Saturday, July 7, 2012

JDate for Free?

Intermarriage has been on my mind since my brother, who is a successful Jewish doctor in Manhattan, married a Polish Catholic in 1999. With a father that was a rabbi and parents that survived the Holocaust, I would have thought marrying a Jewish girl would have been a top priority for him.

This past month there were two prominent interfaith weddings: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to Priscilla Chan, and Ashley Biden, the daughter of the Vice President, to Howard Krein.  I was surprised to see that those interfaith weddings were met with nothing more than a shrug by the organized Jewish community. We were more excited that Vice President Biden danced the* hora* than upset about the threats intermarriage poses to our community.

These seems a strange reaction from a group of people that bring out the big guns in reaction to the minutest hint of anti-Semitism or the tiniest slight to Israel from the White House. We seem ready, willing, and able to fight the enemies from the outside, but go radio silent about the danger from within. Apathy about intermarriage is far more of a danger to the Jews’ survival than Mel Gibson’s drunk anti-Semitic ranting or T shirts with a yellow star that Urban Outfitters did not sell. 

When I tried to write about intermarriage and possible solutions for several Jewish media outlets that I regularly freelance for, my editors either said no or put up ridiculous road blocks. They insisted that I dress up the turkey subject of intermarriage with side dishes, which made the piece too complicated for a simple blog post.

One editor, who regularly assigns inane stories like "My Daughter's High School Graduation" wrote, "I think it needs some original reporting - maybe you can try some of the funders? Other Jewish dating experts? Matchmakers?

There is one synagogue, Temple Israel of Norfolk, Virginia, that deviated from the Jewish community’s traditional code of omerta about intermarriage. Locating near Virginia Beach, the synagogue members organized an annual low cost Sun N’ Fun Jewish singles weekend. The weekend attracted more than 400 singles each year with some coming from as far away as Michigan. The program was later discontinued due to a lack of funding.

Enthusiastic after attending, I tried to persuade my local Jewish community, Philadelphia, to host a similar event in conjunction with Atlantic City. Although I was very involved with Jewish Federation at the time, I could not even get anyone to meet with me on the subject.

When I interviewed Rabbi Joseph M. Forman of Or Chadash synagogue in Flemington, New Jersey about performing the Jewish rituals at the Biden wedding, he suggested an innovative solution for the intermarriage problem.

“I would like to see the Jewish community subsidize JDate or set up a competitor so that online dating for Jewish singles is free. Many Jewish singles, which is the least affluent group in the Jewish community, do not join because they can’t afford to.”

With more and more people living online, his suggestion has merit and is worth discussing. Right now JDate ( is the most popular Jewish dating site. It costs $39.99 for one month membership with discounts available for longer memberships. According to Arielle Schechtman, director of public and community relations for Sparks Networks, the Jewish Networks segment of our business had 86,433 average paying subscribers for the first quarter of 2012. 

I ran the idea of the Jewish community subsidizing JDate by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who has become the Jewish community's de facto yenta through his Birthright program. He objected to the idea because “not all the people on JDate are Jewish.”

He has a point. I recently attended the wedding of a Jewish-Presbyterian couple that met on JDate. Three out of the 14 religious categories on JDate are for non-Jews: willing to convert, not sure willing to convert, and not willing to convert. Older members may still be using the "I will tell you later" option. 

Schechtman claims 97% of the people on JDate are Jewish. When I tried to verify her number independently by hand counting the people living 25 miles outside of Philadelphia and in North Carolina, I got higher percentages of non- Jews.

JDate did not reveal how they determine someone is Jewish and seems to rely on the honor code rather than independent verification. A glimmering of their attitude about Jewish weddings could be gleaned from a press release from the pr team that listed 5 recent Jewish celebrity weddingsThe Jewish Journal noted that the only problem was that only one of the five weddings listed was actually Jewish. 

"JDate values honesty in profiles and if we learn that anyone has lied, we will terminate them for violating our terms and conditions of use," she said. 

Saw You at Sinai, which uses both online profiles and live matchmakers, might be a better alternative for promoting Jewish marriages. The site’s proprietor, Marc Goldmann, contends that his rigorous screening process insures that only Jewish people can join. Currently, veers towards the more religious members of the Jewish community, but that would be easy to change.

Goldmann, previously a management consultant, said, “We have currently 20,000 members paying $14.99 to $19.99 a month to use our site. We have successfully arranged 1600 marriages in our 8 years of existence. Someone that we matched up just sent me a card telling me that he recently had his second child.”

Goldmann believes that many more people would try online dating at a Jewish only site if the cost was lower.

“Cost is a barrier. Some people cannot afford. Others feel a stigma for paying to find a mate.”

Although Steinhardt wants to increase the number of Jews marrying Jews, he does not believe that subsidizing online dating is the answer. Steinhardt believes that the only way to increase intra-marriage rates is through Jewish education and affinity to Israel. A survey of Birthright applicants, compiled by Leonard Saxe and Ted Sasson of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, validates his thinking.

“The study surveyed more than 3000 married people who applied to go on Birthright in the years 2001-2004. It surveyed those that went on the trip and those that didn’t. The two groups have basically the same demographics.” he said.” 72% of the Birthright participants married Jews while only 46% of the nonparticipants married Jews.

The study was updated in 2011 with similar results. Michelle Shain, who worked on the second study, believes that the most of the survey readers do not understanding the significance of the data.

People often focus on the probabilities (77% of Birthright participants marrying Jews versus 51%, of nonparticipants marrying Jews etc.), but I think the key findings is actually the percent difference between the probabilities of in-marriage for participants and non-participants,” she said. “The fact that Taglit participants are more than 50% more likely to be married to a Jew is really quite incredible.”

The prominent Jewish journalist Jeffery Goldberg once wrote that he was uncomfortable that 10,000 Jews gathered at the AIPAC convention each year for the sole purpose of lobbying for Israel and not to learn Torah. I just wish that leaders of the Jewish community would meet one time to discuss intermarriage. 

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