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Virtual shidduch-making for the Orthodox (they weren’t going to hold hands anyway)

One recent Saturday night, a 24-year-old named Tiffany G. put the finishing touches on her makeup to prepare for a date. New York City had been in lockdown for weeks, the usual hotels and lounges where Orthodox Jews meet for arranged dates all shuttered. So where was Tiffany headed? To meet a potential husband on her computer screen.

“There’s no looking at the waiters or the other daters,” Tiffany, who spoke on the condition her last name not be used, said of the intensity of the new world of screen-dating for shidduchs. “You’re either invested or you are not.”

Of course dating has migrated online alongside work and school. But among Haredi Jews, where the internet still remains suspect in many communities, video dating is a revolution of sorts. “It hasn’t been our way,” Chana Klein, an Orthodox matchmaker based in Jerusalem, said in a recent interview. But as the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold, Klein and others in the business of arranging Orthodox marriages said, the definition of “our way” is beginning to change.

“Even in a pandemic people want to feel like they are moving forward,” said Marjorie Glatt, events coordinator at YUConnects, an internet-based matchmaking initiative housed at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

The site began 12 years ago, but added a new program called “Zoom With Whom” around Passover, as in-person socializing became an impossibility, Glatt said. She is running about five such events per week for groups of up to 10 singles, and about 350 people have signed up. “We’re expanding each week and other communities want to follow our lead,” she said.

YUConnects offers a downloadable list of video-chatting tips and suggestions for what to do on virtual dates: ice-cream tasting (same flavors, two separate locations); a visit to a virtual escape room, a remote tour of the great wall of China. The site also offers online social events for groups of about 10 singles at a time for facilitated “getting-to-know-you” conversations via Zoom.

Glatt said that nearly 60% of those who attend the group events are open to dating their Zoom-room pals. Overall, YUConnects has about 3,500 members and has been helping arrange one-on-one Zoom dates as well.

Lisa Elefant, a matchmaker based in the Orthodox enclaves of Brooklyn, has a similar program of facilitated group discussions that she calls Coed19. The Zoom events include talks by popular inspirational speakers like Charlie Harary and well-known dating coach Dr. Jack Cohen and have drawn close to 100 participants since March 25.

“Guys and girls are now meeting other singles they wouldn’t have met before and group members become friends” also, Elefant said in an interview.

Tiffany, who met the young man she was putting makeup on for via one of Elefant’s events, said the approach makes factors like looks and family status less important. “The Zoom groups really showcase the personality,” she explained.

Efrem Berk, who is 26 and from Chicago, agreed. “You can see how a person behaves with other people, whether they’ll roll their eyes at a silly remark or try to make it better,” he said.

Screen dating has won the endorsement of several leaders in the New York religious world, including Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff of Flatbush, Brooklyn. But not everyone is on board.

“You can’t read body language and the silences can be very awkward,” said Chaya Esther of Jerusalem, who is 24 and has been looking for a partner for several years. She also spoke on the condition her last name not be used.

For those more comfortable with Zoom-dating, the question is what happens next. Glatt, of YUConnects, said she advises couples to consult their physicians and rabbis before agreeing to a face-to-face date.

Shlomo Lewenstein, a matchmaker in the Orthodox suburb Lakewood, N.J., said that in-person dates remain the norm in his community, with couples meeting outdoors, donning masks, arriving in separate cars, and maintaining the required social distance. Since Orthodox daters typically do not touch each other in any case, often waiting until the wedding for even hand-holding or goodnight kisses, dating from six feet apart is not so radical, and couples are continuing to get engaged, according to several matchmakers in both New York and Israel.

Which leads to a whole other set of challenges — no more big gatherings to celebrated.

Miriam Baitner, a senior at Stern College, had a drive-by engagement party, with about 10 friends and relatives circling her Florida home in cars festooned with signs and balloons.

Faye Rudman, the matchmaker for Gateways, an educational organization, said she sees a silver lining in the coronavirus cloud.

“There is no cost, no pressure, often no travel” to dating right now, she pointed out. “This is the perfect time to try something you’ve never tried before.”

Carol Ungar is a freelance writer and author of “Jewish Soul Food” (2015).

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