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Extreme Makeover: Orthodox Edition 2012


Allison Josephs

Allison Josephs

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By now everyone has heard of Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. The book received much more attention than it should have, but then again, the Sikrikim’s shenanigans in Israel got more coverage than they should have.

Although these stories portrayed Orthodox Jews in a negative manner, the truth many had already viewed us in a less than positive light.

As someone who was raised as a Conservative Jew, I grew up believing all Orthodox Jews were fanatical people who subjugated women, rejected science, and were just plain backward.

Like most Jews, my only knowledge of Orthodoxy was based on ridiculous characters in books and movies and scandalous headlines one saw every now and then about Orthodox crooks or pedophiles.

It’s clear the mainstream media love a good anti-Orthodox story, but what should our response be?

As I wrote in this space two and a half years ago (“Extreme Makeover: Orthodox Edition,” Oct. 16, 2009), I believe we have the power to change cultural perceptions of Orthodox Jews by showing the world we lead meaningful lives and at the same time can be humorous, relevant, “normal” people.

With the website JewintheCity.com, I launched a worldwide Orthodox image makeover campaign that aimed to do just that.

* * * * *

A little more about me before we get to my website: As a child I was plagued with an existential crisis. The happy, privileged life my parents gave me wasn’t enough. At the age of eight I realized that nothing in this world was going to last. I was fortunate to have been exposed to Orthodoxy when I was sixteen in an after-school Hebrew high school class that provided me the answers I had been searching for. And though I encountered major dissent from family and friends as I made my journey to Orthodoxy, over time I was able to bring my parents and both sisters along with me. We are all frum today.

I started Jew in the City five years ago when it occurred to me that the negativity I was raised with toward Orthodox Jews is nearly universal. Not only is misinformation about us rampant, causing us to be unnecessarily disliked by the outside world, these misunderstandings prevent many non-religious Jews from ever exploring Torah Judaism. Something had to be done. Every Jew deserves to know how deep and beautiful his heritage is.

Jew in the City’s mission is to break down stereotypes about religious Jews and offer a humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism through the power of new media. Besides its general mission, Jew in the City is unique because of its YouTube videos, which accomplish an important purpose. As I saw early on through another YouTube show, one’s personality is able to come across through this medium, creating a feeling among viewers that they’ve met the person in the video.

That is essentially the missing link. Most people find Orthodox Jews quite pleasant and likable when they actually get to know us. Unfortunately, because there are relatively few of us and we tend to live in a limited number of cities, most people never get a chance to meet us and instead rely solely on ridiculous stereotypes and embarrassing headlines.

Jew in the City eventually expanded into a blog with articles, Q&A’s and a presence on Facebook and Twitter. The material for the content is based on the struggles and questions I confronted as I was becoming observant and the spiritual lessons I glean from my everyday life.

Jew in the City has made much progress since I wrote about it here in 2009. Our videos have been viewed more than half a million times, and we’ve made seven new ones since then. These new videos have debunked myths and misconceptions associated with Shabbos, the Orthodox take on birth control, and how some Orthodox Jews approach science.

Jew in the City continues to successfully connect Jews with what is theirs, and their lives are being changed because of it:

“I love your site. You have deeply affected my life and helped me become more observant. Thank you so much. I can’t wait until your next episode!” – Jaclyn S.

“I was raised in a non-kosher, Conservative Jewish home as a ‘3 day’ Jew. I thank you for rekindling my faith, as I have become more observant, daven with tefillin, and now practice regularly.” – Dave T.

* * * * *

One of Jew in the City’s biggest challenges has always been funding. Frankly, I don’t like asking people for money, but it costs a lot to run a worldwide new media campaign—and I quit my paying job while my husband was in his last year of law school (and we had two kids) to launch the site. I basically figured, “Hashem will send a generous donor my way.”

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12 Responses to “Extreme Makeover: Orthodox Edition 2012”

  1. Debbie Rabinowitz says:

    Yay! Finally the positive side of being oryhodox.

  2. Allison, I like your site. You do a fantastic job of explaining the meat and bones of Orthodox Judaism to a population who would otherwise remain ignorant. I really disagree with your comment about the sikrikim's "shenanigans." They are a violent group of men who have committed terrible crimes. They don't get a pass just because they dress like Chassidim. It is unseemly to whitewash their actions by labeling what they do as shenanigans, as if they were a group of high school teenagers, who were caught toilet-papering their principal's yard. Orthodox Jews need to stand up against their brand of abuse, not give them tacit approval and blame the media for covering it.

  3. I appreciate your comment – I am *completely* against what the Sikrikim did/do which you can see from my post calling for Sikrikim to not even be considered Orthodox any more http://www.jewinthecity.com/2012/01/whats-in-a-name-a-call-to-re-brand-the-extremists-in-israel-from-ultra-orthodox-to-sikrikim/ I was looking for a word to describe to describe "bad behavior." I didn't mean to imply there's anything silly about what they do. However – I think the secular media had a field day with the story because they love to make us look bad.

  4. Allison Josephs Thank you for the clarification. In many instances, I agree that the secular media does exaggerate and goes out of their way to portray Orthodoxy as archaic, but I also believe that we need to take responsibility for our failings. Pointing our finger at the media and claiming anti-semitism won't make our own faults vanish.

  5. Aviva Bursten Cohen says:

    Two smart women having a decent, thoughtful, respectful discussion.
    Bracha and Allison, I'm proud of both of you!

  6. Bracha Bennett-Garland instead of just covering the story objectively, I felt that in many instances the media was reveling in the fact that "religious" Jews were behaving badly. BUT I completely agree – there's a serious problem, and we must take responsibility for our faults, media aside.

  7. Aviva Bursten Cohen Thank you. I left my boxing gloves in my other office.

  8. Tzvi Fishman says:

    Yasher koach on your efforts, but looking over the site, I was pained to see that you have removed Eretz Yisrael from your discussions, even though establishing a Torah life in the Land of Israel is the goal of Judaism and the focus of all of my prayers. What a shame!

  9. Rifki Orzech says:

    @aviva – agreed :D. You two would make a good team actually :-P

  10. Joan Michel says:

    Pretty much the same thing is happening to me in, but in the other direction… my son became frum and much of it is rubbing off on me, so I'm getting there. However, the feminist in me is still much alive so I'd like to suggest that you add "and her" to "how beautiful his heritage is." :….. these misunderstandings prevent many non-religious Jews from ever exploring Torah Judaism. Something had to be done. Every Jew deserves to know how deep and beautiful his heritage is.

  11. The book is not an attack on Orthodox Judaism or even Haredi Judaism, but most specifically a strong criticism of Satmar Judaism. It is largely negative but there are also positive elements as in the author's portrayal of her grandparents. It does however show the fanaticism, narrow- mindedness, and essentially erroneous view of the world of Satmar. It shows their hateful relation to their fellow Jews who they call Zionists, and their total misreading of Jewish history.
    As for Deborah Feldman she does not appear to be tzadikus- ha- dor either But she had the courage to confront a world which she felt was oppressing her, and take action against it.

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Allison Josephs' website Jewinthecity.com website educates about Orthodox Judaism.

Rejecting something with knowledge is one thing, but most Jews in the world today have essentially rejected a life of Jewish observance with very little book or experiential knowledge.

Allison Josephs

By now everyone has heard of Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. The book received much more attention than it should have.

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