Rabbi Donald Weber is far from the first rabbi to call for single Jews in his congregation to marry other Jews.
Such pulpit calls have become commonplace in an age of high Jewish intermarriage rates and fears the Jewish population will fall sharply in coming generations. But the Reform rabbi's recent appeal came with a novel twist.
Six weeks ago, in his Yom Kippur sermon at Temple Rodeph Torah, Weber offered to personally pay for six-month memberships to JDate, the popular Jewish online dating service, for any singles in the congregation who asked.
JDate charges $149 for a six-month membership, and so far, nine people have taken the rabbi up on his offer. He and his wife, Shira Stern, initially pledged $1,000 but just donated a second $1,000 as more people came forward.
"All they have to do is claim it," said Weber, who received a slight group discount from JDate. "We'll do this as long as there's a need, and as long as there's a desire."
The need is there, he said, be cause the American Jewish population has declined in recent decades, with about half of American Jews marrying outside the religion, according to widely reported national surveys. Weber punctuated his sermon by citing a recent study from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion indicating that fewer than 10% of grandchildren of intermarried parents identify as Jews.
JDate, one of several online personals sites run by Spark Networks, claims about 400,000 active members, 74,000 of whom subscribe. It bills itself as the "modern alternative to traditional Jewish matchmaking."
"We need you to look at Jewish people when you're dating," Weber said on Yom Kippur. "There aren't a lot of us around. ... You're going to have to look in specific places. Number one? JDate. No joke. Half the weddings I'm doing now are people that met on JDate."
Weber, rabbi at Rodeph Torah for 24 years, told the single Jews in the pews that the survival of American Judaism in its current form depends on their decisions.
"Do we believe that it's important enough that it must go on, that we make a difference in the world? That if there are no Jews in the world that the world will be poorer than it is now? If we believe that, then we're going to need to do some things about it," he said.
Danielle Cranin, 26, an associate manager at ESPN in Bristol, Conn., heard Weber's sermon while visiting her parents in Freehold for the holiday and "didn't think anything of it," she recalled.
"Then my mom e-mailed me and said, 'So, are you gonna take him up on this?' To use a sports cliché, you can't score if you don't shoot. I figured, 'Why not?' I travel a lot for work and don't want to date people I work with. To meet people up here is quite difficult."
Another woman who was home for Yom Kippur, Karyn, a 25-year-old who requested her last name not be used, had a similar story:
"I came out of the service and my parents were like, 'You should totally do this! You should sign up. You have no excuses.'"
Karyn, who graduated from law school in May and now works as a law clerk in Washington, had tried JDate earlier for free — allowing her to send only limited types of messages — but didn't want to spend the money required for membership. After Yom Kippur, she e-mailed the rabbi and was subscribed.
"In all honesty, it comes down to the fact that I'm in D.C., I'm single, I haven't had great success in finding dates, to be quite honest. And I'm really looking to date someone who is Jewish."
In JDate's 10-year history, no rabbi has reached out to the company like Weber did, said Gail Laguna, a spokeswoman for JDate, which is based in Los Angeles.
It's unclear how many JDate matches have married, but about 20,000 people have checked boxes on the website saying they found their "soul mate" on JDate, Laguna said.
Whether Weber's effort ultimately succeeds with congregants, the subject is a touchy one for all Reform rabbis. Unlike Orthodox and Conservative temples, Reform synagogues accept non-Jewish spouses as full members, and they populate the pews in large numbers. Some in Weber's congregation were offended by his sermon.
"To be honest, I've had some people who are very angry with me," Weber said. "They felt that I was saying that people who are dating or marrying non-Jews are not as good — which I didn't say."
He insisted, though, that rabbis and Jewish parents need to find an acceptable way to talk about the issue with Jewish singles, some type of middle ground between threatening to disown children who marry non-Jews and, on the other hand, a profession of indifference.
Many Jews in their 50s and 60s, he said, "came from a time when if a person married a non-Jew, they were disowned. Literally disowned. People would sit shiva for their children, acting as if they had died and never speak to them again. I think there's been a backlash against that ... We've been uncomfortable finding that middle ground of expressing that opinion without sounding like a dictator."