwipe and new kid on the block Jfiix, promise to connect you with “cool, young and mobile Jewish singles.” As someone who fits these criteria (it’s cool to label yourself cool, right?), I’m here to explain why I don’t believe they’ll achieve their aim. Having lived in London, Toronto and Vancouver, I’ll do this with the help of both personal insight and that of various Jewish young professionals in all three cities.
First, there’s the geography aspect – Jewish dating apps all aim to introduce you to other Jews. Thanks smartphones, but that’s not actually a problem we have. Anyone can tell you how Jews (and other ethnic groups) cluster together in most cities. Simply check out the suburb of Thornhill in Toronto or Golders Green in London if you don’t believe me. In Vancouver, with a Jewish community that a good friend comments is “half a block” wide, it’s not difficult to find members of the tribe. We do, after all, have a shared interest in hobbies such as eating and gossiping – where we find out that supposed strangers are often third or fourth cousins.
This closeness is usually a positive: even if you’re unfamiliar with the specific community or country, Jews, in my experience, excel at inclusivity and making newbies feel welcome. But when it comes to dating apps, it leads to a problem that’s twofold. If you do live in a Jewish area, chances are that you’ll already know other Jews from synagogue, Hebrew school, Birthright or friends of friends. In response to my questioning, a friend in London summed up the issue: “Jewish dating apps are great to keep your parents and grandparents happy, but you end up just swiping left to everyone, as you know them or they’re your best friend’s ex.” So, when you live in densely saturated Jewish areas, mobile apps are needless. And, when you don’t, they aren’t helpful either. One Vancouverite I spoke to, who goes to university in Halifax, remarked, “In my limited East Coast experience, there’s no one on Jewish dating apps. Everyone who shows up is from the States.” It’s little surprise that he set up a profile with Tinder, a similar app but one that’s open to all religions.
This leads me to the second problem with Jewish dating apps: the apps themselves. Certainly, critiques can be leveled at any and all such platforms. One Ontario-based law student refuses to download dating apps, full stop, arguing that people’s profiles are so “planned” and “calculated.” True, the information you put about yourself on dating apps is mostly limited to a line-long bio and several photos, and everyone tries to look their most cultured, well-traveled self in photos. Not only does everyone start to look like clone-like serial vacationers, but it means images, not personality, inevitably end up being the deciding factor in choosing dates.
Jewish apps have somewhat tried to sideline this prioritization of looks with “Jewish preference” tools. JSwipe, for instance, lets you select preferred options for being matched up: you can choose between kosher or not, as well as denominations from Orthodox to Reform to “willing to convert.” This is a pretty rudimentary way of sifting through Jewish singles when you compare it with the fact that people used to put some actual thought into matchmaking those who might work well as a couple. A graduate in Toronto lamented that “everyone’s stopped trying to set up other friends with mutual friends because swipe-based dating apps have become the new thing.” The new thing they are, but a new thing that’s being adopted reluctantly.
Why? I attribute this, in part, to an image problem. The apps aren’t appealingly designed and are more than a little cringe-worthy. Unlike other dating apps with more casual connotations (Tinder) or novel niches (Coffee Meets Bagel), Jewish ones are severely lacking the trendy factor. In my experience, this was because they didn’t seem fun or relaxed, and they certainly didn’t seem like they’d lead to the exciting adventure that dating surely should be. In short: they seemed to be full of people who felt like they “had to” find a Jew. And, depressingly enough, it was difficult to distinguish between whether this hint of dutiful desperation could be attributed to themselves, their parents or even their grandparents.
This is why, for many, the apps are a good idea in theory, but less so in practice. The focus on Judaism implies that if two people’s religious beliefs match up, then they’re clearly compatible. This neglects vital questions such as, “Is this person actually nice?” and “Do we have anything in common bar religion?” And I’d go so far as to say that sticking steadfastly to dating Jews means sticking to your comfort zone, as you’ll likely be from a similar background. But what are your 20s for if not to date people from other walks of life? At worst, dating vastly different people can highlight what you don’t want in a relationship. At best, you’ll gain life experience and learn a ton about different cultures. I say this as someone with a dating history that includes Christians and Muslims, but who, at the end of the day, would love to settle down with someone Jewish.
What doesn’t help in this regard is being warned before a first date with a non-Jew, “You can’t marry him” (thanks, Dad). Any young person will tell you that the more a rule is enforced, the more you want to rebel against it. It’s no different when it comes to dating. Ask pretty much any young Jew and they’ll attest to the pressure we feel from family and community to settle down with a Jewish spouse. It’s easy to joke about, but the joke’s on them when the pressure pushes us away. The burden is too much, too soon. But, Dad, and other parents, just because we experiment in our 20s doesn’t mean we don’t want a Jewish household. I’m sure I will have one eventually – well, we can pray, for my dad’s sake. And you know the guy in Halifax who traded a Jewish app for Tinder? He noted, “My bio has Hebrew in it, so I guess there’s a subconscious hope that it’ll attract Jews?”
Parents, have faith that we’ll come around and maybe, just maybe, we’ll do it without having to resort to mildly dire religion-specific dating apps.
Rebecca Shapiro is a freelance journalist, amateur photographer and blogger at thethoughtfultraveller.com. A recent politics graduate, she manages to maintain bases in London, Vancouver and Toronto, while focusing a disproportionate amount of time planning new adventures. She has been published in the Times (U.K.), Huffington Post (U.K.), That’s Shanghai (China) and ELLE Canada.