Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Allison Josephs. Allison is a noted speaker, spiritual leader, and the founder of “Jew in the City,” an organization dedicated to re-branding Orthodox Jews and Judaism through the world using digital media. Last month, the organization held its second annual “Top 10 Jewish All-Stars Awards and Red Carpet” event, at the newly-renovated Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York. We discussed her unique path, and how she is re-defining a religion in modern ways. We also spoke about how she has made a career out of spirituality, and where she hopes the movement will lead in the future (Hint, she has the same goal as many of my comedian friends!).
What do you consider to be your personal brand?
My brand has been centered around re-branding Orthodox Jews. I have tried to make my personal brand about a cause, instead of really just about me. It’s so hard with social media, when you’re sharing stuff like articles or different media because it can sometimes come off as self-serving. So I use being in the spotlight to be more about something else. There’s a group of people that have been misunderstood and represented by stereotypes in popular media, and the negative headlines in the news. And the career has sort of come out of it.
What led you to create Jew in the City?
When I started Jew in the City, another big part of the brand was spirituality, which is something that people don’t consider to be a direction that can make you a lot of money. Basically everything I did business-wise was pretty stupid, it really just started out of a passion. I was raised as a regular, secular Jewish kid, I convinced myself that Orthodox Jews were extreme, fanatic, and had nothing to do with me. Right around this time of year, actually, 23 years ago, I walked into my 4th grade classroom and my classmates were crying and whispering. I found out that one of my classmates had been shot by her father the night before, he killed both of his children and himself. And that launched me into this big existential crisis at 8-years-old, and I realized that all of the nice, happy things that my parents had given me weren’t going to last and I decided I had to plan how to have a good life. There was no talk of spirituality and my life could end at any moment like my friend Angela’s did, and then what? So that inspired the searching, then when I was 16-years-old I got connected with this modern Orthodox teacher at a Hebrew High that my parents had sent us to. I started learning from him and realized there was this depth and beauty to my religion that I didn’t know about. The impetus for starting this project was that I had been interviewed about 9 years ago by a visiting journalist from Spain, and she had come to Brooklyn to work on a story and saw all of these Orthodox Jews walking around. She wanted to interview someone because she hadn’t seen anything like them in Spain because they kicked us out of the country 500 years ago. After sitting down with her, she saw that everything she assumed I would be was wrong. She thought I’d be close-minded, a frumpy dresser, but it was the opposite. Our community had done a poor job of letting the world know who we were. So I decided I was going to do something about it and took to social media to show another side. I was supporting our family at the time, we had three kids and my husband was finishing up law school. I quit my job, and I got onto YouTube, and a blog, and Facebook and Twitter, and used social media to connect with people. The passion and the following started growing, and I was able to do speaking engagements which helped me make some money. Then sponsors started coming to me to represent their brand. A few months ago ConEdison contacted me and wanted me to do corporate diversity training because they have Orthodox customers that couldn’t describe their customs to the employees. I’ve given the seminar at NYU Fertility Center and a few more things are coming up, so it developed from a sincere passion, and is turning into a business.
People told me, “there is no money in spirituality.” But since there is a built-in audience, I can work with companies that I already use and would recommend anyway. They get that sincere promotion from me.
Where do you hope for it to go?
It’s hard to even define success, when what you’re doing is sort of uncharted. When my kids ask, what do you do? It’s very hard to put it into a small package. I told my husband when I started, I’m going to be on the Tonight Show. That’s not the exact goal, but it’s about gaining a certain amount of exposure. I want to redefine what the world thinks of when they think of an Orthodox Jewish person. Right now people think of “long beard, subjugating women, and throwing rocks,” but it also can mean “educated, open-minded and spiritual but still connected to reality.” It’s a big idea and a big plan. The Maccabees, which is the story of where Hanukkah comes from, were a tiny band of soldiers who were trying to fight to remain Jewish. The Greek army came in 2,300 years ago and basically told them you can’t be Jewish anymore or follow tradition. So they were a tiny army going against the colossal Greek army. It was crazy to even fight them, because logic would say there is no chance for them to win. No way. Yet because they tried and gave it their all, they were able to do it. So I compare that model of not letting reason limit you to what we’re doing. Believe that big dreams are possible. I want to see television and movies have different Orthodox Jewish characters portrayed, a normal nuanced human instead of the stereotype.
Not only do I hope to show there is more to communities you are not familiar with, but I speak about spirituality in more general terms. I end up hearing from Muslims, Christians, all sorts of religions who are happy to hear that spirituality is a focus. We had a crowd-funding campaign to redo our website and we had a donation from a female Deacon from the South who said she looked forward to our posts every week. I was told there was no money in spirituality, but when you can offer something that gives people hope and inspiration, it’s hard to figure out where the dollars and cents come in, but it’s there.
I hope we are showing another side to a community that you might pass every day and know nothing about. I’ll tell you as a secular Jew growing up I didn’t know Orthodox Jews could smile. The first time I met a guy who was wearing a black hat he smiled and I almost fell off my chair. “They let you be happy?” It was such a shock to me, and when I say it out loud it sounds insane. Why wouldn’t he smile? But when you never see an image of an Orthodox Jew smiling, then you don’t think it’s possible.
There is a movement away from spirituality in our society. How does your work inspire other religions?
I think ultimately there is more that connects us than divides us. I can’t tell someone else what to believe, and that’s not my goal. But even people who say they don’t believe in God, they say that the “Universe” is going to send them something. Well, that’s pretty close to a definition of God. We all want to believe there is something more to life. When we see random acts of kindness, or all of those feel-good stories that Upworthy will post, it feels like we’re tapping into something bigger than us, that inner spirituality that runs through all of us.
What advice would you give for someone starting out in their career?
One time I spoke at a social media panel and someone asked how I define success. And I said, “I didn’t quit today.” Not giving up is important. Also, we did our All-Stars party last year, and what I’ve found is whenever we attach our program to bigger people it makes a difference. We worked with Senator Joe Lieberman last year, and some professional athletes, and that is helpful. One of my good friends said to me last year, “no offense Allison, but a few years ago, we all thought this was going nowhere.” So I would say, even if you are in a path that seems it’s not going anywhere, if you’re passionate about whatever it is, don’t stop. Maybe you can’t do it full time, maybe you have to be practical and have a day job. But one measure of success is to just keep going today, then tomorrow, then the next day. Then I think sincerity is important, the more people can pick up on your sincerity, it will go a long way. If you believe in what you are doing with your heart and soul it will come across and inspire others. I’ll tell you I was doing an interview for a newsstory that didn’t get published, but I was sitting in a coffee shop doing the interview. Afterwards I got a tweet (shown above) from a random woman on Twitter, saying how she overheard me and was inspired. It was really cool to see that someone who is very
Thank you to Allison for taking the time to share her story and her advice. Jew in the City is focused on increasing awareness of Orthodox Jews and the religion in general, but clearly, her mission is broader than that. Allison is helping to bring spirituality back into the spotlight, and I wish her and her organization the best of luck on their mission and next year’s event.