Working to change the image of an Orthodox way of life
TORONTO — Allison Josephs, founder of Jew in the City, will be in Toronto next month to talk about the organization’s mission to change people’s misconceptions about Orthodox Jews.
As headline speaker for the Mommy Talks seminar titled “Absolutely on Purpose,” to be held Jan. 12 at the Schwartz Reisman Centre in Vaughan, Josephs will tell her story about becoming an observant Jew, about her work to improve the Orthodox community’s image, and how she came to be actor Mayim Bialik’s Torah partner.
Josephs, a 33-year-old wife and mother of four who lives minutes from the George Washington Bridge, said her story begins when she was an eight-year-old girl, living a charmed life.
“I was raised in this very happy, nice, upper-middle-class secular American Jewish family… If you want to picture an idyllic life, thank God, that’s what I had.”
In a telephone interview with The CJN, she talked about the day her life as she knew it changed, when she learned that a girl in her school was murdered by her father.
“This bubble of stability and happiness that my parents had raised me in… it burst, it shattered, and I started having these big questions like, ‘How will I meet my end? What will happen when I’m gone and what will become of me when I leave this world?’”
As a teen, Josephs was enrolled at a Jewish high school where she connected with one of her modern Orthodox teachers.
“I had been raised to think that Orthodox Jews were all a bunch of extremists, fanatics, backwards women subjugators, science-deniers, and here this guy was… he was educated, he was so good to his wife, he was so similar to me, but he was living with this purpose, with this spirituality, and everything he did was infused with meaning.”
Inspired by him, she slowly began to embrace the Orthodox culture.
“But I got a reaction. [People said,] ‘Don’t become one of them. They’ll make you have a dozen children, they’ll subjugate you, you’ll have to dress frumpy.’”
Josephs recalled meeting with a young journalist who wanted to learn more about the Orthodox community.
“Everything she was expecting to see, like a traditionally decorated apartment – our apartment had mustard-coloured walls and funky furniture – and she expected me to be frumpy and meek, and everything she thought about what an Orthodox woman was, I was the exact opposite,” she said.
“When she left my apartment, I said to my husband, ‘We have the worst PR, the worst image.’ I realized that people weren’t getting a full picture of what we actually are, and were only seeing the worst of the community. Social media was coming onto the scene and so I realized that I wanted to start a worldwide image campaign… and show a real life person that goes beyond the stereotypes.”
In 2007, Josephs founded Jew in the City, an organization that started as a one-woman show, until people started reaching out to help her in her quest to rectify the misrepresentations of Orthodox Judaism in the media.
Since then, Jew in the City has grown to include a team of a dozen volunteers, and Josephs was named one of National Jewish Outreach Program’s Top Ten Jewish Influencers in 2012 and was one of the Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 in 2013.
Josephs also does corporate cultural diversity training to help service providers better understand their Orthodox and chassidic clientele.
At the Mommy Talks seminar, Josephs said she also plans to talk about her work with Partners in Torah, “which sets up Torah learning over the phone between a person with a stronger Jewish background and somewhat of a beginner,” work that led to her developing a relationship with Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik.
“One night… I just thought, ‘Whatever happened to [a television character played by Bialik named] Blossom?’” she said, adding that she was a fan of the show as a child.
“I Googled her and I saw that she’s become more interested in Judaism and minoring in Judaic studies and Hebrew, and I was like, ‘Oh, Mayim Bialik probably wants a partner in Torah.’”
She said she tried tracking her down, but was unsuccessful.
“Four years later, on her own, she came to Partners in Torah and we got matched.”
She said if she ever finds herself feeling disconnected or doubtful about her purpose, “I remind myself of that story.”
Among the other speakers at the seminar are Julie Cole, co-founding vice-president of Mabel’s Labels; Marci Warhaft-Nadler, founder of Fit vs. Fiction and author of The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents; and Sarah Zeldman, an “e-marketing maven” who specializes in helping small business owners promote their products and services.
For more information or to register, visit mommytalks.ca. Tickets are $30.