If you were in Times Square over the summer, you likely encountered some bold billboards calling out antisemitism. One of them read: Here’s an idea: Let’s ask everyone who’s wondering if antisemitism is real to wear a yarmulke for a week and then report back.
In a time when, so many Jews are feeling like our cause is less important than others, that our voices are not heard enough, JewBelong and its creative co-founder, Archie Gottesman, brought the conversation to one of the most trafficked and iconic intersections in the world.
Archie Gottesman is the marketing mastermind behind Manhattan Mini Storage and the co-founder of JewBelong, a platform for resources and education for people who are Jewish but don’t always feel like they have a place within the community. Brought up in a conservative Jewish home in Northern New Jersey, Gottesman fell in love with a Methodist who converted to Judaism. She says, “I had the fortunate experience of watching Judaism through [my husband] Gary’s eyes, and I thought ‘Wow, here is this amazing man… I didn’t feel like Judaism was as welcoming to someone like Gary as it should be.” If Gottesman hadn’t met her husband, she wouldn’t have had her eyes opened to how Judaism looks to people who either are on the outside or feel like they are. Gottesman realized that so much of the perception of Judaism, especially to secular and non-Jews was “all about the rules and not about the love and the value and importance of Judaism…There was something off with our branding. I wanted to try and change that.”
Gottesman realized that while there are a lot of well-meaning, good people who were trying to change that perception, there were aspects of so many people’s experiences of being turned off by Judaism that weren’t being addressed. “Even as a kid growing up in Hebrew School, it was easy to feel like an outsider [or that other Jews are better than you.]” Gottesman wondered, “How do we make it so [that Jews] own [Judaism] and love it?”
Once before Passover, she spoke at the Manhattan JCC about how to have a great seder, promoting JewBelong’s online Haggadah. “This was a live event and two kippah-wearing Jews were talking to each other during the talk.” Gottesman was “Jewbarassed” as they say at JewBelong, about not knowing as much about Judaism as they obviously did. She wondered if they were discussing that fact, but kept going with the talk, even mentioning what “Jewbarrasment” was. Afterwards, the two guys came over and “were so nice. It turned out that they went to Yeshiva University and they got Jewbarrased all the time!” Gottesman learned that even for people who are Orthodox, there is always some way that Judaism can be harder, or more intensely practiced. She was shocked. She realized that, “You don’t have to be perfect [with Jewish practice], you just have to try with your heart.”
JewBelong realized that there was a need to start speaking out against antisemitism. “It is getting worse and becoming normalized. As an organization I really felt like we don’t have a choice.” Gottesman also feels that it’s imperative for all Jewish organizations to do so as well. “I don’t understand why every Jewish organization isn’t shouting from the rooftops about how bad it is. If we don’t really stand for something better then it is going to get worse. The Jews have been down this road before. Standing up loud and proud is just really important.”
Unfortunately JewBelong has been the subject to Anti-Semitic hate mail as well. “They’re always gonna hate. We can’t fix the entire world. But most people are good people. It’s really a matter of speaking to those [people].” One silver lining in digging in deeper into antisemitism is that hundreds of people shared their anti-semitic experiences on JewBelong, and realized that they were not alone. “I’d rather that there’s some light shined on in than pretending it didn’t happen. It’s heartbreaking too, but there’s something cathartic about people showing their vulnerability.” These are stories that people never shared with anyone else. Now, they have a community to share it with who understands the pain of these encounters.
Gottesman hopes that JewBelong can have an impact on the interaction between Orthodox Jews and Jews of other denominations. Her sister became Modern Orthodox and she notes that had she known about it when she was younger, before she met her husband, she could have seen the appeal for herself. Gottesman would love for Jews to “Approach [each other] with beautiful curiosity. [The non-Orthodox Jewish world] might be intimidated, thinking ‘I’m not a good enough Jew, you’re a better Jew than I am.’ Some of the walls we put up are for crazy reasons. People should get over whatever imaginary stuff could go on in their head. Just realize that some of the stories we tell ourselves [are just that].” She is hopeful that this opportunity might provide some of the Jewish unity that we desperately need right now. “At this time in the world, we need to unite and just be proud and Jewish and bold and loving…that[‘s what] really matters.”