It’s a Saturday night and I find myself underground in a dimly lit room at the Hawthorn, a cocktail lounge in San Francisco’s Financial District, holding a $12 whiskey in one hand and a pink neon glow stick in the other.
The event I’ve just walked into is Jewbilee, proclaimed the “hottest monthly party for Jews in their 20s and 30s.” Jeremy Doochin, one of the organizers, has set his beer on the table between us so he can snap the glow stick around my wrist, turning it into a bracelet. Now that I’ve been cuffed, I am officially recognizable to all the others in the club as one of the “cool Jews getting together to meet other Jews and have fun” (or so says Jewbilee’s Facebook page description).
Though, at 25, I fall into the target age range for this event — and debatably am also a “cool Jew” — I’m not generally one who hangs out at straight clubs in San Francisco. And I can’t remember the last time I’ve donned a neon wristband.
Despite all this, here I am, sipping an expensive cocktail amid a sea of young Jews schmoozing around a dance floor. However, I come with questions: What is everyone doing here? Is this how young people in the Bay Area are meeting each other? Dating? And what about “marrying Jewish” — does that still feel relevant? Are we even interested in marriage at all?
In short, the answer to all that is: Yes, no and maybe.
While the people interviewed for this story represent a range of social and political affiliations, and the events they attend are various — from late nights at San Francisco dance clubs to bonfire Havdalahs on the farm in Berkeley, queer Shabbat services in living rooms and Hanukkah parties in backyards — a few things become clear: Despite the differences across social, religious and political spectrums, young Jews are showing up at Jewish events hungry for connection and community.
While most say they are seeking a romantic partner (or two), they no longer look to Jewish online dating apps or longstanding Jewish institutions to create the social scenarios. Rather, they are looking to themselves. And to each other.
In the Bay Area, home of the startup, the proactive do-it-yourself energy is front and center in the Jewish dating world.
Enter Jewbilee, a grassroots social event started six months ago by two entrepreneurial brothers that meets at different alcohol-friendly locations in San Francisco.
“My brother and I felt there was a lack of events in San Francisco for young adults, so we decided to start something for young Jews in the Bay and put together events once a month. We’re nonaffiliated, nondenominational, and try to appeal to both synagoguegoers as well as those who would never set foot in a synagogue,” said Doochin, 29, who brainstormed the idea with older brother Jonathan shortly after moving to San Francisco a year ago.
Doochin was inspired by the Jewish social scene that he left behind in Boston, like the monthly party “Gin & Jews” — a bar hangout described on its Facebook page (2,328 likes) as “the chosen hour.”
“It was a great thing, to have community, people to hang out with, ways to meet each other. I wanted something like that here,” said Doochin. He worked on his concept with Tal Yeshanov, whom he met through programming at Congregation Emanu-El — a perfect match given Yeshanov’s experience organizing Second Saturday, a now-defunct Jewish singles mixer that took place monthly at the Cellar in San Francisco.
“There has been huge demand. I’ve had a lot of people say that the Federation and other established organizations haven’t been filling the need, and I think that’s why this has so organically grown into such a big community,” said Doochin.
Though it’s only been around for a short time, Jewbilee is growing fast. The most recent event — a dinner for 60 people — sold out, and coming up is a Purim party organized with Emanu-El and a weekend trip to Las Vegas at the end of February. The Facebook page has 428 members, and the newsfeed is regularly populated with information about other Jewish social events in the city.
While most people in the basement of the Hawthorn that Saturday night don’t know each other, they all seem eager to mingle. Most are friendly and enthusiastic, if a little bit sheepish about why they are there.
“I’m here to meet someone,” said one partygoer who requested anonymity. “Let’s face it: It’s hard to find Jewish men who want to settle down. I don’t know if this is the right place for that, but it’s fun to dance, so I figured I might as well.”
This young woman met Doochin at a Chabad dinner, and a Facebook invitation to the Jewbilee event followed. She decided to attend last minute, donning a long shimmery skirt and tight crop top, and she brought her non-Jewish roommate along as a sidekick.
