It was 2017, and Joanna Halpern-Zisman was starting to create her own matchmaking service, one that would offer a different experience than JDate or JSwipe. The site was going to be created from an algorithm made personally by Halpern-Zisman, to match those within the Jewish LGBTQ+ community. The year before, coming out as a queer woman, this now-matchmaker was struggling to meet other Jewish queer people who she could connect with. It was a sentiment shared by her peers at Eshel Shabbaton, an Orthodox aligned LGBTQ+ space.
“We were talking about how we wished there was a way for Jewish queers to meet more easily and wished there was a dating site,” Halpern-Zisman told me in an interview. At the time, she was studying software engineering at McGill University in Montreal.
With the help of the Eshel group she decided to start small. They came across a Reddit group called Actual Lesbians, where someone had sent out a Google form and matched people up depending on their answers. Halpern-Zisman decided to do the same, but on a larger scale, her massive task entailed: creating a business, her own algorithm, and acting as a matchmaker. She called it, Yente Over the Rainbow.
About six months ago Halpern-Zisman said that’s when “things really got going.” Every Wednesday and Sunday the algorithm makes matches, and now she’s begun matchmaking people via interviews. Recently, they hired another matchmaker, with the hopes to expand further.
There are currently over 1,000 active users on the site who are getting matched—primarily in Toronto and New York.
For Halpern-Zisman, the personal touch of actually speaking with the client allows the yente to “tease out what’s really important to you.”
Notably, Yente Over the Rainbow has also fostered community where people can feel comfortable fully expressing their Jewish and queer identities.
“As a queer Jew I felt it hard to find spaces to be comfortable with all aspects of my identity,” she described. “In some queer circles I didn’t get to fully feel comfortable to express my Jewish self in all ways and in some Jewish spaces I wasn’t able to feel comfortable with my queer identity. It was something I’d have to hold back a bit. I wanted to create a space where you can have both parts.”
Forming this more inclusive environment is exactly what Madison Slobin endeavoured to create when putting together YVR Yenta, in Vancouver.
Around December 2019, Slobin saw examples of modern matchmaking from her time living in New York, but she wanted to make it more personable and more of a community.
When she moved back to Vancouver, she desired to generate a matchmaking service for Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds, religions, and sexual orientations—essentially anyone that was interested in modern matchmaking through a Jewish lens.
For YVR Yenta, participants fill out a Google form with basic information, then Slobin with her fellow yentas Brady Winrob and Michael Karmel have a mandatory interview with the participant, “we won’t match you if we don’t meet with you,” Slobin said.
“The face-to-face meeting is so important.”
The yentas notify the client when a match has been made. The clients then send a more in depth blurb and some photos. If that looks suitable to their potential match, contact information is exchanged and it’s up to the participants to meet.
Slobin also noted that she tells her clients to expect quality over quantity and finding a match might take some time. With 75 clients, the mission of YVR Yenta is to create solid connections, not just “any connection.” There have been some clients who haven’t matched yet, but that doesn’t mean the “yenta hat” isn’t on for these three yentas.
“It’s not limited to just our clients. I always have people in the back of my mind of who we want to match.” That means if there’s someone Slobin knows outside of the YVR Yenta circle who she thinks might be a good match for her client then that’s fair game.
“We create a good enough rapport with our clients that they’re like our friends and I’m just setting them up with another friend of mine. I’m in it for the community aspect. I’m attracted to a service where people are excited to be in a Jewish, progressive community together,” Slobin described.
When the pandemic is over, the yentas hope to throw more in person mixers (although they did one virtually which was a success) to build more connections for those looking for friendship, a sperm donor, or a long term relationship. However, recently they began putting up classifieds on their Instagram page which have been popular and have created matches.
This sense of community building has also created a positive response from the communities both YVR Yenta and Yente Over the Rainbow help serve.
“People are happy there’s an online space geared towards not just them as an afterthought. Most dating sites will ask the last question, do you date the same gender? We go in depth about your LGBTQ+ sexual identity. It’s a romantic connection that speaks to a full person,” Halpern-Zisman said.
To get more of a sense of what specific advice yentas have for anyone looking to find connection, I asked Zisman, Slobin, and Karina a matchmaker from an established matching service, Simantov-International—based in London, UK—on how to find meaningful relationships and how to face obstacles in the dating world.
What is the key to a healthy and happy relationship?
Karina: The key to a healthy and happy relationship is respect and trust in your partner and yourself. And accepting the partner as he/she is, allowing him/her to be different. Meanwhile, the best receipt I got from my grandmother— to find something in your partner every day to fall in love with. And one more piece of advice from my grandpa—to say “I love you” every day.
Slobin: Communication is so cliche but it feels like people who are good communicators are in healthier relationships and know when to leave one. I also think what makes a healthy and happy one is tied to, do you know when it’s over? The emphasis on staying together no matter what is really negative. If it’s not working, sit with that feeling and interrogate it. Also, setting boundaries, which stems from knowing yourself and voicing your needs.
Halpern-Zisman: The ability to listen to your partner, express your own needs, and work together to find mutual understanding.
What do you find is the biggest obstacle(s) many Jewish singles face?
Karina: The Jewish world is big and small at the same time. Jewish people are very different regarding their background, spiritual level, ethnicity, etc. The biggest obstacle is that local communities are not big, and people mostly know each other. They still want to have Jewish families but not with people who they know. The issue can also be intense family involvement, that is beautiful by itself, but can disturb decision-making. The obstacle can be the lack of flexibility in the questions regarding observance level or social diversity.
Slobin: I think it’s supporting interfaith couples. There aren’t a lot of resources on how to make them meaningful and positive, and there’s only rhetoric on why they don’t work. It’s also assumed that this is usually just with someone who is Jewish and Christian but not other backgrounds. I implore other people to think of the richness that can come from bringing multiple cultures with it and the learning that comes with allowing these relationships to flourish.
Halpern-Zisman: For Jewish Queer singles the biggest obstacle is just finding each other, but this depends on your upbringing and for some it might not be so hard. But people are also very spread out, so it’s harder to find that community closer to home.
What is your advice for any Jewish singles out there who are looking for love?
Karina: This is advice to any single, not only Jewish one but decide for yourself that you are ready. Take it as a marathon, not a sprint, release your mind of thoughts about your age, biological clocks, comparing yourself with your married friends etc. Everything will happen in the right moment with the right person; allow yourself to be happy regardless of your “wish-list”. The best partner for you can be very far from the ideal partner in your mind, but this partnership will make you the happiest person.
Slobin: I think loving yourself and knowing you are enough is so important. Creating space in your life to foster relationships of all kinds is necessary for survival in this world. That’s one of the main things I think about—community and relationships (not just romantic) will allow us to thrive.
Halpern-Zisman: Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen right away,life is very long… don’t give up.
Header photograph by YVR Yenta.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.