Why is May 2019 different from all other months? It’s Jewish American Heritage Month for one, a period that feels especially important to mark given the rising insecurity coursing through Jewish American life. Because visibility is more important than ever before, Refinery29 brings you our celebration of Jewish American culture. L’chaim!
Vicky is single and knows what she wants. So when the 29-year-old first logged onto JDate in 2009, she indicated she’d be willing to meet both kosher and non-kosher matches (she was raised in Brooklyn on “Orthodox principles,” she says) and started screening potential suitors for similar backgrounds. It turned out to be more complicated than she’d anticipated.
There are 12 denominational profile options on JDate, everything from “Culturally Jewish” to “Orthodox,” and in-between, like “Conservadox.” To provide an even more granular impression of observance, indicators like “Kosher at Home” or “Attend Synagogue at High Holidays” are available to users. As the messages started gathering in her inbox, Vicky started responding to men who’d identified as Orthodox, Conservative, and even “Not Religious.” “I screen out most people before I’m comfortable giving them a chance,” she says. “I know the right questions to ask,” to see if their backgrounds match what she’s looking for. Her due diligence includes learning more about where potential dates grew up and their parents before agreeing to a date.
This is how she found out that one match who specified on his profile that he wasn’t religious and didn’t keep kosher wasn’t Jewish at all. “He said, ‘I’m not actually Jewish, but I like Jewish girls. I hope that doesn’t bother you,’” she says. She had little interest in what it was about Jewish women he liked — it didn’t seem worth it to waste time on someone who didn’t fit her bill. “I’m not doing this for bullshit,” she says. “I’m thinking for the long term.”
Vicky is certainly not the only JDate user to discover the robust non-Jewish community on Jewish dating sites. And while it’s difficult to measure the number of non-Jewish people using JDate or its mobile app JSwipe — Spark Net, the sites’ parent company, does not disclose the demographics of its users — a quick glance at any user’s unfiltered matches will yield a decent litter of “Other” and “Willing to Convert.”
Toni, 66, is a divorcee who, though no longer very observant, wanted to meet another Jewish person, Toni joined JDate when she was ready to start dating again. She met military servicemen (some even stationed overseas) and a man from a tiny town in the South. “They were all non-Jews,” she recalls. “From what I understand from talking to other people who've done the apps, they’ve had very similar experiences.” Unlike Vicky, Toni didn’t make the discovery until she and her date were face-to-face. “I said to him, ‘You know it's really not fair for you to go on something that's supposed to be a Jewish dating site and pretend to be Jewish.’ He punted.”
My own JDate and JSwipe profiles — which, if you’re reading this, Mom and Dad, were created for research purposes only — tended to attract the culturally, less-religious matches I’d indicated I was seeking in my preferences. Messages, however, are open to anyone, and mine came from men across the spectrum from Jew to “ish” to “Other.” And “JDate for non-Jews,” while not ubiquitous, is not an uncommon internet search term. It even popped up as a subject of Chicago Tribune’s dating and sex advice column in 2013.
So why do gentiles seek single members of the tribe? For some, it’s a numbers game: Dating, online or IRL, can be a slog, and joining more than one service increases the pool of perspective matches. Deep in the trenches of faceless online forums like Reddit, where every kink has its own burgeoning community, anonymous users provide a number of reasons for choosing the chosen people. There’s the gay goy with “a thing for bears (beards/glasses)” who finds “some Jewish fellas really attractive,” and the self-described Asian European doctor, married to an Ashkenazi Jew, who writes: “smart, busty, mousy girls? Sign me up!” Harmless as their reasons may seem, there’s a reluctance among non-Jewish JDaters to share them publicly. They use pseudonyms and usernames when asking questions about joining Jewish dating sites. Even those who admitted to doing so declined to be interviewed for this piece when contacted.
“For some reason, a lot of men want Jewish girlfriends,” says Toni of a trend she’s noticed in her own circles since she was in college. “I think it had something to do with sex. Supposedly Jewish women are better sexual partners.”
