Filling two vacuums at once – one of Orthodox women taking a more public role and a second of Modern Orthodox Jews demonstrating the merits of religious Jewish practice – Allison Josephs has transformed her sweet and engaging webisodes and blog into a larger force. Jew in the City is now a franchise.
This heightened prominence was on full display two weeks ago when Jew in the City hosted its second annual “Top 10 Orthodox Jewish All-Stars” awards evening, this time at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.
In attendance were some of the current crop of all-stars like Issamar Ginzberg, a prominent marketing guru, and Sarah Hofstetter, who was promoted last month to CEO of the advertising firm 360i, as well as some of last year’s all-stars like celebrity chef Jamie Geller and members of the a capella group Maccabeats.
After the festivities The Jewish Press caught up with Josephs for some questions.
The Jewish Press: The celebration on Sunday was beautiful and well attended – kind of a coming-out moment, or perhaps another in a line of moments. Would that be the way you view these celebrations – as a statement that you’ve arrived?
Allison Josephs: Thank you. Last year, because it was the first year we did such a party, was a feeling of arriving. This year felt more like we’re getting bigger and better. It felt more like the crazy things I dreamed could be possible – getting media attention that Orthodox Jews can have fun, live out their dreams, and be “normal” – is actually happening. We had a CNN reporter at the event and I was interviewing Sarah Hofstetter, one of our all-stars, about how she breaks down stereotypes about Orthodox Jewish women in corporate America as the CNN reporter’s camera was rolling. And as it was all happening, it felt surreal.
The ethos of the party seemed to follow that of Jew in the City’s – that Orthodoxy is not limiting and not monolithic. Thus, there was an Orthodox DJ playing “kosher” music, a full wine and cheese section, etc.
We wanted the party to be both frum and fabulous. We made sure to invite a range of people, from chassidim to Sephardic to Chabad to modern to non-Orthodox. And we wanted it to feel like the place to be, but also to remember that we have a message and a purpose.
Is an Orthodox Jewish all-star a contradiction in terms?
Not in my mind. Yosef was probably the first Orthodox Jewish all-star, Rambam another. There are different models within Torah Judaism and if someone chooses to partake of the world less, I have no problem with that. But for the people who want to be a part of the world, inasmuch as it’s kosher, why shouldn’t we encourage people to be themselves? Quashing dreams doesn’t often lead to the most positive feelings for Hashem. And in terms of reaching out to the non-observant, we want them to know that should they want to explore their heritage more deeply, they need not sacrifice their professional success – for most industries, not all.
As you become more well known, and as you throw more of these events, you increasingly move front and center. Is that difficult for you personally? And is it difficult to balance that with your own sense of tznius?
As people start to treat me differently, I feel weird. I’ve been stopped on the street for photographs, asked for autographs. I kind of want to tell these people, “Hey there, I’ve got a secret – I’m actually just a regular person!”
The funny thing is that as a kid I dreamed of being famous. It’s one of the major goals of the secular world. Be in the spotlight. Have cameras on you. Did you ever notice how people rubberneck when there’s a camera crew around? There’s nothing terribly deep or meaningful about it. It just means that you “matter.”
I happen to have a natural hamminess. That’s just how Hashem created me. So I figured I could squelch it and try to make it go away, or I could serve Hashem b’chal levavcha – with my yetzer hatov and my yetzer hara. So I use the external stuff Hashem gave me to get people listening. And then, once they’re listening, I talk about the deep stuff. I think it’s OK as long as I get that the external stuff and the spotlight is not the goal – it’s simply a vehicle to get to the goal.
In terms of tznius, my understanding of tznius is that I have to dress and act appropriately and not run to the spotlight just to be in the spotlight, but if or when you have a message to give over then you must. Does being in the spotlight expose me at times to gross men who are not doing their part in being tznius? Unfortunately. But I try not to focus on that part and remember why I’m doing what I’m doing.
In his speech, Rabbi Daniel Cohen spoke about not imposing but exposing. Do you view what you do as kiruv, at least partially?
Well, I guess it depends on how you define kiruv. I think kiruv ought to be putting out the information honestly and accurately and letting the person figure out what it means to him or her. I think, unfortunately, at times kiruv can come with the idea of “I’m going to make him frum.” So we’re not that kind of “kiruv.”
I’m a big believer in the idea that the Torah sells itself. We’ve got the goods. We just need to shine them up all nice and pretty. So that gets back to your original question about how the event had a feeling of not being “limiting.” We want to show that within the confines of Jewish law, there is more room for physical enjoyment and self-expression than people might realize. The ultimate goal is serving God, but there is still plenty of room for “self” in that mix.
I’ve long felt that most of the kiruv organizations out there (or exposing organizations, if you will) are from the haredi sector, which is certainly well and good. But it can leave both non-frum Jews and the general populace with a narrower picture of Orthodox Judaism. I know many Jews in the Modern Orthodox world who feel they have something to offer.
Most Jewish outreach is being done in the haredi sector. I think many Modern Orthodox Jews feel self-conscious about being too pushy or missionizing, and shy away from kiruv. But maybe some are interested too.
I’m a big believer that there should be many approaches offered. I am an alum of Darche Noam (Midreshet Rachel) and I learned to respect teachers and rabbis from across the spectrum. So any time I guide someone who’s interested in learning more, I suggest they visit all sorts of families and communities. Because what worked for me doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. I wish all people working in outreach had this approach. We shouldn’t box people in. We should hope to inspire them to be growth- oriented, intellectually honest, spiritual people. But what that looks like is not just one type.
In your videos you appear to be open to addressing almost any topic. But aren’t there some topics that are just difficult to explain to the modern Western mind, such as the Torah’s view on homosexuality and bris milah, or the Jewish war against Amalek?
The videos are always made with humor – which we do in order to keep people watching. So I don’t think that is the right place to discuss difficult topics. Because they require sincerity and seriousness and I don’t think that would translate well on film. So we handle those topics through articles and Q&A’s instead.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Torah content editor for the OU, has done a few posts recently in addition to me. I don’t think any topic is too difficult for the modern Western mind. But maybe at times we have to admit that certain parts of the Torah are harder to understand or that while we accept the full package of it, we struggle with certain parts of it.
Haven’t we always struggled? (“Zu Torah v’zu s’charah?”) I don’t think it’s a problem to say we struggle. If we were to completely understand God, He would not be God any more. I think it’s probably worse to say you don’t struggle when there’s a difficult topic, and you’re not bothered by it.
About the Author: Shlomo Greenwald is associate editor of The Jewish Press.
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