Despite their good values, organized religions can be intimidating, either because they have strict rules or are difficult to understand.
But religions are intrinsically based on positive values. So five years ago, former Manhattan Mini Storage marketer Archie Gottesman started the nonprofit JewBelong to make Judaism in particular more accessible to people who wanted to learn more about it.
“I wanted to basically rebrand Judaism,” Gottesman said. “Advertising and branding is all about being compelling and getting attention. I thought, ‘let me try that with Judaism,’ because like anything else, it's a product trying to get your time.”
JewBelong began as a website collecting inclusive and easy-to-understand resources on Jewish traditions and holidays. Families that have never hosted a Passover seder before, for example, can print out a Haggadah — the text recited at the holiday seder — in an accessible, English format.
When antisemitism began to rise in the United States after Israeli-Palestinian violence escalated in June, Gottesman tapped into her marketing savvy to fight back, with the goal of stopping people from leaving Judaism as a result of receiving antisemitc attacks.
“If Judaism is a small part of your life and all you get is hate, then forget it, you’ll scoot,” Gottesman said. “That happens, and it's a terrible phenomenon.”
JewBelong stood up billboards across Manhattan that called out stark reminders that antisemitism is not a thing of the past, with attention grabbing hot pink backgrounds overlaid with white text. “Here’s an idea: Let’s ask everyone who’s wondering if antisemitism is real to wear a yarmulke for a week and report back,” one reads. “We’re just 75 years since the gas chambers. So no, a billboard calling out antisemitism isn’t an overreaction,” reads another.
The billboard designs are downloadable for use on JewBelong’s website, and have been posted in cities from Capetown to Toronto. JewBelong will also translate the copy into Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, French and Japanese, because “antisemitism is definitely not just an English-speaking issue,” Gottesman said.
“I know the power of a billboard in a highly trafficked area,” she added. “The only thing to do is fight [antisemitism] in a bold way.”
After receiving strong reactions from the billboards, JewBelong took the fight online, asking social media followers to share a personal experience they’ve had with antisemitism. JewBelong received hundreds of responses, which it compiled into a digital booklet categorized into six categories of common slurs: “Where are your horns?”, “Dirty Jew,” “You killed Jesus,” “Cheap,” “Swastikas” and “Those that defy a category.”
Many of the stories that emerged paint pictures of long ago memories that respondents said they hadn’t spoken to anyone about in years, Gottesman said. “People said, ‘Thank you for asking, I haven't told anybody this since I was 11.”
As the campaign continues, JewBelong will focus on showcasing real stories and experiences from Jewish people to promote understanding between groups.
“I really believe that the way there can be peace and understanding with different groups is that they understand each others' suffering,” she added. “When we learn things in an honest, non judgemental way, it makes us understand more.”