Old-fashioned, extreme, closed-minded, sexist, dirty and ignorant. These are some of the words that used to come to mind when I would think about Orthodox Jews as a kid. When I got to know some personally, in my late teens, I was quite surprised to discover how normal they were.
The only problem is that the sentiments I was raised with are not the least bit uncommon among non-religious Jews and non-Jews, something I would discover first-hand while speaking to thousands of secular Jews during 10 years of Jewish outreach work. In fact, suspicion and dislike seem to be the norm.
Few people who know observant Jews have negative feelings because of something that was actually done to them. Most people base their opinions on stereotypical Orthodox characters in books and movies. Others simply pass ultra-Orthodox people on the street and are turned off by their “strange” mode of dress. Still other people hear and repeat popular anti-Orthodox rumors.
Myriad efforts have been made over the past few decades to reach out to assimilated Jews and expose them to the beauty of their heritage. But when the messengers themselves are so poorly regarded, how receptive are most non-observant people going to be to this message?
The good news is that a solution is within our reach. I have seen time and again that negative feelings can easily turn positive when a person outside the Orthodox community has a personal encounter with an Orthodox Jew. Even little things like smiling or saying “excuse me” on the street can completely change someone’s feelings towards observance. But such encounters only change minds one by one, and I wondered if there was a way to create a personal encounter with a larger audience through the power of the Internet?
And then I read about a YouTube show character called LonelyGirl15. She brought her viewers into her “YouTube” life and got millions of people to tune in and care. Based on this idea, I created a character called “Jew in the City” (my alter ego) a young, relatable Orthodox woman living in New York City. Her mission: To break down stereotypes about observant Jews and offer a humorous, meaningful look into traditional Judaism.
First it was a few YouTube videos in which Jew in the City answers questions of curious secular Jews in a way that is funny, while tapping into the power of Jewish wisdom. Then I launched a blog at Jewinthe City.com where I discuss issues from modesty to philosophy, ethics to soy chicken parmesan –– all in the name of breaking down the myths and stereotypes often associated with religious Jews. I’ve heard from Jews and non-Jews from all over the world that what they see and read on the site has changed their minds and made them more positive towards observant Jews.
With an updated website set to launch soon, readers and viewers will be able to contact me with questions about Orthodox Jews and Judaism, and even to set up free telephone appointments to discuss their questions in depth and or get referred to a local outreach resource for further follow up. Plus more Jew in the City videos are on the way along with weekly blog posts.
Ultimately I believe that we can revolutionize the way the general public regards Orthodox Jews and Judaism. We don’t all need to star in our own YouTube shows or make myth debunking a full time job. We just need to remember that life itself is full of “viewers” who are watching our every move and making judgments accordingly. So let’s exert every effort to give a “performance” that we can all be proud of.Allison Josephs is the creator of www.JewintheCity.com, which features her online videos and blogs that challenge the public perception of Orthodox Jews and traditional Judaism. She earned a degree in philosophy from Columbia University and lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.