For many people, Orthodoxy conjures up words like backwards, repressed, and outdated. Enter Allison Josephs, aka Jew in the City (JITC), who is on a mission to break down negative stereotypes and to offer a personal, humorous, and meaningful look into the world of Orthodox Jews and Judaism.
Raised proudly Jewish, but not observant, Allison first learned of Orthodox Jews through her father, a neurologist who treated Chasidic patients at the hospital he worked in. “My father described them as dirty, smelly, rude, and uneducated,” shares Allison. “I thought his patients represented all Orthodox Jews. Whenever I visited Manhattan and saw visibly Orthodox Jews, I’d think to myself that I’m ‘normal Jewish’ and they’re ‘crazy Jewish’.”
Allison enjoyed an idyllic childhood in New Jersey, but this changed when she was eight and discovered that a girl she knew had been murdered by her father. “My bubble burst, and I realized that I would have nothing to hold onto when life was over.” This sent Allison reeling for meaning and a bigger purpose. “All I got from my parents (who are now observant) were blank stares.”
Then, at age 16, Allison “accidentally” connected with her high school teacher who was Orthodox and not what she had expected. “He was normal and part of the world, though he wore a kippah and tzitzit, kept Kosher and Shabbat, and lived with spirit and purpose. I never knew this was possible.” Slowly, Allison increased her religious observance. Allison’s “aha” moment took place in a rainforest in Hawaii when she felt strongly that “there is a Creator and that all things in the universe are united, as they contain a piece of the oneness of G-d.”
While on a learning program in Israel the summer before college, she met a chareidi mystical woman in Tzfat who told her: “There were twelve tribes, they each had their own way, go find yours!” Armed with the awareness that there was more than one way to be an observant Jew, Allison studied at Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya, part of the Darche Noam schools that expose its participants to varying sects of Orthodoxy and invite them to find their place. Their hashkafa (religious philosophy) is “derechaha darche noam” (the Torah’s many ways are pleasant). “I ended up landing somewhere in the center – trying to take the best of modern and chareidi.”
After completing her Bachelor in Arts in Philosophy at Columbia University, Allison worked in Jewish Outreach for over fifteen years, working at Partners in Torah, Sinai Retreats, Aish Hatorah, and NCSY, and she became the Partner in Torah mentor to actress Mayim Bialik (lead actress in 90s TV show, Blossom and currently a regular on The Big Bang Theory).
About ten years ago, a journalist from abroad interviewed Allison for an article on religious Jews. “She showed up at my home expecting to find someone frumpy and close-minded and found the exact opposite. I thought to myself how all my friends are the exact opposite and that it’s time to change the stereotype.”
Allison had no background in television, PR, or media, but growing up, she was a self-confessed couch potato with a flair for dramatics. Allison decided to create her own YouTube show in order to open up the usually closed-off world of an Orthodox Jew to the rest of the world. She wanted to portray Orthodox Jews as normal, funny, approachable, and educated, and to “present the depth, beauty, and balance that exists in Judaism.”
The Youtube videos expanded into Facebook, a blog, and Twitter, where Allison candidly answers the inner goings-on of a Jewish woman. Today, Allison, 35, is a mother of four and works “full-time plus,” offering lectures, corporate cultural diversity training, and consulting services as well as managing a team of six volunteers and a couple of paid employees. “It is my passion, not my job,” reflects Allison. “I even dream about Jew in the City.”
About a year and a half ago, Allison was approached by a religious couple who were both lost and didn’t know where they belonged. Other Orthodox Jews confided that they were considering giving it all up, as they thought they had to be religious or secular, and did not know there were moderate and other valid paths. “I decided to launch Project Makom to help these former struggling charedi Jews find their place in Judaism. The response has been huge and there was a waiting list for the past Shabbaton.”
“One of the highlights for me is how JITC unifies the Jewish community,” says Allison. “I love watching an irreligious Jew sign up on social media, followed by a member of the Chassidic community. There is more that unites us than divides us.”
Allison says her organization doesn’t know the full scope and depth of its impact on people’s lives. “Many people don’t write in, but come up to me on tours telling me how JITC completely changed their life.”
Allison was one of NJOP’s Top Ten Jewish Influencers in 2012 and one of the Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 in 2013. She has been quoted or written about in The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Huffington Post, Yahoo News, and more.
The organization is currently poised for even greater things including a new website, more content, and an online magazine. “I want Jew in the City to be the ‘go-to’ place when people type ‘Orthodox Jews’ into Google,” says Allison.
Written By: Loren Minsky