Eight years ago, Allison Josephs got a call from a friend in the kiruv world about an ad she’d seen on Craigslist. A Spanish journalist visiting the US was doing an article about Orthodox Jews and was looking for a woman in the community to interview. “Would you respond before some crazy person does?” she asked her. Allison, with a few years of kiruv under her belt, agreed. The interviewer, who was spending time in Brooklyn, was perplexed by the number of “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews she saw, since there were none like them in Spain. (“What did she expect? You kicked us out of your country 500 years ago!” Allison jokes.) Armed with a stereotypical image of the Orthodox Jewish woman—a frumpy, meek, uneducated throwback to the shtetl era—the journalist was amazed to walk into Aliison’s funky apartment and meet a poised, put together, articulate woman. “Everything she expected I would be, I was the exact opposite,” Allison says. That meeting was an aha moment for Allison. After the woman left, she turned to her husband and said, “We are doing the worst job at PR.
People are making these broad assumptions about [Orthodox Jews] and they don’t realize that…it does not represent the majority of [who we are]. I think we need to start a worldwide Orthodox image makeover campaign.” That was the beginning of “Jew in the City.” Using social media, viral videos, public speaking engagements, consulting and seminars on diversity, Allison and her team are out to spread the message, as broadcast on her website, that “Orthodox Jews can be funny, approachable, educated, pro-women and intelligent—and that Orthodox Judaism links the Jewish people to a deep and beautiful heritage that is just as relevant today as it ever was.”
Since 2007, Allison has touched people across the globe; in fact, her data shows that she has reached someone in every single country on the planet. Listed as one of NJOP’s Top Jewish Influencers in 2012, and noted as one of The Jewish Week’s 36 under 36, Allison has inspired thousands of people to take on mitzvos, or at least, take a closer look at what Torah Judaism is all about. That this is Allison’s chosen profession is an ironic twist beyond the imagination of even the best novelist. Born into a Conservative family in northern New Jersey, she was raised hearing only disparaging things about Orthodox Jews from the members of her family.
When, years later, Allison began taking on more observance, she had to wrestle with her own misperceptions of what Orthodox Judaism was really about. “If you look at TV and movies, basically every [Orthodox] character, it was glued-on beard chasidim who were super-serious. You know, ‘I must speak to my rebbe…’ The first time I ever saw a guy in a black hat smile, I almost fell off my chair. Like, ‘Oh…the rabbi lets you smile?’” As for her family, they were convinced she had joined a cult. “It freaked everybody out,” Allison recalls—especially her father. “He said, ‘How dare you do this? You’re going to ruin your life!’” Allison remembers. Her answer to him was bold, to say the least: “I said, ‘No offense, but you have no right to an opinion until you educate yourself. Learn what I learn, meet whom I meet, experience Shabbos like I do, and then, from the inside out, argue it to me.’” Her father, then 50 years old, took her up on the challenge. In the years since, almost her entire family has become frum and made aliyah. Her mission to “make over” the Orthodox Judaism image melds Allison’s passions for writing, acting and public speaking, which she honed through five years of work with Partners in Torah and speaking with over 3,000 Birthright Israel alumni.
On a regular basis, she connects with people whose perceptions change after just one meeting with her. Like the girl who told Allison that she couldn’t be Orthodox because she wanted to have a career. “I was like, ‘Really?’” says Allison. “‘What commandment is that?’” Even her online videos and blog posts make an impact. “We get emails from people whose lives have literally changed. They saw it, and they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize Orthodox could mean that, too. And now I’ve begun my journey…’” Still, her work doesn’t come without sacrifice. Aside from the occasional death threats she receives, Allison’s job, which has no steady salary, has made for some financial challenges. “When this all started, I said to my husband, ‘Do you mind if we go into debt for a while so that I can chase after this dream?’” His answer, despite the costs, was an unequivocal yes. “I guess he’s equally a dreamer-slash-irresponsible-slash-a shtickel crazy,” Allison says jokingly. But, as word about “Jew in the City” grows, Allison is confident that they will “turn a corner soon,” as plans are underway to expand. As for her children, their feelings about their mother’s career are mixed. “They’re definitely proud, but then I think other times it’s complicated for them. At school, the kids are going around saying what their parents do, and then, my daughter doesn’t know how to explain exactly what it is that her mom does.” But when push comes to shove, they wouldn’t have it any other way. When asked if she could just get a “regular job,” it was Allison’s three-year-old who had the last word on the subject: “No! Mommy be ‘Jew in the City!’” Case closed.