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Is pandemic dating making us all Orthodox?

It’s your first date. You’ve never met the other person, but they’ve been pre-screened and chosen for you, so you show up at the agreed-upon location, perhaps a park bench or hotel lobby. It’s daytime. You sit apart from each other, not close enough to touch or bump knees. Even though it’s the first date, you immediately discuss your future.

Until recently, this was a description of an Orthodox shidduch meeting, the kind you could easily observe in hotel lobbies across Jerusalem — carefully dressed young people sitting awkwardly across from each other and trying to determine if they should get married.

But now, this scene is familiar to anyone dating during the pandemic. Given the possibility of contagion, touching is nearly as fraught as it is for those who keep shomer negiah, who do not touch members of the opposite gender except their spouse. And while the secular dating scene is dominated by hookup culture and “situationships” during normal times, the pandemic has changed the game. Apps are playing the role of the shadchan, or matchmaker, algorithmically sending best matches to their users, and commitment is the goal.

A fast-paced hookup culture is a recipe for a superspreader event. And while that hasn’t stopped everyone, it has drastically shifted dating culture. Now, responsible singles are discussing exclusivity and even grocery shopping habits on apps before they even meet. There’s commitment, and maybe a coronavirus test, before the first kiss. (A recent match, unasked, presented me with a current blood test showing proof of antibodies and a negative STI screen. What a dreamboat.)

There are a lot of concerns to navigate, and even secular singles are starting to take their cues from religious practice. Lori Salkin, a dating coach and matchmaker for SawYouAtSinai — a Jewish dating site that uses real, human matchmakers to pair off people from across the Jewish community — said her clients have been keeping their distance.

“You have like, the COVID hug. You used to go on a first date, and if you weren’t shomer negiah, you’d give each other an automatic hug hello, hug goodbye,” she said. But now, the etiquette is murky. It’s hard to know how much contact someone is comfortable with.

She told a story of one client, a man who was dating a woman Salkin described as “very modern.” But the client began to wonder if his date was, in fact, shomer negiah, because of how she kept her distance on their dates; he couldn’t figure out if he could give her a hug or hold her hand. Another hoped to lean in for a first kiss when dropping off his date, but she was always in the midst of putting her mask back on to get out of the car.

On the flip side, the winter weather can rush things. The easiest solution to the cold is to retreat to an apartment. But asking someone to come up is an invitation loaded with innuendo and assumptions in normal times. Plus, now that everyone is always home, bringing a date inside can mean meeting family (aka roommates). You can’t bring just anyone home. It’s a lot of pressure. In a way, having the more religious script, and knowing an invitation inside did not carry a hidden message, would be relaxing.

For all of these situations, Salkin gives her clients the same advice: talk about it. If you want to invite someone in for dinner, but only dinner, tell them. If you can’t tell if someone is comfortable with a hug, ask. If you have to ask them to take their mask off for a kiss, just do it.

We probably should have been checking in and asking for consent all the time, so clearly it’s easier said than done. Maybe it just takes a pandemic to drive the issue home.

But despite all the awkwardness, there’s an upside to using the more religious script for dating. “People have actually said on many, many occasions — people who are very modern — ‘I love being fake shomer during COVID and really just having the opportunity to focus on getting to know somebody,’” Salkin said.

On the other hand, there’s Zach Adler, a 27-year-old man from Crown Heights who I met on the dating app Hinge. Adler grew up black hat but has become less observant; he was initially aghast at the stringent precaution the even secular community has been using. “That sounds like religion!” he exclaimed after hearing a story of a couple dating for months who had barely been inside together; he had been assuming most people on dating apps were carrying on completely as usual, with no regard for pandemic guidelines — that’s been his experience.

Adler said that, in becoming less observant, he feels that he escaped the culture of neuroticism that comes with such a strict adherence to guidelines. “Are those people taking it too far?” he wondered. “Or is that an overly negative take, and really, it’s a positive and we should look at those people as a tzadik, they’re a righteous person, like look what people can do without religion, just for the greater good.”

If I’m being honest, I’m not so into the shomer negiah thing; I don’t find it takes the pressure off. I miss making out with people without having to consider whether they’re worth the risk. But there’s something nice about a first date in the park, instead of a bar; I just wish it were warmer. Maybe I just need a shadchen to prescreen my dates’ COVID protocols for me.

Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. You can reach her at [email protected] or find her on Twitter @miraefox.

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