Curating Dating for Pandemic Semitics

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Not just different, but brand new – when dating changed, we had to change too.

By Danielle Selber

When I founded Tribe 12’s matchmaking initiative in 2014, the model was simple. Take what had worked in terms of dating for my friends in the Orthodox community – a personal, trusting relationship with a matchmaker; curated matches culled from a vast network; and gentle guidance – and reimagine it to fit modern, secular dating.  

Our little experiment caught on and it doubled as a powerful tool for community engagement. Singles come to us with a need – the opportunity to find a Jewish life partner – and leave with that need met plus engagement in Jewish community, synagogues and organizations. 

By February 2020, I had met one-on-one with nearly 400 singles, run 94 dating events, set up 193 first dates, and put 66 people in long term relationships, 14 of whom are now married. 

Then came the pandemic.

My gut instinct was: shut it all down. The world felt so fragile and precarious; I wondered if dating would become trivial or even taboo. But as I heard from and reached out to my 400 singles, I learned that for them, it was quite the opposite. In this time of uncertainty, more than ever, they wanted opportunities to socialize and to experience authentic human connections. They also needed help navigating a completely new world of dating. They didn’t want this outside, outsized event to mean putting their search for partnership on hold.

With that in mind, we shifted our matchmaking program entirely to the virtual space. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Less risk

The risk of signing up for an in-person speed dating event feels perilously high – I’ve received nervous emails preceding every speed dating event I’ve ever hosted. When I ran my first virtual blind dating event, I wondered how the “turnout” would be. In less than a day the event was full! For each subsequent event the reaction has been similar – lightning-quick sign ups, carefree “why not?” attitudes, and a sense of play and fun that is missing from even the most successful in-person dating event. Add the blind (cameras off) element and suddenly speed dating, that event my constituents used to both beg for and dread, becomes a positive dating experience. 

With dating itself, people are also stretching outside their comfort zones. “I had a five hour Zoom date,” said one of my singles. “I’ve never done that before.” He’s right – even a few months ago that wouldn’t have felt like an option. Before the quarantine, I made matches by sharing photos and profiles of people with potential matches and getting mutual agreement before connecting them. Now, I shifted to blind date matches – connecting two matchmaking constituents via text, suggesting a ten minute FaceTime or Google Hangout “first date,” and leaving the rest of the interaction up to them. This allows me to make more matches faster and for people to move on to the next match quickly if there isn’t a connection. Everyone has the option to opt out of these matches but so far, no one has. 

There is also far less risk when planning dating events. An unpopular Zoom event is forgotten in a day; a failed in-person event where you have booked a venue, a speaker and ordered catering is a hit to your organization’s finances and reputation. Working with partner organizations has changed, too. Before the quarantine, a co-sponsored event might take months to plan and execute. In this world-on-hold, I had a video chat with colleagues from young professional organizations EntryPointDCNextGenAC and JCC Manhattan on a Thursday and we co-hosted a sold out East Coast virtual blind dating event the following Sunday. 

Lower barrier to entry

With less risk comes a far lower barrier to entry. Think about how it can feel to walk into an in-person happy hour. First, the commitment – registering, possibly paying, putting it in your calendar. Then, the fear – will anyone talk to me? which friend can I drag with me? will everyone be weird? Then the planning – what do I wear? where do I park? when do I walk my dog? And then the event itself – that moment when you walk into a room and, for a moment, it seems like every person is engaged in a fun, lively conversation with their best friends on earth and you wish you could melt into a wall and disappear. Then you hopefully see someone you know or are approached by a friendly stranger and you settle into an enjoyable evening. 

Now contrast that experience with a virtual happy hour. You sign up five minutes before, put on your nicest pajamas, and bring a bowl of cereal to your computer. You click a Zoom link and pop into an event, seeing a few familiar faces and keeping yourself on mute. You engage in whatever activity the hosts have planned – an icebreaker, scavenger hunt, trivia, challenges – and then your dog starts to whine. You sign off and take her outside and twenty minutes later, you can choose to either log back in or you’re asleep in your bed, with just enough human connection and fun for the day.

