Pandemic inspired creative strategies for dating

Dating during a pandemic

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

First dates can be awkward. The pandemic merely upped the dating stress level last year, so Jewish St. Louis singles got creative. Consider the following:

Mick Weltman met Paula Render on a dating app not long before the March 2020 shelter-in-place order. Their first date: a walk in the park, a safe six feet apart.

Joel Portman met Alicia Bach via Ignite YPD, a group for young Jewish professionals, in February 2020.Their first date commenced via a very socially distant Zoom call.

Matthew Baer and Sarah Sherer-Kohlburn at least had an in-person first date in 2020 just before the lockdown. Their dinner conversation at Sasha’s Wine Bar was admittedly a bit macabre. “We somehow managed to spend 30 minutes talking about various methods of murder, which is very odd for a first date,” said Baer, 35.

Weltman, 68, is a St. Louisan now living in Chicago, where he is executive director of Associated Colleges of Illinois. He met Render, a lawyer, on

“Our first date was in Lincoln Park toward the end of March,” said Render, 58. “We just walked around the park and talked because we couldn’t go inside anywhere. With pandemic dating, it’s important to meet in person. You get more of a sense of a person than you do on Zoom. At a certain point, you realize that you’re in each other’s bubble and you can hang out at each other’s house and watch movies.”

Another tip for pandemic dating from Weltman is to think outside the box when coming up with things to do. They both enjoy travel, but that wasn’t going to happen last year.


“Each weekend, one of us selects a country we’d like to visit,” Weltman said. “We put together some videos and facts and interesting things about that country that we can imagine going to. That’s been a lot of fun.”

Portman, 33, faced a common pandemic dating dilemma in last year. There was no easy way to meet new people.

“If you’re using a dating app and filtering it for someone who’s Jewish, you’re lucky to find someone who you don’t already know or haven’t gone out with before,” Portman said. “Prepandemic, the easiest way to meet people was to go to a Jewish Federation YPD (Young Professionals Division) event.”

Portman, who works at Centene, finally did meet his now-girlfriend Alicia Bach in person, but initially there were plenty of virtual meetings, texts and phone calls.

“It was kind of like long-distance dating without really being long distance, because we’re in the same city,” he said. “Right after the lockdown ended on May 31, we went on our first date. I said, ‘Let’s go to a park and sit and talk and get a bottle of wine.’ I brought two blankets because I wasn’t even sure she would sit next to me because of COVID. It felt weird because, if I show up with two blankets, is she going think I don’t want to sit next to her?”

Bach, 32, is a pediatric oncology fellow from Dallas, so she didn’t have a built-in St. Louis network like Portman did, who grew up here. They both have negotiated the oddities of pandemic dating without a hiccup, he said.

“It’s been really nice because we’re in this little bubble,” Portman said. “You get to know this other person really well. But usually prepandemic, you might go to some fancy event, and there are none. I have met some of her friends, but I don’t even know if I could tell you what they look like because they all had face masks on.”

Baer is a neurology specialist at the Washington University School of Medicine. His busy work schedule and the pandemic made dating a frustrating experience.

“My anxiety was kind of high at the time, so nobody was meeting in person,” he said. “I did a couple of virtual dates. They didn’t turn into anything. I think of myself as being very traditional or old fashioned, and I hate the idea of meeting somebody through online dating.”

Fresh out of ideas and prospects, he tried the JSwipe app, where he hit paydirt, meeting criminal defense lawyer Sherer-Kohlburn, 32. They are both Jewish, which is important to Baer, but he said the key to their successful relationship is compatibility.

“I firmly believe every relationship has a compromise, and I genuinely cannot find one in ours,” he said. “I assumed that I was going to be frustrated and single for a long time and that someday the right person would just fall into my life by some unexpected means – and that’s exactly what happened.”

Things ended up pretty well for Baer and Sherer-Kohlburn: They’re engaged and planning a fall 2022 wedding.

The successful dating experiences of Weltman, Portman and Baer notwithstanding, the pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into the social lives of Jewish singles, according to a  Brandeis University study from August. It demonstrated that younger respondents had more trouble coping with the psychological effects of the pandemic.

An estimated 10,000 single Jewish young adults live in the St. Louis area, according to Rabbi Yossi Abenson, emissary of Chabad of the Central West End. Abenson said those singles are definitely feeling the effects of COVID in their social lives.

“What I get from talking to them is a perception that there aren’t enough people to date because there are so many silos in St. Louis,” said Abenson, 28. “We don’t believe that. We think we can tap into that group, and we’re working on programs to bring them together.”

The Abensons (Yossi and his wife/co-emissary Goldie) spearheaded an online effort late last year to help single Jews meet. They also coordinated a Hanukkah event intended as a drive-through to pick up a menorah and candles, which turned into an impromptu meetup. Afterward, Abenson received a number of phone calls from Jewish CWEers who asked him for the names and contacts of singles they met. Since everyone was wearing face masks and standing six feet apart, it was challenging to exchange phone numbers.

One St. Louis Jewish single in the young professional group is real estate agent and weight loss social media personality Jennifer Matus. Her @LosingTheJiggleWithJen has a combined 40,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok. Matus also chronicles the challenges of dating on her Facebook page.

“For me, dating was a nightmare even before COVID happened,” said Matus 34. “It’s definitely made it harder and added a serious challenge because everyone’s comfort level is different. Also, everyone has lost a sense of real connection and the only way to meet people anymore is on dating apps.

“The difficult thing with the dating apps is it’s hard to find someone who is loyal or committed and really does want a relationship. I find nine times out of 10, when I get matched, when you ask the guy, what are you looking for, they’re going to tell me they want something casual. I know other people are experiencing the same things. I had dinner with a friend, and she had been dating someone about three months. He abruptly ended it without much of an explanation.”

The dating challenges of COVID-19 has also been evident to Jewish St. Louis matchmaker Paula Sparks. She did have one successful match last year, a couple who met and is now engaged. That puts her career scorecard at 22 couples married, one engaged, 13 dating for years, three widows and 18 Jewish children born from couples she introduced.

“I usually have one really big event a year, and I didn’t have anything in 2020,” said Sparks, 51. “The pandemic was not a good dating situation. You just have to be a little more creative and plan ahead. When you go on Zoom, dress up, do your hair, put makeup and jewelry on. Men should wear a shirt and tie. The good thing about FaceTime and Zoom is you don’t have to wear a face mask, so you can actually see each other.”