September 21, 2021 10:30:01 pm
Written by Sean Malin
It’s no secret that online dating can be a stultifying, painful and sometimes traumatizing experience.
But to the general discomfort of small talk with a stranger or the fear of being stood up, add the possibility of catching a virus mid-pandemic, and the pressures of finding “bashert” — a Hebrew term for one’s predestined partner, or soul mate — can seem existentially terrifying.
Even now, with the vaccine rollout continuing across the country, the emotional exhaustion of being alone with our apps for over a year of lockdown still remains for many.
Jessie Sweeney, 23, a student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, was single when she moved to Baltimore at the height of the pandemic. At first, she used a few different dating apps, such as Hinge, to get to know people in the area, and made sure to keep her mother in the loop. “My mother, as Jewish mothers go, is very involved in my life,” Sweeney said.
Then, in July, Sweeney’s mother suggested she check out JustKibbitz, a new dating site intended to help the overswiped, overworked Jewish single find love in a post-pandemic world.
Unlike standard dating websites where members communicate directly with their prospective matches, JustKibbitz turns the process over to the parents, who make accounts showcasing their adult children, then arrange and, through digital gift cards for businesses such as Starbucks, AMC and Chili’s, even pay for their dates.
Sweeney’s mother offered a proposal: She could create her daughter’s profile with photos from her camera roll and help her find “a nice Jewish boy you should go on a date with,” while Sweeney focused her energy on work and the law.
Sweeney was shocked by the idea, but amused. She said she trusted her mother’s judgment enough to agree: “I just laughed it off and let her do her thing.”
The concept of dating by proxy has long roots in Jewish tradition. In some Orthodox practices, Jewish singles embark on the shidduch, a process in which their families work with a dedicated shadchan, or matchmaker, to find the perfect life partner, the zivug.
Organizations such as ChabadMatch and the Shidduch Center of Baltimore, which maintain large regional databases of shadchanim, have even begun offering digital meetings with some of their matchmakers in the COVID era. (Both ChabadMatch and the Shidduch Center declined to comment, with a representative from the Shidduch Center citing privacy concerns.)
Jeffrey Kaplan, 35, was familiar with these traditions when he and Mike Ovies, 37, founded JustKibbitz in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2020.
Kaplan credits the idea for the matchmaking venture to a fortuitous trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2013. While visiting his mother there, Kaplan discovered with amazement that she was “catfishing” young women on the Jewish dating site JDate by impersonating her younger son, Adam.
Although none of these overtures ever led to a physical meeting, Kaplan, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” and the director of the startup investment firm Venture Asheville in Asheville, said he instantly recognized “a huge, unarticulated need” in modern dating: a space where moms could, with consent, pick their children’s partners. “Truly, parents meeting other parents and setting their kids up on dates is how civilization began,” Kaplan said. “That, we saw, was missing from online dating.”
Over the next five years, Kaplan honed the idea for a website called Oogum, where, originally, “any kind of mom” was invited to join. At first, the idea was greeted as “outlandish” and “crazy” at monthly Asheville “pitch parties.” Then, in September 2019, the pitch won $150,000 in seed money at the Asheville Investment Club’s “Big Scary Fish Tank” fundraiser.
Those surprise winnings kick-started the development of the site, which quickly morphed into a platform specifically for lonesome Jews and their desperate-to-help parents. With the novel coronavirus in full swing, it launched to the public in October as JustKibbitz with the tagline “Help someone you love meet someone they’ll love.”
JustKibbitz faces an uphill fight to avoid the same fate of its most direct predecessor, the now-defunct matchmaking service TheJMom.com, in an increasingly bloated landscape for dating platforms.
It was 2010 when Brad Weisberg, 40, now CEO of Chicago-based claims-management service Snapsheet, launched JMom with his sister Danielle, 27, and another founder.
Like Kaplan, the Weisbergs started the site after watching their mother scour Weisberg’s dating profile for worthwhile suitors. “Our mother would sit here all day every day for the rest of her life if she felt like she could have an impact on us finding the love of our lives,” he said. “Why not create a platform for moms to do that work for you?”
Weisberg remembers that JMom “became kind of like a movement” quickly, with “tens of thousands” of sign-ups in 2011 after a rush of favorable press. Soon, his family — including his mother, who he said personally scanned every new woman’s profile as a potential match for her son — was overwhelmed with thank-you notes and personalized wedding invitations from successful matches. The Weisbergs even started a spinoff called BharatMother.com, which offered a similar service for match-seeking Indian families.
In 2014, they agreed to sell the company to an unnamed private buyer, while Brad Weisberg turned full-time to running Snapsheet. Almost immediately, JMom announced it would cease operating. The site shut down for good May 1, 2015.
According to Sweeney, the JustKibbitz profile her mother made received zero matches after a full week. Her mom “was very excited about the idea of being able to completely control my dating life,” Sweeney said. “She was disappointed that she wasn’t able to do that.”
Still, Sweeney and her mother plan to give JustKibbitz another try “in a couple of months,” provided there are more potential dates in the Baltimore or nearby Washington areas, she said. “Great things do take time, and I do think it is a great idea.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.