By Stacey Dresner
When Allison Josephs was a child, a horrific incident occurred that put her on the path to becoming an Orthodox Jew.
“When I was eight years old, a father in my school went crazy and killed both of his kids and himself,” she says. “We were Conservative and we had a strong Jewish pride, but we weren’t particularly observant… After this triple murder I suddenly felt myself launched into this existential crisis because I realized that, just as my classmate had died unexpectedly when she didn’t know it was coming, that future could be coming for me too. You imagine growing old and having your whole life ahead of you but this kid was 10 so it sort of launched me into this realization that I don’t know how much more time I have here; I don’t know what I’m facing when this is all over.”
Josephs went to her parents to find answers. They didn’t have any.
“When they just starred back at me I realized this was a pretty big problem because when you are eight years old where else do you go for advice and wisdom?”
Josephs says her subsequent search for the meaning of life – and death – led her not just to an observant Jewish life but to her organization, Jew in the City, a non-profit organization that fights “stereotypes about religious Jews and offers a humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism.”
Josephs will discuss her journey at an event presented by Mikveh Bess Israel on Tuesday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford.
The evening will begin with a video called “Splish Splash,” about a mikveh in Teaneck, New Jersey, followed by Josephs’ talk.
“I think the program is about personal transformation, which is very appropriate at this time when we are between Passover and Shavuot; something we think about at this time is how we can improve ourselves in a spiritual way. I feel like the message and the season link very well,” says Leslie Adler, chair of the event. “Allison Josephs really tries to make Judaism relevant and if there are myths that people have or misconceptions, she tries to debunk them. She uses a lot of humor and really tries to make Judaism accessible.”
Founded by Josephs in 2007, Jew in the City works to reshape the way society views Orthodox Jews and Judaism and share the richness of Orthodox Judaism through social media, lectures, consulting services and corporate cultural diversity training seminars.
“Once I discovered the beauty of a whole observant Jewish life, I also discovered, very importantly that I didn’t have to become extremist,” she said. “I could be completely engaged in the world, I could be educated, I could be open-minded, I could dress stylishly, I could eat great food, I could do all of these things I didn’t want to give up…I really wanted to live the life that I was living but just connect to something bigger than myself.”
Josephs, who graduated from Columbia University with a BA in philosophy, got the idea to start Jew in the City when a journalist from Spain sought out an Orthodox Jewish woman in New York to interview for a story.
“She was visiting Brooklyn to work on a story and suddenly there are all of these Orthodox Jews around and she got curious about the community,” Josephs recalled. “She had never seen any because, you know, they kicked us out of their country, so what do you expect?”
After talking with her for three hours, Josephs says she realized how misinformed the writer was about the Orthodox community. “All of her ideas were really speaking to the worst parts of our community as opposed to her having any insight into what’s good about our community.
“I thought someone needs to do a worldwide image makeover for the Jewish Orthodox community,” she said. “Then I said, ‘Well, maybe I should do an Orthodox makeover campaign. So exactly do you do a worldwide Orthodox makeover campaign?’”
This was in 2005 just as YouTube was becoming popular and Josephs took full advantage of this new medium. “I noticed that through the screen you can get to know the person on the other side.”
She then began putting out her message on Facebook and Twitter.
“I got in early, I could see it was a powerful medium, so when social media developed, Jew in the City developed with it.”
The Jew in the City website features articles on subjects like modest fashion trends, the Haredi mother of five who won the Jerusalem Marathon, and one entitled “Are Orthodox Women Allowed to Look Beautiful in Public?” Many may have already seen some of the site’s videos which include segments on “Orthodox Jewish All Stars” like Today Show producer Yael Federbush and talks with “Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik, to whom Josephs serves as a “Torah Mentor.”
“She has been so helpful getting our content out there,” Josephs said. “And the message we have put out there in Jew in the City has been personally impactful for her.”
Another recent video getting play stars the popular a capella singing group The Maccabeats singing “The Sound of Silence,” along with Josephs, her husband and four children, depicting the beauty and importance of Shabbat.
The site also features links to subjects such as “Modesty,” “Spirituality,” “Women,” “Kosher,” “Conversion” and “Myths” – which tries to debunk the some of the stereotypes about Orthodox Judaism.
Josephs herself needed to be “debunked” of her misconceptions about Orthodox Jews.
“My impression of the observant Jewish lifestyle up until I was 16 was that if you were a religious Jew you were backward, off your rocker…” she admitted. “I discovered there could be a way to live as a committed Jew but at the same time not lose myself in that process… I wished that that information had been available to me when I was 13 and it wasn’t. So I really wanted to sort of rebrand the notion of what people associate with Orthodoxy.”
Josephs often uses humor in her posts and videos.
“It just happens that I consider myself to be a pretty funny person, so that is how I would create content – by being authentic,” she said. “I still walk down the street and see Hasidic men and think ‘why don’t you ever smile?’ Even as a wig-wearing, kosher-eating Orthodox Jew I am wondering about this…I think the ultra-serious things is one of those stereotypes – like The Rebbe has to give you permission to smile…I think the fact that we can laugh and smile and be funny and that we enjoy life is a reflection of who I am as a person but I for sure think it is important for people to see there is a lighter side.”
Allison Josephs will speak on May 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave. The event is sponsored by Bess Mikveh, together with the Jewish Federation, Beth David Synagogue, Hebrew High School of New England, Young Israel of West Hartford, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, Chabad House of Greater Hartford and Beth El Temple. For information: Mikvehbessisrael.org.