There are a number of reasons why a niche dating site might welcome members who don’t fit neatly into the niche. First, it’s generally a good PR move for any company to land on the side of inclusivity when it comes to religion or ethnicity. And because these sites rely on users to self-identify, it’s hard to imagine an easy, logical, or legal way to verify profile information. Then there’s the matter of business: operating a dating service is a commercial enterprise, and a lucrative one at that. Spark Net, which boasts a portfolio of ten different dating sites and an online magazine, expects to earn $50 million in 2020 — a number driven, primarily, by user subscriptions and in-app purchases. Allowing non-niche users to join a niche dating site, especially when the niche itself comprises a tiny margin of the larger population, can make a site more profitable.
“I think it’s beautiful,” says David Yarus, founder of JSwipe and Global Ambassador for JDate, of non-Jewish users looking for love on his platforms. “Ultimately, we have been very intentional in fostering more refined, digital dating within the Jewish community or for those who celebrate the Jewish culture. But it’s so important that we recognize and honor the universality of the world. I would hope and welcome anyone who is interested in finding someone Jewish to feel comfortable using JDate or JSwipe.”
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The search for Jewish love is not exclusive to online dating either. Maria Avgitidis, founder and CEO of Agape Match in New York City, remembers a client who said “she only wanted Jewish men because they’re really great providers.” Other non-Jewish clients who were looking for Jewish partners were doing so, she says, outside of “a gold-digging perspective:” “They just want a mentsh.”
“We’ve heard it all. That would be the least of it,” says Erika Kaplan, VP of Client Experience at Three Day Rule, which combines online dating technology with more traditional matchmaking and dating strategies. “But yes, we've heard the stereotype of being good providers, being educated, being hard-working, and coming from good families.” Kaplan and Avgitidis, who both serve clients of many faiths and backgrounds, stress that a big component of matchmaking is breaking down preconceived notions and getting clients to keep their criteria open. “What we do is we try to take away the ‘profile’ and the stereotypes and look at the human,” says Kaplan. Both matchmakers also land on the same end goal in matching clients: chemistry. “That could be communication, that could be physical,” says Avgitidis. “Chemistry is your sense of familiarity and comfort with the person you're interacting with.”
The sense of shared values and similar upbringing is likely at the root of the more ambiguous or “it’s-just-my-type” reasons some non-Jews have a thing for Jewish people. “I’ve heard people say, ‘The last three people I’ve dated were Jewish,’ or ‘I’ve really gotten along with Jewish people,’” says Yarus. Often, the attraction is a result of happenstance. Though she had never considered Jewish men to be her type, my Colombian sister-in-law found that she and her friends “gravitated” toward them at college, where the undergraduate Jewish population was among the 30 highest in the country and included my brother. They are now raising two latke- and arepa-loving boys, the oldest of whom was recently serenaded by his JCC preschool class with “Happy Birthday” in both Spanish and English.
Sincere motives aside, it seems like a pretty big gamble to join a niche service without being a member of the niche, particularly in the case of JDate, which combines two incredibly personal aspects of one’s life: religion and romance. Users like Toni and Vicky have used JDate to find someone with a specific level of observance, but there are many others whose preferences are fluid. (Because more of my time is spent worshipping the miracle of modern television than at any synagogue, my philosophy is more along the lines of “judge ye not by thy commitment to faith, but by the contents of thy DVR.”) “Other” and “Willing to Convert” exist on these platforms for that very reason.
Where the gentile-seeking-Jew situation becomes troubling is in the cloak-and-dagger courting on Jewish dating sites in which people feel the need to misrepresent themselves (or #FakeJews, as one Reddit user described it to me). In the wake of Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and now Poway, where anti-Semitic attacks gestated online, it’s difficult not to be wary of someone taking a strong interest in wooing a Jewish person under false pretenses. Perhaps that’s why, in reporting this piece, I was unable to get anyone to go on record about claiming to be Jewish on dating sites — or why those who confess to misleading potential matches often do so behind the anonymity of user names and avatars, even when their intentions are genuine. Yet online romance scams are significantly more likely used to commit wire fraud than hate crimes. The resulting deceit is more universal, but no less fraught: It doesn’t take a dating expert to note that basing a relationship on a lie is not the most romantic gesture. Advice to gentiles seeking to date within the tribe? Be truthful about who you are. Anything else would be meshgganah.