NEW YORK — Growing up Conservative in suburban New Jersey, Allison Josephs didn’t know any Orthodox Jews, yet had a “very, very negative” opinion of them.
“I didn’t know there was humanity underneath the shtreimel (traditional Hasidic headgear) and underneath the beard,” Josephs told The Times of Israel. In high school, when she first saw a black-hatted Yeshiva University student smile, she said she “nearly fell off her chair.”
“I couldn’t believe they let him smile. I didn’t think that those people were allowed to have fun.”
These negative stereotypes were formed by TV images of gloomy ultra-Orthodox Hasidim saying “Oy, oy, oy, let me speak to my rebbe now,” Josephs said; often personifying the counterpoint to “secular, nagging, nudging” TV personas such as Jerry Seinfeld and Fran Drescher.
“You never see the person in the middle, the person who has a great job, went to a great college, and happens to keep kosher and Shabbat. You don’t see that character ever being depicted. I didn’t know that type of individual even existed.”
It is precisely that “person in the middle” who Josephs has dedicated the past eight years of her life to showcase, or in her words: “to re-brand what ‘Orthodox Jew’ means to the world.”
Through her website Jew in the City, launched in 2007 along with its accompanying YouTube and Facebook pages, Josephs set out to dissolve stereotypes about observant Jews and their lifestyles, tackling every topic from careers to sexual practice. The website — which boasts the approval of several prominent rabbis — currently reflects on the convergence of Thanksgiving and Hannukah, and explains the mitzva (commandment) of challah through a humorous video.
Last year, Josephs decided to shatter another misconception whereby American religious Jews cannot lead successful careers due to their stringent observance of Shabbbat and the (many) Jewish festivals. So she launched the “Top 10 Orthodox Jewish all stars,” a red carpet award event on the Upper West Side of Manhattan celebrating accomplished Orthodox Jews in fields as diverse as sports, business and science. This year’s winners included US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Nobel Prize laureate Robert Aumann.
According to a survey released by the Jewish Federations of North America in 2005, while Orthodox Jews comprise half of British Jewry and roughly a quarter of Israeli Jewry, in the US they are believed to make up only 13 percent of the Jewish community.
But that ratio may be changing. A recent, widely cited report by the Pew Research Center found that Orthodoxy is increasingly able to retain its younger adherents, with only a 17 percent dropout rate among the 18-29 age bracket as opposed to about 50 percent in general. Orthodox Jews are also having significantly more children on average then their fellow Jews in other denominations: 4.1 as opposed to 1.9.
Josephs’s own journey from Conservative Judaism to Orthodoxy began when she was only 8, with the tragic killing of a schoolmate by the victim’s father in her hometown.
“This beautiful, happy secular life that my parents had given me was suddenly shattered,” Josephs said. “I realized that nothing I was doing was leading to more than just the here and the now. I was going to follow their path of ‘do well in school, get into an Ivy League college, marry a nice boy, start a nice family in a nice home.’ I saw that it’s all going to be over one day. I’m going to be six feet under and nothing that I’ve collected in this world will come with me. And by the way, why am I here in the first place?”
Jew in the City, Joseph said, was meant to make information about Judaism accessible so that people “can make an educated decision about how engaged or not engaged to be.”
One man who did not need Josephs’s scheme to become Jewishly engaged is Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg. Born to a Hasidic family in Brooklyn, today Ginzberg works as a marketing expert and was named one of Inc. Magazine’s top ten entrepreneurs. The 33-year-old Hasid was also one of Jew in the City’s 10 all-stars this year.
“There are many many Hasidic Jews in business, except most of them keep a low profile about it,” Ginzberg told The Times of Israel. “They’re usually in a business that serves the community, not one that will land them in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.”
He himself, however, atypically opted to interact with the outside world, attempting to convey an image of a live, interactive Orthodox Jew, not one that “resembles a stuffed animal.” Ginzberg said that his unusual appearance actually ended up opening more doors than shutting them.
“[My appearance] is a hindrance for the first twenty or thirty seconds, but once you start saying something intelligent people forget about what you look like,” Ginzberg said.
“At the same time, there is a certain curiosity factor which offsets that hindrance. If nine people turn up to a marketing job interview with a crewcut and a power tie and one guy has curly payos (sidelocks) and his English may not be as perfect, but he has some really great ideas and comes with wonderful references, that will be the person [the interviewer] will not forget so fast. He’ll have a better shot at it.”