Allison Josephs didn’t grow up in an Orthodox home. In fact, she didn’t even know any Orthodox Jews. When she saw them during visits to New York City as a child, she was turned off by their appearance. “I was proud to be a normal, balanced Jew and not one of those fanatics,” she recalls in a phone interview with Jewish News. Josephs would constantly see damaging headlines about Orthodox Jews in the newspaper. “It never occurred to me that only the negative stories are reported and we rarely hear about the positive things that are happening.”
Josephs is the founder and director of Jew in the City, an organization that helps “break down stereotypes about religious Jews and offers a humorous, meaningful outlook into Orthodox Judaism,” according to jewinthecity.
com. Josephs and her staff do this through social media, corporate cultural diversity training seminars, lectures and consulting services. Josephs will visit the Valley for Limmud AZ as well as an evening for women only with the Phoenix Community Kollel (see details box).
How did she make the transition from loosely observant Conservative Jew to Orthodox Jew? When Josephs was 8 years old, a student in the grade above hers was murdered by her own father, and the news shook Josephs to the core. “I discovered that such evil and horrible things could happen and it rocked my world, because up until that point, my parents had protected me from bad things in life,” she says.
It sparked an existential crisis for Josephs. She started asking herself: What happens once you leave this world? Where do you go for all of eternity? And the most pressing question for her became: What am I supposed to do before I get there?
She went to her parents for guidance and asked them the same questions. “They stared back at me,” she says. “They had a plan for every way to be successful in life, but there was no plan for spiritual success.”
For the next eight years, Josephs would continually circle back to one basic question: “Is anything adding up to anything?” From there, she began to search.
At 16, she attended an after-school Jewish Hebrew high school program where she met a Modern Orthodox teacher who was “this nice, normal guy living in the world. He seemed to be a lot like me, but at the same time he was living this very spiritual, committed Jewish life,” she says. “He got me started exploring Jewish learning and Jewish observance.”
As she made her transition to a more observant lifestyle, she got pushback from family and friends. “I even had a Conservative family who did an intervention Shabbos on me.”
About nine years ago, she had an “aha moment” when being interviewed by a Spanish journalist. “I could see that the stereotypes she was expecting were just melting away. She was expecting meek and dirty and frumpy and uneducated ... and I was the exact opposite of everything she imagined,” Josephs says. “She left with such a different perspective on what Orthodoxy means.”
The conversation made Josephs realize that “we’re doing the worst job at PR” and decided to do something about it. She had seen a YouTube show called “Lonelygirl15,” an interactive web-based video series about a teenage girl who talks to the camera about her angst.
Josephs made a few YouTube videos that became popular and “A Jew in the City” was born. Her husband was in law school at the time and Josephs was the sole breadwinner for the family, but he encouraged her to follow her dreams.
Today, the mother of four continues to spread the good word about Orthodox Judaism.
“Lines are not clear-cut and people like to put each other into boxes and make clear lines about what people are or aren’t and what they believe and don’t believe,” she says. “It’s so much more complex than that.”
To learn more, visit jewinthecity.com.
Who: Phoenix Community Kollel
What: Allison Josephs presents “Finding G-d in Hawaii”
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9
Where: Chaparral Suites Resort, 5001 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Cost: $10 (For women only)