NEW YORK — Soon after its release, the new cookbook “Dinner Done: Practical Recipes For Your Busy Day” zipped to Amazon’s number one new release in the kosher cooking category and fast sold out in Israel. It’s the paper and ink incarnation of the unique Orthodox Jewish lifestyle site Between Carpools, whose creators have unlocked the riddle of maintaining a strong social media presence while resisting an immodest “look at me” aesthetic.
The brains behind the operation — Leah Schapira, Victoria Dwek, Renee Muller, Esti Waldman, and Shaindy Menzer — don’t just chalk the website and book’s popularity among Orthodox women up to recipes such as Spice It Up Chicken. Or the advice on how to lengthen too-short dresses with vibrant grosgrain ribbons. Or even the step-by-step instructions on how to jumpstart a car.
Clearly they’ve filled a niche; the site has about 90,000 viewers per month and their Instagram account has 37,100 followers — all while keeper their real super mom identities under wraps.
“It’s not about us. It’s about sharing. To our readers we’re like a big sister in your back pocket that you can go to for advice,” said Dwek, a kosher food writer and co-author of six cookbooks.
In a recent group Zoom conversation with The Times of Israel that felt more virtual kaffeeklatsch than interview, the women spoke about how they view their website and cookbooks as resources for Orthodox women.
“It’s for the women in our community to have a safe and happy place where everyone feels good when they check in,” said Waldman, who also works as a photographer specializing in culinary and children’s photos. “There is no gossip or politics. There’s nothing to make you feel icky when you leave it.”
That’s not to say the women don’t take risks or haven’t experienced backlash. Unsurprisingly, they caught flack for an article on why some prefer a home birth over a hospital birth.
But it’s their decision not to post photographs of themselves that has rankled some readers the most.
Comments started popping up on the Between Carpools Instagram feed saying the group were hiding women’s faces from publication. In an Orthodox community where many of the more religiously stringent media outlets — and even shopping circulars — refuse to publish images of women, the accusation struck close to home.
The women claim that despite their religiously conservative target demographic, the decision was not arrived at out of modesty, but rather the desire to protect their brand. From its inception, Between Carpools was intended to be about community champions, not individual influencers, they said.
“We don’t believe in erasing women. There are pictures of women all over the site. We just don’t want our pictures on it; we’re one common voice and Between Carpools is like one person,” said Schapira.
Muller, who built her own career behind the lens as a food stylist and photographer, agreed. “We love our privacy. I’m personally camera shy,” she said.
“Plus,” Waldman chimed in, “we’d always have to look good if we did constantly post photos of ourselves.”
In hindsight it seems like divine providence that these five New Jersey women, each of whom brings a different skill to the table, came together.
Waldman first met Schapira while taking photographs of Schapira’s children. Schapira, a self-taught cook and founder of CookKosher.com — an online recipe sharing site — was working at Ami Magazine, which caters to the Orthodox community. During the shoot the pair chatted about food photography and realized they had a lot in common.
A few years later Waldman, Muller and Dwek were working together photographing food for Ami, for which Dwek was food editor. Then Menzer and Waldman found themselves working together for a children’s boutique. And so on, until Schapira brought them all together, which made the group realize they made a formidable team that could fill a void.
“We are respectful of each other and defer to each others’ expertise. Together we make the perfect woman,” said Muller.
“A lot of lifestyle sites don’t talk about Jewish content enough or they are only very focused on being Jewish. We are both. We’re about how to live and be Jewish,” Waldman said.
What to do when locked-down for the holidays
Aside from content about fashion, home décor, recipes, and travel ideas, visitors to the site will also find religiously focused articles on marriage and parenting such as “Don’t Go To Sleep Angry: The Biggest Myth in Marriage Advice, and What to Do Instead” or “Should You Censor Your Teen’s Book?”
The site also offers holiday content such as Hanukkah gift guides, ideas for “Eight Gorgeous Place Settings for Eight Nights,” and photography tips like “How to Take Glowing Chanukah Photos with Your Phone.”
During the height of the New York area coronavirus lockdowns in March and April, the website became a haven for the five women and their readers. Together the bloggers brainstormed ways to help women who were isolated because of the pandemic, home with several young children and nowhere to go, or just going a little stir crazy.
They offered tips on remote learning and activities for the young and old. For Passover they hired a singer to teach children the holiday songs.
They also figured out how to secure laptops and tablets for those in need, making sure to get them filtered with parental controls — a must for the Orthodox crowd.
Most recently Between Carpools helped launch a sibling site, “The Mentch,” which bills itself as a lifestyle website for “the busy Jewish man.” There, men can find information on cholesterol-lowering foods, investment tips, technology tips, and marital and parenting advice.
“We just really love what we do, leaning on each other and being here for our community,” Schapira said.
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