There are a number of Jewish organizations around the country that focus their effort on pure Jewish engagement. They strive to help unaffiliated Jews identify with Judaism and find comfort with their Jewishness. They aren’t membership organizations, and don’t seek to enhance religious observance. Instead, they seek to make Jewish life relevant, understandable and comfortable. In this category of activity, no group pursues the goal more flamboyantly than JewBelong, a New York-based nonprofit. As described on their website: “Think of us as the friendly, kinda funny kid from your geometry class who explained in simple language and without judgment only what you needed to know for the test.”
In an effort to grab the attention of disengaged Jews in advance of the High Holidays, JewBelong plastered signs on kiosks in Manhattan with a picture of bacon and eggs, and the tagline: “So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about,” and encouraged readers to contact JewBelong.
The unconventional message served as a theological conversation-starter for those interested in exploring their Jewish heritage, with gentle guidance on how they might proceed.
Not everyone thought the ad was appropriate. But if you think the bacon ad was edgy, consider the one it replaced, which drew even more vocal and angry criticism. That one read: “Even if you think kugel is an exercise you do for your vagina … JewBelong”
“The kugel/kegel confusion is too good to ignore,” Archie Gottesman told the New York Post. She and Stacy Stuart are the brains — and attitude — behind JewBelong. And, according to Stuart, “Some criticism is a very small price to pay [to help Jews] find joy in a religion they thought had nothing to offer.”
It is an approach worth watching. And there are an increasing number of organizations that are getting into the act. The message they offer is non-threatening and non-coercive, and tries to focus on intellectual curiosity, educational and social opportunities, and Jewish engagement, without required observance. Some seek to engage Jews at cafes and in bars; others in more creative, sometimes edgy settings and retreats. And they are all doing good work. But none of them seem to have the sass of JewBelong. And even though much of this activity leaves some more traditional Jews scratching their heads, we applaud the effort.
Our community will be stronger and more secure if more of us are comfortable in our Jewish skin. For some, that may mean more study, for others, more observance, and for still others, an opportunity to engage with other Jews in a non-traditional but comfortable environment.
But, of course, recruitment is the key. JewBelong pursues its mission in a unique and cheeky way, and is getting attention. And who knows? Maybe God really does have more important things to worry about than whether you eat bacon. JewBelong simply wants to help you understand what Judaism has to say about it. JN