A psychiatrist in his early 30s said he preferred the event to any dating apps. “In a space like this, everyone feels like they’re part of a group and so everyone has their guard down. It’s easier to meet and start a conversation,” he said. “I don’t go out much, but I came tonight. To meet an attractive woman.”
Asked whether it’s important that she be Jewish, he laughed. “Let’s just say I like a lot of women, and Jewish women are included in that. But they don’t have to be Jewish.”
A recent story in the New York Times reported that online niche dating sites like JDate, which emerged in 1997 and at its height had hundreds of thousands of users, are on the decline. According to Spark Networks, which now owns JDate, the number of paid subscribers to its Jewish networks (it also recently acquired the dating app JSwipe) declined to around 65,000 last year from about 85,000 in 2012.
“No one uses JDate anymore. It’s so over,” said a single woman in her early 40s at a recent Chabad happy hour for young professionals. Even though she is adamant about only dating Jewish, she said, she still uses secular dating apps to find a Jewish partner. At the top of her profile, she clearly states her “Jewish only” interest. She said she’s committed to dating Jewish because she is heavily invested in her Jewish identity. “I want someone to light candles with me every week, so I don’t have to do it alone,” she said.
She does use JSwipe, which connects users’ profiles only if both parties have swiped “yes.” This model differs from JDate, which, as a website, acts more like a passive library of potential suitors. Members have lengthy profiles and can contact anyone they are interested in.
On JSwipe, the profiles contain very little information other than a series of photographs, a scroll-down menu for preferred Jewish identity (Just Jewish, Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative, Reform, Willing to Convert, and Other), a box to check if you keep kosher, and the option to pull information from your Facebook profile.
Some of the Jews in their mid-20s I spoke with said they are turned off by Jewish dating apps, because they seem more focused on finding partners to start families with than finding people to hook up with or date casually.
Benji Marx, a 26-year-old musician and educator in Berkeley, uses the Internet to meet people, but he does not have profiles on JDate, Bubby or JSwipe, because he finds them alienating.
“The dating websites for Jews are really oriented to having a family. They feel similar to that same mindset from Jewish camp, where the prized campers are the ones who meet at camp and got married and now have a plaque on the wall at the dining hall. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I’m about right now,” said Marx. “I don’t feel like I’m in a place to really think about having a family and marrying. I used to think love was wine and roses, and then I had my heart broken — so I’m more cautious now.”
Briyah Paley, 33, is committed to finding a Jewish partner, but she doesn’t go only to Jewish dating sites to find them.
“I feel like everyone’s on everything, so it doesn’t really matter. I just make clear on all my other apps that I’m looking for a Jewish partner.” Paley finds that going to events is a better way to meet people and feel part of a community.
This is not to say that young Jews aren’t still hooked into the world of internet dating;, just that they are also tired of it. And looking for in-real-time alternatives.
Whether at a club, a café or a happy hour, many young adults express a confusing loneliness. They often have moved here from elsewhere and live within shaky social networks. Jewish events function as a kind of scaffolding, with the potential for building, for belonging, for home — and finding someone to share it with.
While Jewbilee seems to be filling a void for many young Jews hungry for social connection, others say they would not attend such events, even to look for a partner.
“I wouldn’t want to be there. It sounds like it’s a party for people on a different life path than me, that are young professionals, early in their field, have a clear [sense] of their career and family and life. There would be no one there for me to meet,” said Marx.
While he doesn’t exclusively date Jews, Marx does envision some day sharing a Jewish home with a partner “where we can celebrate Shabbat. … And there’s something really triggering to me about Christmas. I really don’t want to celebrate Christmas.”
Rather than go to parties or institutional events, Marx tries to do something for Shabbat each week and attends holiday gatherings at Urban Adamah, where he can find “more Jews that are, like me, unsure of what Judaism means, who are willing to engage with the grit of what it means to be Jewish, and who are politically and socially oriented like I am.”
