How can singles meet and date during a pandemic?
Several creative answers to that conundrum have been innovated by YUConnects, Yeshiva University’s relationship-building program for singles ranging across the entire Orthodox spectrum, from college age and older.
The 12-year-old program marked its 413th engagement on June 29, according to its director, Efrat Sobolofsky of Bergenfield, who has a doctorate from the university’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
“YUConnects has adapted and expanded in recent times,” Dr. Sobolofsky said. “As dating has gone virtual, so has the programming. What is truly surprising are the advantages of a greater reach and impact on the Orthodox dating world. Our webinars, events, and resources are widely shared and accessed.”
Recent virtual events include a Zoom webinar, “The New World of Dating,” which attracted 300 participants, and a Zoom panel organized by YU’s Stern College for Women’s Office of Student Life and the YU Counseling Center to address students’ dating inquiries.
Events dubbed “Zoom with Whom?” help small groups of singles, matched by age and religious orientation, get acquainted through discussions and games led by a facilitator.
“Zoom with Whom?” has drawn more than 400 applicants. The YUConnects team runs many sessions each week, serving a curated group of five men and five women in each virtual Zoom room.
“After the ‘Zoom with Whom?’ sessions have ended, we’ve had an astounding 60 percent match rate of participants interested in pursuing a date with someone in the Zoom,” Marjorie Glatt, YUConnect’s special projects coordinator, said. “Virtual events like these have many advantages over other social events as their simplicity attracts more applicants than usual.”
In mid-July, YUConnects virtual programming will include a financial planning webinar, and later perhaps a cooking or painting activity for a larger group, followed by breakout rooms with facilitators.
Dr. Sobolofsky said the goal is not only to introduce potential couples but also to provide evening activities, which are so lacking now. “We learned that people do not want to stop having social events,” Ms. Glatt said. “There was a huge wellspring of desire as people felt more isolated during the pandemic. As soon as we introduced these events, we were surprised by the amount of people eager to participate.”
A new platform developed by Jewish dating website SawYouAtSinai, the technological host of the YUConnects site, has improved internal communication and follow-up capabilities for some 80 volunteer “connectors,” or matchmakers.
Pre-covid, singles would sign up for evening sessions in a classroom or shul basement and wait their turn to speak with a connector. “Now they arrange 15-minute slots online, and it’s more comfortable,” Ms. Glatt said.
YUConnects offers ideas on how to get acquainted through online “dates,” and how to meet safely in person during the pandemic if the relationship progresses.
“We run webinars on how to date and provide dating ideas and a venue list, and we offer medical experts to answer questions about social distancing,” Ms. Glatt said. She and her husband, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious diseases expert, live in Woodmere.
“We generally recommend the first few dates should take place via a video call or phone call,” she continued. “We advise activities such as taking a virtual tour of a museum together or playing some game together, or sampling a certain dish at the same time.
“When they are ready to meet in person, the suggestions we offer are neighborhood-dependent. We encourage outdoor dates. Some lovely people, including a few residents of Bergen County, have opened their backyards to be available to people who want to use them for a socially distanced date.”
Naomi Landsman, the YUConnects’ regional connector for Bergen County, said that one couple met online six times during the height of the pandemic in New Jersey. “They had a very cute date, where they took each other virtually through their neighborhoods,” Ms. Landsman said. “Then he traveled from out of town to meet her when it became possible. So far, they have gone out three times.”
Ms. Landsman said that many YUConnects participants are from Bergen County, including recent college graduates living at home with their parents as they transition to the next stage of life. But the program serves a wide range of ages and religious orientations.
The pandemic, she said, “is bringing a lot of singles out of the woodwork. They are getting serious about making connections and getting out of their box a little bit. There is lots of dating going on during corona.”
YUConnects has about 3,500 registered members from the United States, Israel, Canada, France, England, and Australia.
The program also has offerings for engaged and married couples. More than 225 couples registered for a recent four-part online webinar including a marriage enhancement workshop led by Rabbi Dr. Ari Sytner of Bergenfield, a licensed couples therapist and the director of community initiatives at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.
As the pandemic drags on, Dr. Sobolofsky and her team are working hard to prevent “Zoom fatigue” from setting in. “Because there are just so many Zoom events in general, and people are busier now, it’s becoming a little more challenging to keep everyone engaged,” she said.
Until it is deemed safe enough to hold socially distanced in-person events, the team is constantly considering how to keep the online events compelling, convenient, and worthwhile.
“Great facilitators who engage the crowd and follow up afterward are the key to success,” Dr. Sobolofsky said. “It’s also important to have rotating facilitators and rotating participants, to intersperse people from different states and Canadians with people from northern states. You don’t want everyone meeting the same people every time. We consider age, location, and interest so it’s as compatible as possible while giving everyone a chance to participate.”
The YUConnects website offers a large range of information and helpful links, for example about genetic testing, dating and relationship specialists, lectures about relationships from YUTorah Online, wedding checklists, and more.
For information, go to yuconnects.com or email Rachel Novick, the YUConnects administrator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.