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First Date 2.0: ShidduchVision aims to ease shidduch crisis

Hoping to address what is seen as a matchmaking crisis among Orthodox Jews, Jeff Cohn is launching a program to enable singles to conduct their first "date" via teleconference. (Jeff Cohn)

Hoping to address what is seen as a matchmaking crisis among Orthodox Jews, Jeff Cohn is launching a program to enable singles to conduct their first “date” via teleconference. (Jeff Cohn)

NEW YORK (JTA) — A new effort based in Baltimore represents the latest attempt to address what is often described as a crisis of Orthodox singles unable to find suitable mates.

The new service, known as ShidduchVision, will permit Orthodox singles to go on first “dates” via video conference rather than travel to far-off locales to meet potential suitors. A local representative for the service will host participants while they conduct up to three meetings over a secure high-speed link, after which they will decide if they want to take the relationship further by meeting in person.

At $18 per user per session — the costs likely will be borne by the men — the service aims not only to save the money of inter-city travel, but also to avoid the heartache of traveling a long distance for what ends up being a bad date.

“This will allow many, many more options, especially for those who are termed ‘out-of-towners,’ ” said Jeff Cohn, the Baltimore businessman and founder of the Make a Shidduch Foundation who started ShidduchVision.

The new service, which is expected to go live within weeks, reflects the extraordinary lengths to which members of the Orthodox community are going to address the so-called shidduch, or matchmaking, crisis — a term which has been in circulation for years and refers to what is widely considered a glut of unmarried adults, most of them women.

Though the existence of such a crisis is broadly recognized, its source is widely in dispute. Some say the particulars of Orthodox dating are at fault, with its near-hermetic separation between the sexes. Others say that singles have become too picky, that they — but mostly men — approach dating with a laundry list of requirements and undertake intrusive background checks to determine if a potential partner meets them.

Still others say that Orthodox parents coddle their children too much, which inhibits the normal social development necessary to enter into a committed, mature adult relationship. And still others say it’s a function of simple mathematics: boys start dating at a slightly older age than girls, and given Orthodox demographics and dating patterns, that means there will always be more girls on the market at any given time.

“The crisis is that there are no real venues for young religious people to meet and to learn to socialize with one another,” says Michael Salomon, an Orthodox therapist from Long Island and the author of “The Shidduch Crisis,” one of a host of books on the topic. “Everything has become, I guess the word that’s used is ‘assur’ — not proper.”

Moshe Pogrow, a Queens-based rabbi, has become perhaps the leading exponent of the mathematical theory. Pogrow is the founder of the North American Shidduch Initiative, a program that provides financial incentives to marry off couples who are the same age or where the woman is older.

Pogrow declined to comment, saying he had no interest cooperating in an article addressing anything other than the “fact” that the age gap is at fault. In an article published in March, Pogrow asserted that the only plausible reason for the crisis is that there are more girls than boys in the dating pool at any given time.

“The solution is obvious, and it is the only solution,” Pogrow wrote. “We — parents of young men and women, friends, shadchanim, mentors, rabbonim — need to take the initiative to close the age gap between boys and girls who are dating. Either boys must get married earlier, or girls must get married later, or a combination of both.”

Other than Pogrow’s organization, however, most initiatives to address the crisis employ a strategy along the lines of ShidduchVision: help more singles meet each other. And the extent of these programs is staggering.

Agudath Israel of America, the fervently Orthodox umbrella group, started Invei Hagefen, an organization focusing on singles over 25 — past prime marrying age in the Orthodox world — which also provides mentoring services throughout the dating process.

In Baltimore, which many say is one of the communities hardest hit, an array of projects is under way:

* The Baltimore Shidduch Network is a 20-year-old organization that helps facilitate the exchange of information about prospective singles.

* A similar service, 1-800-Shadchan, is run by Cohn’s foundation, which also publishes a magazine with profiles of singles, The Shadchan. Last year, the community hired a full-time shadchan, or matchmaker, to help marry off its singles. The shadchan already is responsible for nine matches.

* Star-K, a local kosher supervision agency, offers cash incentives to anyone who arranges a marriage for a religious Baltimore woman aged 22 and over.

“I’m not in a position to say that the entire picture is improving,” said Fruma Schiffenbauer, the director of Invei Hagefen. “I only know that it would be radically worse if we weren’t in the picture.”

But to some singles, the efforts of well-intentioned crisis responders not only aren’t helping, but they are making the problem worse.

Chananya Weissman, founder of the 5-year-old Web site EndTheMadness.org, says the problem is a corruption of Jewish values, and his site invites users to sign a covenant affirming basic principles to govern their dating lives. Weissman says that most matchmaking efforts are focused on the symptoms, not the disease.

The site includes a section called “Madness Watch,” where users share stories of Orthodox silliness. Weissman himself writes of what he portrays as the un-Jewish guidance given to singles, such as the discouragement from dating individuals who only recently have embraced Orthodoxy because that would subject offspring of the union to the influences of secular relatives. Or the belief that only married couples should be permitted to suggest matches.

Weissman also rails against the Orthodox practice of strict separation of the sexes.

“So the girls were supposed to go from interaction in any way with their male counterparts as the most forbidden of all forbiddens to establishing a successful marital relationship with one of these people with little delay,” Weissman writes, referring to the message communicated to Orthodox women. “Makes a whole lot of sense, if you’re insane.”

Weissman, who is 30 and unmarried, also believes the idea that more women than men are searching for spouses is based on a false perception, and finds Pogrow’s idea of providing financial incentives horribly misguided. The result, he says, is that matchmakers will be "bribed" to suggest pairings based on age rather than suitability.

Many involved in the issue will quietly admit that things indeed have gotten out of hand. But few will say so publicly, unwilling to make statements that might be construed as an attack on Orthodox practices. Others consider it pointless, as such practices are the product of longstanding behaviors and carry with them the imprimatur of rabbinic legitimacy that won’t be easily undone.

“We wish the issues would go away,” said Steve Graber, an accountant who was a driving force behind the hiring of the Baltimore community matchmaker. “However, right now I don’t believe that we have enough pull or power to fix the issues. It’s a little bit like you can’t fight city hall.”

Instead, most of those concerned have decided to seek city hall’s approval. Cohn proceeded with ShidduchVision only after securing the approval of respected rabbinic figures. The service’s literature promises that “precautions will be put in place to protect the kedusha [holiness] and tznius [modesty] of the process.”

"We have gone to great great lengths and taken great care ensuring the security of the studios so that there is no access to the World Wide Web," Cohn said. "But even with all that, without approval from rabbonim, many people would not use it."

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