Let My People Laugh

The JewBelong website is offering a respite from these difficult times with a virtual Seder that includes a big helping of humor.

It’s the week before Passover, and some people are preparing a shank bone for the Seder. Archie Gottesman, the co-founder of JewBelong, a website targeting unaffiliated Jews through cheeky ads, is sharpening her funny bone.   

“The world is too heavy now,” she told me the other day. So she has been working with eight comedians to present the lighter aspects of the Seder experience in brief, snappy videos.

Like asking, how long should a Seder be? “About an hour and a half,” suggests comic Sherrod Small. “Or until the first family member says the election was stolen. Whichever comes first.”   

The big lesson from the Seder? “Wow, you guys really like parsley,” Carmen Lynch offers. Matthew Broussard says the big takeaway is, “Don’t underpay the Jews. Pharaoh treated them like they were Amazon employees. And he paid the price.”   

Gottesman, who launched the nonprofit JewBelong.com four years ago, sees herself as a kind of tongue-in-cheek warrior in the battle to rebrand Judaism and “help people find the joy, meaning, and relevance that Judaism has to offer.”

To put it more bluntly, she says, “Judaism is a great product, but the marketing sucks.”

Gottesman spent more than two decades writing memorable billboard and subway ads for her family’s mini-storage business, perhaps best-known for this 2011 classic: “Why leave a city that has six professional sports teams, and also the Mets?”

She and her JewBelong co-founder Stacy Stuart focus their humor and skills on luring “anyone who has felt like a Jewish outsider” to the site’s wide range of how-to-do Judaism information, from celebrating the holidays to making a shiva call.

They have a mailing list of more than 90,000 and the site has had 400,000 page views over the past year.

The JewBelong Seder theme is “humor, connection, tears,” and Gottesman says the overall mission of the organization is “to make sure everyone feels like they belong, and to add meaning and connection to people’s lives.” 

Gottesman, 57, grew up in and still lives in New Jersey, the product of a deeply engaged Jewish family. Her husband, Gary, grew up Methodist. He converted to Judaism and joined her in “living a Jewish life,” she said, but in seeing the synagogue experience through his eyes, she realized “it was boring.”

To compensate, she started collecting examples of creative Jewish content to share with Gary, and their three now-adult daughters (all of whom are graduates of The Jewish Week’s Write On For Israel program for high school students) at Shabbat meals, festivals and other occasions. This gradually led to the creation of JewBelong, aimed at reaching disengaged Jews, people who are not Jewish but part of a Jewish community, and just about anyone else who may think Judaism has nothing to offer.

The ads and tag lines that JewBelong uses in Facebook ads and, on occasion, kiosks in Manhattan and other major cities, clearly are aimed at getting attention.

Among the more memorable ones:

“Blonde since birth. Jewish since marriage.”

“So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about.”

“Even if you think kugel is an exercise you do for your vagina.”

Unlike the tone of these and other JewBelong taglines, much of the instructional information on the robust site is thoughtful and sensitively directed. In addition to providing what Gottesman calls “bite-size pieces of Jewish wisdom” about major holidays and rituals, there are sections on Forgiveness, Heartbreak and Jewbarrassment — described as the widely experienced though little-discussed feeling people have that they are doing something wrong Jewishly.

Gottesman’s goal is to decrease that feeling by encouraging people to be more open and not hide their vulnerability. Judaism should be fun and inclusive, she insists, with less worry about following all the rules.

“We honor the tradition,” Gottesman says, “but we aren’t scared to say that if you want to skip having everyone at your Seder go through the handwashing ritual, it’s ok.”

For Passover, JewBelong is offering its free Passover JewBelong Haggadah and will present a Burning Man-ischewitz: JewBelong’s Free Virtual Passover on the first two nights of Passover: March 27 at 7 pm ET and 28. (See JewBelong.com)