TAKING A CLOSER LOOK: Part of a series exploring key results of the 2018 Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life.
Lila Cantor had no hesitation filling out the online questionnaire. She dished about her best physical feature, wrote about her spirit animal and pontificated on what love means to her.
“I was all about that,” the 26-year-old San Francisco resident told J. “I’ve always wanted to be set up.”
Cantor was one of 150 people who recently signed up to fill out personal information in order to be matched and sent out on a date through the hard work of some young members of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco known as The Yentas.
She’s also one of the 55,000 young and single Jews in the Bay Area, according to this year’s “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,” a survey commissioned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. It’s a generation that finds itself hustling to make ends meet and increasingly strapped for time, yet drawn to a back-to-the-roots dating scene, where meeting in real life is taking on a sense of retro authenticity appealing in a largely online world.
“We’re done with swiping,” said one of The Yentas, Rachel Bycer, alluding to how one looks at photos of prospective dating partners on a phone app. “No more swiping left and right. Let’s take it offline.”
Younger Jews make up a sizable portion of the Bay Area Jewish population. The 18-to-29 demographic represents the largest Jewish cohort in the nine-county Bay Area, making up 29 percent of the 281,000 Jewish adults. And if you take the age range a little higher, it’s an even bigger population boom: 37 percent of Jewish adults in the Bay Area, according the survey, are between 18 and 34.
Of those, around half are single. And in spite of perennial angst about young people not being interested in Judaism, they seem fairly interested in dating other Jews.
“What I hear is, I’d like to, but it’s not a deal-breaker,” said Sharon Siegel, who manages young adult engagement at the Federation, putting together events such as happy hours and small dinners where people can eat and mingle.
Those kinds of events are important: Even when young Jews want to date fellow Jews, with dating website JDate completely passé, and newer app JSwipe on the wane, it’s hard for them to find each other.
“If people are willing to put themselves out there, they’re relying on community events,” said Cantor.
According to the survey, in spite of the fact that relatively few in the 18-to-34 bracket say being Jewish is very important, more of them go to Shabbat or a monthly service than most of the other age groups, and they’re the most likely group to go to cultural events. It’s not always about finding a date, of course — but it can be.
“People definitely come here [to an event for young adults] with that intention sometimes,” said Rachel Schonwetter, assistant director for community engagement at Emanu-El, where there’s a popular “Late Shabbat,” a pre-Shabbat meditation and even an adult summer camp, all for the 20s and 30s crowd.
To make it easier for her friends is why Bycer and the other members of the young adult leadership at Emanu-El decided to do something.
Bycer, who is married, and co-conspirator Misha Safyan, decided to lend a hand to singles and set themselves up as The Yentas, after the name of the matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I was always really drawn to that idea,” Bycer said. “And I wanted to see what would happen if we took religious dating and secularized it a little bit.”
To do that, they put out an online questionnaire, adapted from Safyan’s version that he uses to make matches at Burning Man, with questions that get to the heart of people’s personalities, such as, “How old is your inner child?” About 150 people filled out the questionnaire, resulting in sheets of paper strewn around Bycer’s living room as they tried to match people up. She said it took “a lot of hours” but it was worth it.
“I think I’m a helpless romantic,” Bycer said. “And I feel that there’s definitely someone out there for everybody.”
With the first set of matches, The Yentas had certain rules. Once they were matched, the boy had to approach the girl, in a tongue-in-cheek throwback to more old-fashioned times, and he also had to call, not text.
“Our whole thing was, ‘Take it offline!” Bycer said. “Online is not working. Online … you’ve done it.”
Cantor said she’s come to a time in her life where sharing a community and similar life experiences — in her case, Jewish ones — is starting to seem important in a romantic partner.
“That’s something that’s actually been a new revelation for me,” she said. “Until this point, dating someone Jewish wasn’t a priority to me.”
Jesse Rosenbloom, 25, isn’t on board with that thinking — yet. “I haven’t dated a Jewish girl since 18,” he said.
Right now, in the small amount of time he’s got for dating, he’s more interested in breaking out of the all-Jewish Bay Area social scene that dominated his teen years. But even he could imagine that one day, when he’s ready to settle down, it might be nice to do it with someone Jewish.
“When I start dating a Jewish girl, I’ll probably get married,” he said wryly.
That’s far down the line for Rosenbloom, but he did say a lot of his Jewish friends do use the kind of social programming that Siegel and Schonwetter set up as a way to meet people.
“A good percentage of them do end up dating within the Jewish community,” he said.
And that return to real-life interactions is part of a trend. Even JDate, the 20-year-old dating site targeted to Jews, has turned to a marketing strategy of “Powered by Yentas,” using the face of a 90-year-old woman in a bid to evoke the power of matchmaker over algorithm.
As far as Cantor is concerned, her venture into tongue-in-cheek matchmaking has been a success. She met two of The Yentas’ matches for her, and with one of them, the date went so well that they’ve kept seeing each other and even took a trip to Lake Tahoe.
“There was romance, there was great conversation,” she said. “It was super easy.”
She’s not thinking about settling down, yet, of course. But she does have the sense that marrying a Jewish man is in the cards for when that day rolls around.
“When I get married, I want to do that with someone who has similar values, similar upbringing,” Cantor said.