These radically different experiences are a means to the same end – connecting with people in a shared environment which fosters friendships, relationships and everything in between. When done well, elements of a virtual event can even surpass in-person events in this way. Randomly assigned Zoom breakout rooms have been a surprisingly effective way to facilitate those genuine bonds. We place people in “rooms” of three or four people, often with some framing and a prompt to start the conversation. Unlike at a bar, you have a quiet space, the full attention of your Zoommates (people rarely look at their phones or do other tasks when in these intimate groups), and an invitation to speak candidly and vulnerably about the topic at hand. This is also true for randomly assigning teams to rooms for an online game like Family Feud or Codenames. That competitive spirit comes out and by the end, you feel fully invested in your team members and comfortable reaching out to them offline. 

Shared experience

There are not too many moments in history where there is a collective sense of mourning, trauma, uncertainty and grief across the entire country. Certain generations had their 9/11, their Columbine, their JFK’s assassination. This pandemic has that weight – the sense of solidarity from a shared experience. 

In dating, this has translated to a yearning for companionship. “I just want to be able to stay home because I want to, not because I have to,” a self-described introvert said to me.

Others have told me this pandemic has brought on a reckoning within them. Like a writing prompt which creates limits to draw out creativity, having so many normal elements of life stripped away has allowed people to have the time and space for introspection. “The pandemic has made me think about my priorities and what I really want from life,” one new person said to me. “That’s what made me reach out to you for matchmaking.”

Touchpoints, not events

Early on, a friend at another nonprofit said something that stuck with me: “one thing I have learned during this pandemic is we should not adjust by trying to recreate how we did things, but to take advantage of the opportunity to do things differently.”

My in-person version of matchmaking was all physical interaction based – one on one coffee dates with me, attending dating events, being set up on first dates. When pandemic upended that model, I went back to a tool we teach Tribe 12 Fellows (our annual cohort of social entrepreneurs) called radical brainstorming. In radical brainstorming, you ask outlandish questions to try to find hidden truths: how would you do this with no money? how would you do it with unlimited time? how would you do it on Mars? what if you had magic? It boils down to: how can I accomplish my same goal but with different tactics?

I started to think of my outputs as touchpoints. Instead of throwing an extra event on the calendar, I took an afternoon to send “hedge hugs,” encouraging cards with a smiling hedgehog badge attached, to some of my singles who had opted in to getting surprises from me in the mail. I asked a friend who is a dating coach to hop on Instagram with me to try an AMA (one hour live “Ask Me Anything” segments on Facebook or Instagram), and after it went well, we did a few more and reached thousands of viewers. 

Feeling held

Even one generation ago, finding a life partner was done with the support of family and the Jewish community at large. My dad, in the 1980s, had broken up with an Israeli girl. His friend said “oh, you like Israelis? Let me introduce you to my roommate.” He and my very Israeli, firebrand of a mother have been married for 35 years. A generation before, my grandmother Zohara met a Jewish girl named Alice on a bus in Casablanca, Morocco. After a two minute conversation, she insisted Alice come home with her to meet her son. Alice and my uncle Maimon were married later that year. 

It’s just not like that anymore – today’s singles are on their own. They are left to navigate a constantly changing, sometimes demoralizing, often fruitless world of awkward dates, uncomfortable situations, unwanted texts and inappropriate photos, with not only no guidance, but no camaraderie. One 30something I met recently said that all of her friends are married and though she is still close with them, she can’t confide in them about the subtle, murky challenges of dating; they just don’t get it. Her few single friends are not much better – they are more interested in talking about themselves or offering solutions than just holding space for her. What she seeks is the feeling of being held – of bringing every angry, quirky, joyful part of you into a conversation and trusting that the other person will share your burden with empathy and zero judgment. 

We talk about community so much that the word has become jargon. But that feeling of wishing that someone is looking out for you, that you don’t have to go it alone, hasn’t gone away. For my singles, I’m that annoying person who nudges them to come to a (virtual) event, to jump on a 10 minute video first date with someone they’re hesitating about, to try that new dating app that everyone seems to like. In essence, it’s a redefining of “yenta,” the shtetl’s gossipy and meddling busybody, to a person who is simply in your dating corner. If ever there was a time to rekindle that Jewish notion of a collective responsibility to help people find what they seek, it’s now. 

Danielle Selber is Tribe 12’s in-house matchmaker, offering a casual and personalized dating alternative for Philadelphia’s Jewish 20s/30s. She is a graduate of YentaNet’s ‘Matchmaker and Leadership Institute’ and Marriage Minded Mentor’s ‘Matchmaker Academy’ and a mediator trained in the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) method and the Harvard Negotiation model of facilitative mediation. She has helped several other U.S. cities adapt matchmaking to fit the needs of their communities. Contact: