Allison Josephs, founder and director of Jew in the City (JITC), spoke to several dozen community members at a private home in Edison on Wednesday, July 19. Josephs discussed the history of her organization, the evolution of Project Makom, a 3-year-old initiative of Jew in the City, and how the community could help. Accompanied by a decadent amount of delicious sushi and pareve dishes from local restaurant Sushiana, attendees took in the multi-media presentation and participated in the Q & A session that followed.
Highland Park’s Larry Lennhoff noted that he receives notification of many local events through his role as editor of his shul’s newsletter. He can’t attend them all, but as a fan of Jew in the City he felt compelled to attend this one.
Following a brief introduction and words of Torah by host Chaim Lobel, community member Yisroel Lutzky noted how appropriate the timing of this presentation was. Learning to replace baseless hatred (sinat chinam) of fellow Jews with baseless love (ahavat chinam) is particularly relevant in the period of the Three Weeks where Jews mourn the loss of the holy Beit Hamikdash. There were many sins committed during the period of the Temple, but it was sinat chinam for which it was destroyed.
Josephs opened her presentation by commenting, “Sushi brings out Jews, and here they are.” She then discussed the origins of her social media enterprise as an effort to correct misinformation and negative stereotypes about Orthodox Jews in the non-Orthodox and general population. Jew in the City also shows the beauty and meaning of living an observant Jewish life. Surprisingly, the content that Josephs and her team were creating for less-observant Jews started attracting members of the ultra-Charedi world who had left observance or who were considering leaving.
Josephs was quick to point out that there is no absolutely one correct way to be observant; the key is to find the level that is comfortable and best works for each individual. But she noted that while more Modern Orthodox Jews who move to the right may face some pushback from family and friends, the transition is generally rather smooth. However, when Jews from the most insular parts of the Charedi world try to acclimate to more moderate observant communities, they are often ostracized and cut off from their families and friends. This leaves people with a dilemma: keep their questions to themselves and suffer the dissonance that observance brings, or leave the comfort of their communities and families entirely and follow no religious practice at all. Project Makom was founded to offer these people a safe place to ask questions and acclimate to communities that most closely align with their beliefs. On an emotional level, it is not enough to “dress the part” of an observant Jew; a person must feel comfortable in their observance level and feel the beauty of Orthodoxy and not perceive it as a burden.
There are numerous reasons that people leave the Charedi world, but most of the cases Project Makom sees involves people who had some negative experience in their community of origin. Project Makom is there so that members can experience Jewish observance in a way that adds to their life and does not stifle them. There are many personal stories on YouTube and the Jew in the City website that share the positive influences Project Makom has had.
The general media loves to spread the stories of ultra-Orthodox community members who completely leave all religious observance behind. Social media is needed to counteract the negative vibes and present positive images of other options.
Chaya Becker of Edison was impressed with what she saw about the organization on Facebook, and attended in the hopes of finding out what can be done as a community to aid the effort.
While there are many organizations that help Jews from non-Orthodox backgrounds become more observant, Project Makom is the only organization that helps Charedi Jews who have left or are considering leaving observance find a new frum community to join. With over 70 members in its first year of full membership, Project Makom’s social worker and staff is doing case management and referring members to ESL, GED, vocational and college programs, matching members with mentors who learn Jewish and secular subjects with them, setting them up for Shabbat in new communities, running support groups, monthly events and classes and shabbatons.
Highland Park resident Suzanne Zaret came to the event with a friend. “I follow Jew in the City on Facebook and felt compelled to come.” Zaret has been a Facebook follower of the page for about six months, and finds the discussions and responses of the postings most interesting.
To learn more, visit http:/projectmakom.org.
By Deborah Melman