I Asked the 'Jewish Tinder' to Make Me a Match

Do we need religious-specific dating apps? Our intrepid reporter goes back to his roots to find out.

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Oct 21 2014, 11:00am

Image: JSwipe

The headquarters of Jswipe, a Jewish alternative to Tinder, are located in an old, dilapidated warehouse at the very end of North 12th Street in Williamsburg. "When you think you're lost, you've made it," David Yarus, the 28-year-old founder, tells me. "We're in this crazy factory, 16-wheelers and all." 

Like the app, which in some ways harkens back to the idea of the shadchan or Jewish matchmaker of yesteryear, the building feels like a bridge between the old world and the new. Inside the high-ceilinged loft that functions as both the offices for the tech startup and Yarus' apartment, a half-dozen or so trendy-looking twentysomethings are typing frantically on their laptops as Lil Wayne blasts from a pair of speakers. Down the hall is the Queens Typewriter & Stationary Corp., which has been repairing typewriters and adding machines throughout the five boroughs since 1922, around the same time the Jewish population in New York City first began to boom.

"I think JSwipe is kind of the modern day matchmaker," says Yarus. He's wearing a slim-fitting gray suit and a backwards snapback with the word "BROOKLYN" printed across the front. "But it's almost you and your friends are the matchmakers. It's democratizing the matchmaker through technology."

The concept of Jewish-specific online dating is nothing new. JDate, a Jewish dating service closer to other niche pay sites like Christian Mingle and Black Singles (all three are owned by the same company, Spark Networks, Inc.) than Tinder, has been around since 1997. There's now even a mobile competitor to JSwipe, JCrush, which also launched earlier this year. Yarus says Jswipe has "leapfrogged" JCrush's userbase in recent months, reaching, he says, over 100,000 users worldwide. 

But in an age where religion, race and old world values feel less and less important to young Americans of all denominations, many millennial Jews still seem to care deeply about dating inside their own culture.

Yarus, who grew up in a predominantly Jewish community in Miami Beach, Florida, is only interested in marrying a woman who shares his faith and cultural background. He started JSwipe because he saw the market for a younger, sleeker Jewish dating app without the stigma that surrounds JDate, a site which Yarus likens to AOL.com and describes as "clunky." If JSwipe has, as it claims, engendered 1 million matches, 100 million swipes, and 5 million messages, he may be right.

"Probably even the first day I touched [Tinder] I was like, 'Whoa, that shit is future. The Jewish community needs it immediately,'" says Yarus. "The only problem for me was that it presented me everyone and that there was no way I could possibly filter for what was most important for me, which was only dating and marrying someone Jewish."

For some, the idea of seeking out a match based on race and religion might seem a tad antiquated (even slightly bigoted in its exclusivity), despite the undeniable advancements in technology. I myself am a product of an interfaith marriage. My mother's side of the family is Jewish by way of Eastern Europe, and my father is Irish Catholic. Neither myself nor my parents are religious, though I do identify as culturally Jewish. 

The author, at JSwipe HQ

But because of this fact I've always wondered how I would fare on a Jewish dating site like JDate, and now JSwipe. Would I be Jewish enough for these people? In fact, the one friend Yarus and I have in common on Facebook is a girl who once chastised me at a party for referring to myself as "half-Jewish." "I would never call myself half-Jewish," she had said with more than a hint of disdain in her voice. "I'm Jewish."

Still, after a week or so of using the app I've found that very few, if any, people on JSwipe really care all that much about religion or the purity of one's Jewish bloodline. While making a profile on JSwipe one can inform potential matches if they're Kosher or not Kosher, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Just Jewish, Willing to Convert or Other by checking a box. 

But ultimately, it seems to me, that young Jews aren't particularly interested in what sect you identify with, just as long as they can find someone who relates in a general sense to their cultural values and upbringing, someone who understands where they've come from. As with other minority groups, this sense of sticking together might be exacerbated by a well-documented history of persecution and a feeling of "otherness" that has always been central to the Jewish experience even in America.

During my first few days on JSwipe I matched with Nicole, a 26-year-old "Just Jewish" preschool teacher from Queens. Early on, we asked each other the same getting-to-know-you question typical of all online dating sites: So, what brings you here?

"I haven't dated Jewish guys, but I'm realizing that it's more important to me than I thought," she said. "The guys I've dated were great, but I really felt we came from such different places."

Or maybe every Jewish kid has been brainwashed into thinking they really do need to date other Jews," she continued.

Though in the end sparks didn't fly between me and Nicole, her question is a valid one. Is Judaism a culture that young people choose to celebrate and share by their own volition, or something more dogmatic passed down by their parents? Are millennial Jews on apps like JSwipe and JCrush because they want to be, or rather out of some primal sense of ancestral obligation?

there are all these different stats and data to show that the millennial Jew is more interested in Jewish humor and having matzo ball soup with their friends than they are with keeping Jewish law

"Connecting to the deep heritage of the religion or observance isn't the draw," explains Yarus. "It's definitely cultural-based and there are all these different stats and data to show that the millennial Jew is more interested in Jewish humor and having matzo ball soup with their friends than they are with keeping Jewish law. Which is fine, because Judaism is more than a rule of code, it's really a long standing history, heritage, community and culture."

The app itself tries not to feel like a stuffy Sunday spent trapped at Hebrew school. When you swipe right a green Star of David with a smiley face pops up, when swiping left, it's a red star with a frown. 

When you successfully match with another user the screen reads, "Mazel tov!" and three stick figure men can be seen hoisting their friend up in a chair in apparent jubilation. "If @Drake was on #JSwipe, how quick would he swipe 0-100 times?" the official JSwipe Twitter account tweeted last month. The result is something rooted in tradition, but coupled with a healthy dose of casual 21st century dating culture.

"We want to be in on the inside joke with you of, like, why it's kind of funny and ridiculous," says Yarus. "[But] we never want to be offensive. Our goal isn't to have people be more Jewish, our goal is to connect people who celebrate Jewish culture."