Reprinted with permission from the Forward.
When Jennifer signed on to JDate.com, an Internet service for Jewish singles, she had a certain guy in mind. The 29-year-old school teacher, who asked that her full name not be used, said she's always been attracted to Jewish men who embody the stereotypical intellectual, neurotic, brooding, Woody Allen type.
"They're witty, they tend to read more," she said of Jewish men. "They can go to the dark side. They can be a little bit prone to depression."
It's a story that can be told by the thousands of Jews who are logging on to dating sites in hopes of meeting other Jews--for friendships, dates, relationships and even marriage. But Jennifer's screen name "Shiksa" (non-Jewish woman) tells a different story. She counts herself among a special category of soul-mate seekers: gentiles who log on to Jewish singles sites in search of a Jewish mate.
JDate, the largest and best known of the online Jewish dating services, has more than 500,000 members worldwide. Of those, more than 5,000 members registered as "from another religious stream"-- read: not Jewish.
Egon Mayer, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who has studied interfaith marriage, said that he is not surprised at the trend. But while he's not "aware that there are any segments of the non-Jewish population that are specifically seeking a Jewish partner," Mayer said that "Jews have a fairly good reputation as marriage material."
Often, non-Jews who log on say their interest lies beyond finding a Jewish mate. Like other women, Misha Mitchell, who also goes by the screen name "Shiksa," likes the characteristic dark features of many Jewish men, but she said her connection to Jews and Judaism goes beyond physical or personality preferences. Mitchell, who grew up in Idaho, began to stray from her strict Roman Catholic upbringing when she was 13. She read about Kabbalah and a genuine interest in the Jewish religion took hold. "Judaism clicked with me," she said.
Mitchell said she is interested in converting to Judaism and raising her children within the faith. She has had her Hebrew name tattooed on her ankle, goes to synagogue on major Jewish holidays--she aligns herself most with the Reconstructionist camp--and would like to learn Hebrew. She said that while she's not traditionally religious, Judaism has attracted her in a spiritual way. "The traditions are beautiful and they make sense," she said. "I identify and sympathize with people who have struggled."
The 30-year-old Mitchell, who named herself Shiksa so as not to misrepresent her identity, has dated many men since joining the site a year ago, but didn't develop relationships with any of them until recently. She is now dating a half-Jewish man she met through Jdate, but notes that his involvement in Judaism isn't as strong as hers. "I wish he was more Jewish," Mitchell said. "His family celebrates Christmas and no Jewish holidays."
For some, however, using sites like JDate as a dating resource is not part of a targeted search for a Jewish partner. Donald Toner, for instance, began testing the online field after a breakup, but religion had no bearing on his decision to join JDate this past summer. "I broke up with my girlfriend in April and my housemates said 'You were happy when you were dating, you have to start dating again.' I was around the house all the time," Toner said.
Toner, 26, signed up on about 10 dating Web sites--including theonion.com personals, lavalife.com, singlesnet.com, date.com and JDate. Though he is a practicing Catholic who goes to church on holidays, "Religion doesn't really factor into the situation," he said.
"It doesn't matter what people believe in," Toner added. "It matters how they feel about each other." Toner, a manager of a furniture wholesale outlet in Port Jefferson, N.Y., started dating a non-Jewish woman he met through date.com.
But what of the Jewish singles who register at these sites hoping to bring a nice Jewish boy or Jewish girl home to the parents for the holidays?
Michelle Kessous, 26, a doctoral student in child psychology and registered JDater, said "the site is meant for Jews. There are so many other options for someone who isn't Jewish, like match.com, or by hobby, by other religions. The majority of people on JDate are on there to find Jewish people, especially in a time when interaction with other cultures is so much more frequent. It's much more difficult for people to remain culturally Jewish when there's so much interaction between Jews and non-Jews. I feel this is really one of the very few outlets where Jews can find other Jews to date and to marry."
The situation even came to the attention of advice columnist Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine. "This Jewish dating service should be a way for people who wish to date Jews--perhaps primarily but not exclusively other Jews--to do so," Cohen wrote in response to a reader's query last year. However, "it ought not be a segregated Semite preserve."
Gail Laguna, vice president of communications at MatchNet.com, which owns JDate, said that she has received no complaints about non-Jewish members using JDate. Laguna said that while JDate has no official policy about non-Jews becoming JDate members, the site expects its users to be honest and open about their religious affiliations.
"When a member sets up a profile on JDate, they are asked to put down their religious affiliation; there is an option to pick another religious stream," she said. "If they are non-Jews, we encourage them to put down that they're not Jewish and not pretend they're of the Jewish faith."
According to Mayer, the melting pot has a momentum of its own: "That people search for all sorts of dating possibilities on the Internet doesn't surprise me," Mayer said. "They cross all sorts of boundaries because it's so easy to cross them."
For Rabbi Adam Jacobs, managing director in New York of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach program, the trend is a mixed blessing at best. "Since intermarriage is one of the serious problems facing the Jewish community, I am concerned," he said. But "there's something complementary in it, that we're viewed as a valuable population."