Archie Gottesman can relate when people talk about feeling like Jewish outsiders—intimidated by rituals and traditions and not knowing where to begin—because she was often in these same shoes before she did something inventive about it and co-founded JewBelong.com with Stacy Stuart. Here, Archie talks about everything from a major moment of “JewBarrassment” to what people are missing out on if they let their feelings keep them from experiencing Judaism to its fullest.
Why do young Jews feel intimidated by Judaism now more than ever?
Judaism gets a bad rap. People of all ages get intimidated because they think that Jewish practice is all about the Hebrew and the complicated rituals, and that it’s too hard to even know where to begin. And while it’s true that Judaism can be complicated, it doesn’t have to be. We started JewBelong.com to provide straightforward explanations, clear definitions, meaningful readings and easy rituals so that anyone who’s interested in starting or reigniting a Jewish practice can find a way in that works for them. That’s literally why our name/tagline is JewBelong: for when you feel you don’t!
What’s been your personal biggest moment of “JewBarrassment” and how did you overcome it?
I was at my friends Michael and Hannah’s house for Shabbat with about 15 other people. I went to college with Hannah, so I’ve known them for years. We got to the hand-washing part, and even though I don’t typically include it in my Shabbat ritual, I followed her to the sink. Hannah washed, and then I washed. I was pretty psyched that I remembered the Hebrew blessing. After I said it, I went back to giving Hannah an update about my family. I didn’t notice that she wasn’t talking anymore. We sat back down at the table and I said, “Hey, Michael, is your brother still living in San Francisco?“ And he looked over at me and put his finger over his mouth and made that “shhhhhh” sign to let me know to be quiet. I realized that everyone was silently looking at me. Argh! I had forgotten that some people have the custom to be silent between the time that they wash their hands to when they eat the challah. I was so JewBarrassed! I nodded my head but I didn’t say anything to anyone, so it just got glossed over and tucked deep into my JewBarrassment subconscious, which is probably why it still affects me. Honestly, the best way to get over JewBarrassment is to ask questions and to talk about it. One of the things we’ve learned at JewBelong is that people love talking about JewBarrassment, and sharing their own stories, because it is something that most of us have experienced.
What do you feel are the top most misunderstood Jewish rituals and traditions today and why?
We think the biggest misunderstanding is that Jewish rituals and traditions are only for people who already have a Jewish practice or speak Hebrew or believe in God. None of those things are necessary if you ask us. That said, Shabbat is a great example of a ritual that is often misunderstood. People think they need the challah and the roasted chicken and the perfect lighting, but they don’t. We like to say that all it takes to have a meaningful Jewish practice is intention. JewBelong’s Shabbat Playbook has beautiful songs, readings and blessings, plus two funny skits and a great original song to the tune of Billy Joel’s Piano Man.
What advice do you have for people who feel like “Jewish outsiders” to give it a try? Where do they begin?
Are you kidding? We love “Jewish outsiders” because we were “Jewish outsiders!” So, we would say, “Come on in, the water’s fine!” JewBelong’s mission is to connect with anyone who feels like a Jewish outsider. We have booklets for all the big holidays and easy how-to instructions for Jewish lifecycle celebrations. We just introduced a Baby Naming ceremony that people are already buzzing about. And, since Passover is coming, our Passover Haggadah is another great place to start. It has all the traditional blessings, but it also includes a fantastic skit, instructions for a Jell-O Red Sea, original songs and our Burning Bush drinking game.
What are people missing out on if they let their feelings of intimidation keep them away from experiencing Judaism?
They are missing 5,000-year-old wisdom and love that can carry them through times of great joy and great sorrow. The reason why Judaism has lasted for so long is because it makes practical sense! Jewish values include dedication to family, community, education, repairing the world and more. Those are amazing foundations on which to build a life. Look, our world today is about as frightening as it has ever been. It is so important to have something to hold on to that will help to center your soul. Judaism does that. Even just taking a breath and celebrating the beauty of separating Shabbat from the rest of the week will shift you. Sometimes, we feel like saying to the Jewish outsiders, “Listen, on behalf of Judaism, we are sorry you find it to be intimidating. Our bad. But please, we need every one of you. We will work on the intimidation and in the meantime, we welcome you with love!”
Jewish holidays are a great place to start when you want to “belong.” Visit JewBelong’s holiday section to learn more.