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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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Extreme Makeover: Orthodox Edition 2012


Allison Josephs

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, 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.”

Since that donor has yet to materialize, Jew in the City ran a sold-out fundraiser in Teaneck, New Jersey last year, with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers. Television star (and my close friend and Partner in Torah) Mayim Bialik spoke of how she became observant and how Jew in the City targets precisely those things that had been holding her back.

That event led to some exciting press coverage including articles on About.com and in The Jerusalem Post and Yediot Aharanot (YnetNews). This added publicity put Jew in the City on the radar of the Israeli television channel Hidabroot which has licensed several of our videos that will soon be airing on Israeli TV. A religion show on NPR (“Interfaith Voices”) recently discovered us and I was interviewed about Jew in the City in March for our largest audience to date – 100,000 listeners across the U.S. and Canada. And I was recently named one of National Jewish Outreach Project’s Top Jewish Influencers of 2012, which led to coverage on Yahoo News and the Huffington Post.

One successful fundraiser, however, is not enough to keep an organization running, so in the last few months we’ve been exploring other ways to raise funds for Jew in the City that are more business-oriented. We’ve added Google ads to the videos, which are bringing in some revenue. We’ve also recently begun working with companies whose products I love and was already recommending to viewers who’d ask me for advice.

I’ve been wearing Freeda Wigs since I got married, and every time a viewer complimented my sheitel and asked where I got it, I would send them to Freeda Wigs. So I approached Freeda Wigs a few months ago about putting ads on our videos. They agreed and then a little while later “ambushed” me on the street and offered me a sheitel makeover with a new wig.

This video, “Jew in the City: Freeda Wigs Makeover Edition” has been extremely popular and takes much of the strangeness out of wearing a wig. I’ve received positive e-mails from non-observant friends – and also from formerly observant fans (those who used to cover their hair but no longer do) telling me the video was fun to watch and that it got them thinking about covering their hair again.

As one woman, Elizabeth, expressed it, “If I hadn’t stumbled on JITC, I think I may have just given up on the idea of Orthodoxy before I began. I’m not sure I am ever going to be a full-time head coverer, but I no longer view it as oppression or misogyny.”

Junees, a clothing store I love to shop at, was also interested in working with us by providing wardrobe for the videos. We’re planning to do a collaborative “how to dress modestly and stylishly” video to debunk that myth that Orthodox women must look unattractive.

But before we get to that, the current video that’s in the works is a mikveh video, sponsored by MikvahCalendar.com, where we will take the viewers to a mikveh and show how beautiful and life-enhancing this mitzvah can be.

In an effort to get Jew in the City’s mission to more people, we’ve tried to land appearances on television programs. Every opportunity that arose, though, was connected to cooking Jewish food during a Jewish holiday. At first I thought there was no way to tie Jewish cooking into the Jew in the City message, but then it occurred to me that I have a special brand of cooking – kosher treif.

I started playing around with soy products and fake shrimp and have recreated most of the treif recipes I loved as a kid. I began writing a cookbook memoir that tells of my journey to observance while giving over my favorite treif childhood recipes, now with kosher ingredients. The theme of the book is that being observant is not all about giving things up and shouldn’t be about losing your “flavor.” Indeed, even as one rearranges her life to include only “kosher” components, she can keep many aspects of her old self.

I’ve also started focusing more on public speaking. I was a panelist at the NCSY YouthCon convention, a scholar in residence with Mayim Bialik at Boca Raton Synagogue this past January, and I am speaking at different schools, shuls, and organizations all over the country. This serves the purpose of further spreading the mission of Jew in the City—and of providing a little financial relief.

Speaking of financial relief, why haven’t I quit Jew in the City? After all, isn’t it completely illogical to work for more than four years with no pay?

I haven’t given up because of people like Romy L., who wrote, “Honestly you have changed the way I look at Orthodox people. I used to think they were so much different, weirdly enough! And I kinda secretly feel like I’d want to be more religious when grow up.”

And people like Rachel, who said, “By presenting Orthodox Judaism in such a friendly and entertaining manner, you have encouraged me to take a course at a local Chabad center. I loved the course and people I met so much that I even went back for a Shabbat service! I want to thank everyone at JITC for the work they do and to let you all know that what you are doing is inspiring!”

And people like Setti: “After seeing your Shabbat video I was very inspired to keep observing today, instead of skipping a day & then two & so on…it’s not an easy process, so thanks!”

I always expected that Jew in the City would affect Jews with no Jewish background, but another unexpected population is being reached – people who have gone “off the derech.” As one person wrote, “I’m a formerly Orthodox person who is now sorta…nothing and seeing your videos does make me more open to Shabbos dinners with family and trying to keep kosher again. Keep up the great work!”

A woman from a chassidish background who felt so repressed by Judaism that she appeared on a TV show to express her negative feelings, left this message on the Jew in the City Facebook page:

“I tend to have a hard time hearing ‘the laws’ and the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘musts’…but I have to say, your wit and humor in getting these messages across got me listening…. I watched every video on YouTube and immensely enjoyed each one. Looking forward to more of your stuff…thanks for doing the ‘Work’ you are doing; Jew in the City is definitely on to something BIG.”

Another unexpected but wonderful development is that we’re hearing from ba’alei teshuvah that Jew in the City is helping their families respect and better understand their choices.

As Mary wrote, “I’m a senior college student in Ohio with a secular family and a very religious sister. I’ve been sending JITC episodes to my dad and aunt to help them better understand my sister’s Jewish decision. Thanks for tackling things that can be really tough to explain!”

Will had a similar take: “I am so happy I found JITC, not only is it hilarious, it has also sincerely strengthened the relationship between me and my mother. I have recently become a BT. It’s been difficult to explain to my parents why I love Judaism & why I choose to follow certain laws now, however, JITC has been a great medium of explaining the Jewish faith that we never truly understood. JITC, you’re doing a great mitzvah!”

Non-Jews have also been writing in more and more frequently. They have the same misunderstandings about us that secular Jews have. Jew in the City is helping to correct those misunderstandings:

“ I live near a large Hasidic Jewish community and have had a lot of questions and misjudgments about them. I just love watching your videos because they help answer my questions! God bless!” – Molly

“I am a Christian and I find that your videos help me to better understand the life of more religiously observant Jewish people. You are truly an inspiration for many people out here in cyber space.” – K.S.

With so much anti-Orthodox reporting in the news media and so many people holding negative perceptions about Orthodox Jews, Jew in the City’s work is far from finished. Jewish Press readers can help our mission succeed by sharing our content, supporting our sponsors, or booking me to speak. Together, we can truly make a difference.

Allison Josephs is founder and director of JewintheCity.com. She lives minutes from the George Washington Bridge with her husband and four children.

Allison Josephs

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