Hadar Cohen, 24, similarly hopes that one day she will find someone with whom she can make a spiritual home. But for now she doesn’t prioritize her romantic life over other aspects of her life, which includes running Pivot to Bloom, an organization that encourages businesses to be gender inclusive and offers a fellowship on feminism for men in tech.
Cohen, who grew up Modern Orthodox in Israel and then New Jersey, believed, as a kid, that she would be living in Israel with a husband by age 22. Though she no longer identifies as Modern Orthodox, she still studies Torah and is interested in leading a halachically mandated life. She wonders whether she’ll ever be able to find a Jewish man who has the emotional skills to develop the kind of loving, supportive and communicative relationship she is looking for.
“I tend to follow these patterns where I meet someone that I connect with, we date for nine months or so, and then I realize that they aren’t the kind of person I really want to be with,” said Cohen. “I find myself more interested in my relationship with God. Being with other people can sometimes take away from that.”
When those interviewed for this story are asked if they have strong models for healthy relationships in their lives, most laugh while shaking their heads. The resounding answer is no.
“My parents don’t know how to communicate. Most of my friends’ parents are divorced,” said Cohen.
“I watch friends I have in relationships where I’m like: How are you even able to take care of each other? I think I realized that some people aren’t in relationships in order to grow and feel connected, but rather because they feel like it’s what they’re supposed to do,” said Cohen. “I’m interested in really being in a relationship with someone who can love my pain, who can be my spiritual partner.”
I’m in San Francisco again, this time on a Friday night. I’m ushered into a white-tiled room by a burly security guard with a chipped front tooth. The room is divided: On the left, men are shuckling as they pray, while on the right, women with long hair and skirts cluster around cocktail tables.
Welcome to SoMa Shul’s Chabad happy hour for young professionals, a monthly meetup for “mostly singles and newlyweds, people who don’t want to feel alone in such a transient city,” said Rabbi Shmulik Friedman, the director of educational programming at Chabad of SF who runs the event.
According to Friedman, Chabad events are a frequent source of “success stories” — marriages between Jews. Asked whether he thinks many attend the happy hour to find a partner, he said yes and points to a couple standing by the door: “I just married them a few weeks ago.”
For Friedman, it’s simple: The desire to marry Jewish is embedded in the Jewish soul. That’s why, he said, people who don’t necessarily identify as Jewish or who don’t have a Jewish practice nevertheless look for a Jewish partner. “It’s the desire to keep the energy going, the torch lit. It’s deep inside of us.”
As the services end, people in jeans and sweaters start to trickle in — upwards of 50 people over the next two hours, schmoozing amid tables piled with fresh potato borekas, bowls of hummus and bottles of gin. As I speak with them throughout the evening about why they had decided to come, similar themes emerge: community and dating.
“I’m here to find community, and to meet someone,” said Paley, a fashion consultant who recently ended a long relationship and considers herself somewhat of a Jewish-event regular in the area. While she frequently attends gatherings organized by Congregation Emanu-El and Moishe House, she hadn’t yet heard of Jewbilee.
“If I met someone [at the SoMa event], that would be great, but it’s not the only reason I’m here,” said Paley. “I’m looking for a Jewish partner because it’s my culture, it’s what I grew up in. Because we share a narrative.”
Everyone grapples with articulating why they make the choices they do. Some cite culture vaguely — “It’s what I grew up” or “It just feels important.” One person, who uses JSwipe exclusively and is very engaged with Jewish culture, said, “I don’t know what I would really talk about with someone who wasn’t as obsessed with Judaism as I am.”
But still others, even those with strong Jewish practices, say the opposite: that being with a Jewish person doesn’t matter as much as being with someone who is spiritually and politically aligned with their values.
“There’s all this emphasis on marrying a Jewish person, but the reality is that interfaith couples still have Jewish homes. And not all Jewish couples have Jewish homes,” Marx told me, as he pondered the issue. “Didn’t Moses marry Tziporah, who wasn’t Jewish? It’s all very confusing.”