JewBelong, a website that seeks to attract marginal and unaffiliated young Jews through its irreverently brash ads, has entered the arena of presidential politics with a message, sure to attract attention.
In a crowd of people supporting specific candidates outside the site of the most recent Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles, a coalition of young JewBelong activists held up placards “signed” by “the alt-right” that read: “Two Jews running for President? It’s like Charlottesville never happened.”
Archie Gottesman, who launched the nonprofit JewBelong.com three years ago, explained that the point of the Los Angeles effort, spurred by the fact that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are in the race, was “to raise awareness about anti-Semitism and promote and celebrate Jewish pride” rather than support a particular candidate.
She said that overall, the message was well-received at the Dec. 19 event and on social media, though it was not without its critics, who took it as a jab at President Trump.
Gottesman doesn’t mind criticism and welcomes the attention. She sees herself as a kind of tongue-in-cheek warrior in the battle to rebrand Judaism and “help people find the joy, meaning, and relevance that Judaism has to offer.”
To put it more bluntly, she says, “Judaism is a great product, but the marketing sucks.”
Gottesman spent more than two decades writing clever and memorable billboard and subway ads for her family’s business, Manhattan Mini Storage, perhaps best-known for this 2011 classic: “Why leave a city that has six professional sports teams, and also the Mets?”
Over the last three years she and her writing partner, veteran marketing professional Stacy Stuart, have focused their humor and skills on luring “anyone who has felt like a Jewish outsider” to the site’s wide range of how-to-do Judaism information, from celebrating the holidays to making a shiva call.
The site has a mailing list of about 40,000 people and its material is widely shared on social media.
Gottesman, 56, grew up in and still lives in New Jersey, the product of a deeply engaged Jewish family. Her husband, Gary, grew up Methodist. He converted to Judaism and joined her in “living a Jewish life,” she said, but in seeing the synagogue experience through his eyes, she realized “it was boring.”
To compensate, she started collecting examples of creative Jewish content to share with Gary, and their three now-adult daughters (all of whom are graduates of The Jewish Week’s Write On For Israel program for high school students) at Shabbat meals, festivals and other occasions. This gradually led to the creation of JewBelong, aimed at reaching disengaged Jews, people who are not Jewish but part of a Jewish community, and just about anyone else who may think Judaism has nothing to offer.
The ads and tag lines that JewBelong uses in Facebook ads and, on occasion, kiosks in Manhattan and other major cities, are decidedly and intentionally cheeky — some would say snarky or simply aimed at getting attention.
Among the more memorable ones:
“Blonde since birth. Jewish since marriage.”
“So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about.”
“Tired of missing references in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”?
“Even if you think kugel is an exercise you do for your vagina.”
Unlike the tone of these and other JewBelong ads and slogans, much of the instructional information on the robust site is thoughtful and sensitively directed. In addition to providing what Gottesman calls “bite-size pieces of Jewish wisdom” about major holidays and rituals, there are sections on Forgiveness, Heartbreak, Pets and Jewbarrassment — described as the widely experienced though little-discussed feeling people have that they are doing something wrong Jewishly.
Gottesman’s goal is to decrease that feeling by encouraging people, including rabbis, to talk about it and show their vulnerability. Judaism should be fun and inclusive, she insists, with less worry about following all the rules.
“If you want to have a Shabbat meal and you don’t have a challah, use a pretzel,” she says.
Will there be more political ads for JewBelong in 2020?
“If something is newsworthy and part of the culture, like politics today, we may comment on it,” Gottesman said. “Everything we do is geared to directing people to our site and to Judaism. Our goal will always be a call to action.”