Here are some things I have quit: intermittent fasting, Game of Thrones, hot yoga, and Statistics 101. Instead of feeling guilty when I abandon a book that’s only a quarter finished, I feel a sense of relief. Quitting can mean taking ownership of our lives, like a way to Marie Kondo the non-essentials that don’t spark joy. Yet, the one thing I’ve never quit, never even been tempted to quit, is Judaism, which is why it is so baffling to me when other people seem to do it constantly. By quitting, I don’t mean calling a dead stop to their practice or converting to another religion. I mean letting their Jewish practice slide away until it doesn’t mean anything anymore.
It almost seems like the world is conspiring to make it harder and harder to hang on as a Jewish people. If plain old apathy wasn’t enough to battle against, insidious global antisemitism is adding a level of difficulty that we’re simply not prepared for. Enter JewBelong, an organization designed to help Jews connect to their Judaism, no matter where they are on their Jewish journey. JewBelong has fantastic online guides for shabbat, the major holidays and lifecycle events. Even if someone who is considering quitting just wants to do something Jewish a few times a year…okay, even once…we don’t judge. Instead we say, “Okay then, let’s make that Jewish experience inspiring!” JewBelong’s tagline is for when you feel you don’t, (belong that is) and trust me, plenty of people feel they don’t…and some of them are your friends and relatives.
JewBelong’s voice is friendly and irreverent. We talk to Disengaged Jews (DJs for short) in a voice that’s inviting. As we say on our homepage, “We promise never to JewBarrass you (give you the anxious feeling when you don’t know something Jewish but you think you should), because we’ve been there. 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. We provide straightforward explanations, readings and rituals to help warm your heart.”
When our readers hear about JewBarrassment for the first time, which happens a lot because we made the word up, they’re ecstatic and we hear things like: “Woah! I’ve been JewBarrassed for years. I just never knew there was a word for it!” Or, “Phew, you mean I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand what was going on at that bar mitzvah?!”
We’re not placing blame, but for decades well-meaning Jewish institutions have JewBarrassed people and missed chances for meaningful connection.
Connecting with DJs in ways that surprise them is how we begin. For instance, JewBelong’s infamous kugel ad, a cheeky ad campaign seeking to catch young Jews’ attention during the High Holy Days. Another example was at the Democratic Debate in Los Angeles last month. College students and recent grads stood outside of the venue, along with the candidates’ supporters, and held bright pink JewBelong signs that read “‘Two Jews running for president? It’s like Charlottesville never happened.’ – the alt-right.” The response was terrific. News crews and onlookers were curious and engaging, recognizing the gravity of the moment and applauding our efforts to stand up as proud Jews. Our signs sent a clear message to our community that we are not going to be intimidated or go underground. Today, there are two Jews, three if you count Tom Steyer (yeah, who knew?), running for president with viable paths to the nomination. That should make us, and perhaps more importantly, those all-important DJs, proud. Once we have their attention, JewBelong’s content is engaging enough to get them to take a second look at a religion/culture that they thought had nothing to offer them.
Although it is tempting, the Jewish community should not be angry at or dismissive of those DJs who are drifting. All that does is push them away faster. It’s on us to inspire them to come back. When DJs hear in a language that means something to them, about the amazing benefits of this complicated but fantastic religion, they love it instead of leave it. The good news is that Judaism is already full of wisdom and value, we just need to learn to sell, yes sell, the benefits in a way that is crystal clear and that brings the joy back to the forefront. At JewBelong, we will continue to do everything we can to make that happen, so that we can build and strengthen our community, especially at a time where there are so many who would like to tear it down.