Archie Gottesman, one of JewBelong’s principal founders, understands if her organization isn’t quite the right fit for someone. JewBelong’s “disclaimer” states: “JewBelong’s mission is to welcome people to Judaism with Jewish readings and rituals that many people can relate to. And guess what, JewBelong isn’t for everyone. This should not be shocking. Hell, Jews have a hard time agreeing on anything, you really think they are all going to agree that JewBelong is fab?! No f*#king chance.”
With that confusion out of the way, it’s time to drill down to the organization’s bedrock premise: avoid “JewBarrassment.” JewBarrassment happens to everyone. It’s when you bring cookies to someone’s Passover seder. Or you accidentally turn on a light in someone’s traditionally Sabbath-observant home. Maybe you have no idea what a sukkah is.
“We may never actually end JewBarrassment,” JewBelong asserts on its website, “but we can definitely decrease it by a) asking more questions! There is no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to religious rules. And b) answering questions with kindness when someone does ask! Sometimes people are shy about explaining a custom fully. Instead, it would be wonderful to look at religious ritual and practice as a chance to teach others about an interesting tradition that might add meaning to their lives too.”
Rosh Hashanah begins on Friday, Sept. 18, and Gottesman and her colleagues are ready to help Jews and those who aren’t Jewish navigate the holiday’s pitfalls. To that end, the site offers a “Rosh Haggadah,” which assembles all the basics, from how to say Happy New Year in Hebrew—L’Shana Tova—to reciting the blessings over the candles that usher in the holiday and participating in a meaningful tashlich ceremony—the symbolic casting off of sins into a body of water.
Gottesman recently spoke to JewishBoston about celebrating Rosh Hashanah in a pandemic and how to find meaning in Jewish rituals.
Your eclectic bio begins with a quote from a wise rabbi who said, “Judaism is a great product, but the marketing sucks.” Tell us about your background in light of that quote!
I did the branding and marketing for my family’s business, Manhattan Mini Storage, for over 20 years. I also was involved in operations in the business. I did that for a few years, and I was becoming bored. I thought, if I’m boring myself, I must be boring half of New York! So, I started using humor and pop culture, and a little bit of politics, to get some brand attention. I was able to make a relatively small brand just blossom.
When did you make the leap to JewBelong?
I left the business almost four years ago. I had always been doing JewBelong for my family, but it didn’t have a name. My husband, Gary, grew up in the United Methodist Church, and Judaism was always very important to me. I grew up in a Conservative home. I’m wired Jewish. I view things from a Jewish lens. I said to Gary, soon after we were dating, “I’m going to marry somebody who’s Jewish.” He said, “Well, I can convert to Judaism.” I thought it was an amazing thing for him to do because Judaism isn’t always the easiest way to live. Anybody who chooses Judaism is owed a huge thank you.
I started looking at Judaism through his eyes, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. It didn’t lead with love and warmth. Judaism’s great values aren’t always out front. They’re there within Judaism, but you have to look to find them. In this world, where we’re all too busy and everything is vying for our attention, it just takes a long time to get to the good stuff. When I had children, I started to collect Jewish content, and by that, I mean when we did Shabbat. Most of what we did is on JewBelong’s website. Our Shabbat booklet is filled with material that I compiled 20 years ago. It’s the same with Passover and all the other major Jewish holidays.
Who visits your website?
It’s not a specific audience. Maybe they have a synagogue, but they don’t always go to synagogue, or maybe they are trying to attend. Maybe they’re in a relationship with someone who’s not Jewish, and they’re trying to explain Rosh Hashanah to that person. So our Rosh Hashanah booklet is quite popular. We don’t write everything on the site. We curate a lot of the material. If I find a beautiful reading, I’ll post it. A lot of times I’ll write original material if it’s something that I feel is missing and needs to be said. And the branding! Don’t forget, I’m a branding person at heart!
What is JewBelong doing for Rosh Hashanah this year?
In addition to our “Rosh Haggadah,” we have an online event called “Sins, Stars, and Shofars: A Virtual Rosh Hashanah Experience.” It premieres on Friday, Sept. 18, at 7:30 p.m. It will also be available to watch throughout the High Holiday season on JewBelong’s YouTube channel.
“Sins, Stars, and Shofars” is a one-hour-ish interactive program slash service packed with meaning, music, stories and familiar faces. We’ll take a deep dive into the Rosh Hashanah themes of apology; tashlich, or casting off our sins and what no longer serves us well; and legacy, or what we want written on our tombstone and how we start living that way.
Since spirituality isn’t a spectator sport, people will be able to participate and follow along with JewBelong’s Rosh Hashanah booklet. Everything on JewBelong is free, but the event is a fundraiser for GlobalJews.org as we seek to amplify and stand proudly for the diversity of the Jewish people.
As a special pandemic bonus, we’re offering Rosh Hashanah digital rituals. They walk people through planning, apologizing and letting go, three important ways to clean your slate for the New Year. There are also beautiful readings for tashlich. It’s not just about going to a lake and throwing bread or birdseed to represent our sins; it’s about the intention of trying to do things better and going into the New Year lighter.
What sorts of questions does the “Rosh Hashanah Personal Roadmap” ask?
There are about 14 questions, and the one we’ll focus on this year is, “What do I want written on my tombstone? And how do I begin living that way now?” It’s a powerful question, and the answer can change every year. You write down your answer to the tombstone question and we’ll send you your answer before next Rosh Hashanah so you can review your goals.
It seems that JewBelong is tailor-made for the internet.
We’re about giving people content and resources and explanation. Now we’re doing that in a way where people can also have that on a screen, not just as a printout. We’d always planned on having recordings and going digital, because that’s the way of the world. COVID-19 pushed us to do it in a much bigger way.
Is there a role for synagogues in this pandemic?
I want to emphasize that I am not anti-synagogue. I belong to a synagogue. I’ve always gone to synagogue. Judaism is a communal religion. That’s why there’s a minyan. That’s why if there is a death in your family, I will come to be with you for shiva. We celebrate and grieve many times as a community. But there are people for whom a synagogue does not speak to them. Whatever the reasons, they don’t want to join a temple. Maybe they don’t have the money or don’t live near a synagogue they want to join.
I care deeply about these people, and JewBelong can be there for anyone who feels like an outsider. I want to give these people resources for Shabbat hoping they’ll want to experience it. Or maybe they want a Rosh Hashanah experience and don’t want to go to synagogue. That’s fine—just go through the booklet. I’m not saying to do it instead of synagogue; I’m saying it’s here as another alternative. We also attract an age-diverse group. I used to say most of JewBelong’s users comprised millennials. But I know people who are in their 50s who don’t have a Jewish community; they like JewBelong too.
Is there anything else you want to add?
The High Holidays are so important. It’s a time to think about who we want to be in the coming year. Let’s add meaning to the holidays. For example, I know a guy who celebrates Rosh Hashanah with just a walk in the woods. How do you transfer knowledge and a love of the Jewish religion to your children with just a walk in the woods? I encourage him and others to print out the JewBelong booklet and mark the experience of that walk with beautiful readings from the booklet. Rosh Hashanah is something different, something special, and should be celebrated.
This interview has been edited and condensed.