Erin Davis’s grandparents grew up in the same Polish village, were herded into the same ghetto, fell in love in hiding, and escaped together to a displaced person’s camp.
Erin Davis’s parents fell in love at a Denny’s Diner.
Today, Erin Davis believes that love can be found at a boutique New York City gym, over squat-thrusts and Grey Goose-Gatorade cocktails.
She calls it “Shabbatness”, and it just might be the future of the Jewish people.
Davis is a New York City wingwoman for Jewish singles: a fearless foil to singles trying to break into the dating scene. She is the host of dozens of curated “Shabbatness” dinners for singles over the past seven years. In the summer these become “Shabbatness: Schvitzfest”, like the workout night I’m attending with 20 eager Jewish singles, handpicked by Davis for the event. Davis reviews applications and conducts in-person interviews for groups of men and women selected from a database of thousands.
The participants at “Shabbatness: Schvitzfest” are young and attractive, and many look eerily alike. Tony, a coach in a yellow sweatband, instructs the group in a series of cardio warm-ups while Erin, in studded, platform tennis shoes and a twinkling navel piercing, looks on.
“Grape vine!” bellows Tony, and the group complies.
John’s Creek, Georgia, where Davis grew up, is a tough place to be an outspoken Jewish girl. She transferred schools to avoid her bullies and says it didn’t help to be overweight, hairy, and a foot taller than the other kids as early as 7 years old. Today, Davis runs two businesses in addition to being a full-time International Relations graduate student, and looks like Tinkerbell-gone-sorority.
Davis escaped Georgia for Georgetown, a Jesuit university that housed more Jews than she had seen in her life. After working as an RA in college (residents who attended her “mocktail-pong” event got married last month,) and then as an event planner, Davis moved to New York to take a job at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, recruiting Jewish professionals to volunteer with immigrants and refugees.
“I noticed there were so many exceptional young Jewish people in this city working their tuchas off and not meeting each other in quality ways,” she says. “I love hosting, so I started having Shabbat dinners and adding my twists to them.”
With a tiny grant from Birthright, Davis began planning her now-monthly events, cooking and cleaning for groups of 20 singles by herself. She watched a couple at her first event connect over the Jewish version of “Apples to Apples”, which she had purchased, along with the food, out of her own pocket. They are now married.
“I knew I was on to something,” she says.
After 20 minutes of running, jumping jacks, and the odd grape vine, Trainer Tony launches into an increasingly complex series of instructions about the ten-station circuit, after which, he says, participants will earn a 90-second break. Every person continues to behave with the kind of euphoric enthusiasm you might find at an audition for a college production of “Grease.” Tony commands the participants to “pair off with a partner…of the opposite sex.” Most of the group, which includes a man wearing what looks like corduroy pants, looks panicked. The man with the fullest head of hair reaches out to shake the hand of the group’s sole blonde.
Politely despairing of dating apps and online algorithms, Davis calls this “the hardest era to date.” Davis considers herself a cheerleader as well as a host.
“Before anything, my number one goal is to provide hope,” she tells me. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. And these people are doing it over and over, and they’re doing it wrong. It’s really very fixable for most people. You have to try. I don’t think swiping counts as trying.”
Davis says both genders set too high, hypocritical expectations. “People shouldn’t settle, but they should be open,” she says. “You don’t know what you’re going to fall in love with.”
“Go straight downstairs! Don’t shower!” Erin shouts to the group, who look like an egalitarian Ashkenazi army completing basic training. We are ushered into a small room holding a table laden with Grey Goose and PowerAde. A man settles onto the couch and subconsciously bites into a banana. I talk to Cliff, who says he is “equal opportunity” when it comes to the religion of his partners.
“I just needed a good workout first and foremost — and if I meet a nice Jewish girl, that’s icing on the cake.”
Courtney came to “find a husband. Always.” But that she was intrigued by the idea of getting a workout in. She wants to marry a Jew but, “when you get older, sometimes you have to think outside the box.”
Jonathan, an attorney, says that his spouse’s religion doesn’t matter to him. But after a moment’s thought he adds, “I want someone who has a shared culture—someone who is familiar with the same traditions, who won’t feel like a fish out of water or feel uncomfortable doing things.”
Twenty-two minutes into the reception, the first numbers have been surreptitiously exchanged. The asker, looking tired but triumphant, tells me his “cool aunt” referred him to Davis, and that he moved to New York two months ago in part because he wanted to meet a Jewish girl. “My parents gave me every good thing in the world, “ he says. “It would mean so much to them.”
I watch a man walk bravely towards a cluster of women, bearing a solo cup containing straight vodka. I begin to fantasize about how the man with nice hair and I would have children of medium height with medium-thick hair.
One man confesses to me, “There are two girls here who I know from dating apps — one who I never met up with, and one who I went out with and she was disappointed that I was the same height as her.” I ask how he knows that height was the problem. “I know because I saw her profile later and she had changed it to “Please be over 5’8’’.”
As a gender-based juggling competition breaks out, Davis encourages the stragglers to get on with our nights. A group crowds into the elevator with Davis, weighed down by equipment and looking weary. She’s booked all night tomorrow by a client. “Two clubs on a Tuesday,” she sighs. In her years of doing Shabbatness, Davis has never once turned a profit on an event. Rather, she loses money. “I could expand the number of people I have at an event and make a profit, but I don’t think there’s magic in that. I think of the time I put in as a mitzvah.”
As long as Shabbatness is a mitzvah, it will continue to be Davis’ side-project. As a full-time student she has tried to turn Shabbatness into a 501c3 but has failed to get approval or major grants. She leans on her wing-woman business, which is not exclusively Jewish, as a more lucrative part-time job.
It seems that even for a person who is young, living in New York City, and great at planking, meeting a Jew is not as easy as meeting a non-Jew. Davis makes it easier for Jews who want to meet Jews to do so, at her own expense.
Calling the Sheldon Adelsons of the world: where are you?
Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny