J. development associate Shauna Satnick zooming with her real-life boyfriend, Sam Dreyer. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
J. development associate Shauna Satnick zooming with her real-life boyfriend, Sam Dreyer. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Romance during the pandemic: Dating is out. Courtship is in.

Alexa Levinson was trying to explain pandemic dating to her grandmother, but the idea of a video “date” in sweats, from one’s living room couch, was not making sense.

“She was very confused,” the 27-year-old Mountain View resident said with a laugh.

While Levinson’s grandmother was appalled at the idea of video dating from home, for Levinson and countless others it’s just the way things are these days. From online speed dating to masked dates, “podding up” and virtual mixers, trying to find love while staying 6 feet apart has made the always hard task of finding a partner even harder. But love, and the search for it, never stops, even during a worldwide pandemic.

“It’s definitely weird,” Levinson said. “I can’t tell if it’s good or it’s bad, but it’s definitely been a weird 10 months.”

When Covid appeared last March, the spread of the virus put the brakes on a thriving Jewish social scene for Levinson and others. Shabbat dinners with friends — off. Schmoozing at Late Shabbat at Emanu-El in San Francisco — not happening. Happy hour with the Engaj network on the Peninsula — canceled. So what’s a nice Jew looking for love supposed to do but go online?

“Now the pandemic hits, you’re not doing in-person events anymore,” Levinson said. “It’s all virtual.”

“Dating culture as we knew it just ceased to exist,” said Berkeley dating coach Jan Robinson. “It just got turned on its head.”

For Levinson, who is looking for “a Jewish man to have a Jewish home with,” that means apps like JSwipe and Hinge. That’s led to around five Zoom dates and a few walks at the beach so far. But that’s par for the course now that Covid has put a stop to the “meet cute” potential (see every Hollywood rom-com).

Alexa Levinson
Alexa Levinson admits she likes the informality of video dating.

But it’s not all bad. Levinson actually kind of likes video dating. She enjoys the informality of wearing loungewear and throwing her hair into a bun rather than getting, as she put it, “all dolled up.” She feels it’s more honest, in a way.

“If you don’t like me 98 percent of the time how I am… thank you, next!” she said laughing.

Levinson also feels a video call tells her more about the person than texting via app.

“I got to know the person,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I wasted the energy.”

That kind of emotional connection before the first date is something that Robinson sees as a silver lining in the upended world of Covid dating. Robinson is a “relationship attraction mentor” who runs online dating events for the over-40 crowd, including “slow speed dating” and a meetup for Jewish singles.

“Courtship is back,” she said, “because you cannot rush into physical intimacy and sex. You are forced to get to know one another.”

Debbie Sommer, single and 60, agrees that the pandemic, with its Pandora’s box of fear and stresses, has brought out something in people that is new and different. She’s attended a few of Robinson’s virtual dating events and had deep conversations.

“People are somehow sharing more honestly and from the heart,” she said.

Online dating is new for her. Sommer, a San Francisco resident and self-described extrovert, used to make friends on the street, in line at concerts or even at the bus stop, she said. She was never into dating apps. Instead, she loved the energy and spark of meeting people at singles events or just as she went about her active life. She misses the rush of energy from clicking with a new person — hard to replicate through a screen. But, as she puts it, “What else am I doing? It’s not like I’m going to Hawaii, it’s not like I’m going to a rock concert, it’s not like I’m going to a party.”

Dating culture as we knew it just ceased to exist.

Jewish groups are trying to step in to help make up for the disappearance of live events. OneTable, a group that with its Shabbat-dinner-among-strangers mission is already primed to foster connection, is also targeting the single and lonely; it teamed up with a pandemic-specific dating site called Corona Cuties to offer West Coast Jews a chance to find love, or at least to take a shot at it. The Chabads of Palo Alto, Santa Clara and S.F. partnered with an app company for a Hanukkah speed dating event. And Matzoball, which bills itself as the largest speed dating event in the world, has been running regional rounds of online speed dating.

Robinson, the dating coach, is hosting Jewish “singles soirées” as well as non-Jewish singles events.

Sommer has been to a few of Robinson’s events and liked them. “Even if it’s not a match, everyone’s just nice and respectful and communicative,” she said. “It’s really been a lovely experience.”

Robinson said that meetups like hers and others play an important role for people whose social lives have been curtailed.

“Whether or not you meet people you feel a spark with, people leave these events feeling alive and joyful,” she said.

The next step after meeting at an event, she said, is to do some introductory phone or video dates. But there’s one elephant in the Zoom room.

“There’s a balancing act here,” Robinson said. “You don’t want to video date for six months and then meet in person and find out you have no sexual chemistry.”

Jan Robinson
Dating coach Jan Robinson runs online events for the over-40 crowd.

A couple only works if the spark is there. That’s what Judith Gottesman has been saying to her clients as a dating coach and Jewish matchmaker over the past 12 years, and why video calls are contrary to what she’s always preached about meeting in person.

“This is all kind of upside-down,” she said. “Now the advice is kind of opposite.”

Now she counsels her clients to be flexible and meet online first. David Kraus, a 64-year-old doctor in Grass Valley, is one of Gottesman’s clients (he first read about her in J.).

“It’s very formal and slow and you’re going to get to know the person,” he said about dating during Covid times. “That’s all you can do, unless you throw caution to the wind — which I’m sure some people do.”

Gottesman said it’s also important to think it through before taking a relationship forward. Is it progressing because of the pandemic and all the loneliness and boredom it’s engendered? “Some people are jumping into relationships they might otherwise not,” she said.

And after the video dates and phone calls progress to the masked hikes, then what? Bringing an online relationship offline and in person, a whole new set of questions comes up.

“Holding hands, kissing, or any physical intimacy beyond that… How and when do you decide to do that?” Sommer said.

It turns out there is a whole range of opinions on that question. For Sommer’s peers, slow and safe seems to be the mode. She’s up for a walk or a park meetup, masked. But not everyone is even ready to go out in public, much less take it into the bedroom.

“Some people become tentative about when to meet, and so it becomes difficult for them,” she said.

But younger people, less likely to experience severe Covid symptoms, are a little less worried. Liuba Adar, a 36-year-old veterinarian from Alameda, can confirm that.

“A lot of guys still try to meet up in person right away,” she said.

Adar has been using dating apps since May, including JSwipe, Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel, to try and connect with a Jewish guy. It’s time-consuming, she said.

“This is a part-time job, and you have to accept that.”

Debbie Sommer
Online dating is new for Debbie Sommer, who had a busy social life before the pandemic.

Like Levinson and Sommer, Adar misses in-person events — she used to go to Jewish young adult programs and regularly went out dancing — and she misses the energy. Apps make everything take longer.

“I’m just kind of exhausted by the whole process, and how much time you have to put in,” she said.

Looking for a Jewish partner makes it even more challenging; it means a smaller dating pool, but Adar is OK with that because she’s looking at the long term.

“I want someone culturally Jewish so we can do all the traditions together,” she said.

She’s open to dating people outside the Bay Area, as long as they are willing to travel, which in a pandemic is not a given, she acknowledged. And once she’s met a guy and it comes to actual dating, she’s pretty sanguine about the Covid risks inherent in starting a relationship.

“It’s either don’t date at all, or accept the risks,” she said. “I feel like dating is already complicated as it is.”

She’s looking for an ongoing relationship and not just a Covid hookup, although she’s been offered one. One younger man told her, “’I’m looking for one person to basically hook up with during this time, and I think you’d be perfect,’ and I was like, no…” Adar laughed.

But the “Covid boyfriend” or “temporary monogamy” is a thing. Jeremie Gluckman, 28, of Santa Clara has seen it in their social circle.

Jeremie Gluckman
Jeremie Gluckman went on a movie drive-in date in separate cars, something they call “the new normal.”

“That pull of, ‘I don’t want to be alone, I can’t go without intimacy for another six months,’ so you take that leap,” Gluckman said. But it’s not for them, they added.

“I don’t want to be someone’s compromise quarantine relationship,” they said.

But they’ve been dating, and even getting out of the house to do it. One date took them to a drive-in movie where Gluckman and the date each sat in their own cars and talked on the phone while watching a film together. Another date took Gluckman to a drive-through restaurant. Again, in cars, on the phone, but this time with food.

“It was weird,” they said. “It was ‘new normal.’ But it worked!”

Gluckman is young but takes Covid, and the risk of its spread, seriously. “Coming to this as a member of the queer community, any couple needs to have a conversation at some point about all kinds of viruses,” Gluckman pointed out.

Now that the vaccine is rolling out, albeit slowly, the conversation also includes immunity. According to recent articles, “vaccinated” is the new “hot” — or, as SFGate put it, “Vaccine selfies have hit the dating apps in SF.”

That may not mean much in real terms, especially as it is unclear whether people who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus. But Robinson is sympathetic to the need for physical connection. “I imagine we’re all in withdrawal around touch,” she said. “Definitely Covid has made singles a lot more vulnerable to being lonely and isolated.”

Isolation has made people long more than ever for connection, while meeting someone has never been harder. Instead of a friendly flirt in a supermarket aisle or a last-minute app match on a Friday night, dating these days requires some gumption — and a stable internet connection.

And, of course, hope. Sommer has it, even during the pandemic, and a belief that love and a soulmate will come when it’s the right time.

“I have never given up hope on love,” she said. “And I’m someone who believes we meet our bashert in the most unexpected way and the most unexpected times.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.