New Jersey NCSY alumna Allison Josephs is using her talents and passion for Jewish outreach and education in a cutting-edge way. Harnessing the power of new media, Josephs is the creator of a YouTube series called “Jew in the City.” The episodes feature a Q&A video blog between non-Orthodox characters and the eponymous “Jew in the City,” all portrayed by Josephs. The questions address common misconceptions about religious Jews and Judaism. In a warm, friendly, and clear manner, Josephs breaks down stereotypes and misconceptions.
Josephs says that her journey from non-observant Jew to outreach professional was caused by an existential crisis she suffered from as a child. At the age of 8, Josephs started asking questions about the meaning of life and her purpose in this world. She quickly realized that no one she knew had any answers. She spent years suffering from insomnia, lying awake, thinking about eternity and how the life she was living wouldn’t matter once it was over. A well-rounded honors student, Josephs loved performing. It was a class at her after-school Hebrew high school on “Taoism and Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of the Fathers) that opened the door to the answers she was seeking.
In this class, Josephs saw that there was depth and meaning within her heritage that she never knew existed. A subsequent family trip to Hawaii connected her to God in a way that would change her life. The never-ending waves crashing on the beach reminded her that there is a constant force in the world. When she saw a tree so beautiful that it looked as if it must have been painted by an artist, and yet the color was there naturally, Josephs was filled with an intense love and appreciation for Hashem.
After that trip, Josephs wanted to hold on to the spirituality she had felt in Hawaii and mitzvos seemed to be the appropriate vehicle to achieve this. She spent the summer in Israel where she started increasing her observance in kashrus, daily prayer, and Shabbos. When she got back from Israel she struggled to keep Shabbos each week as she had no community to spend it with. At the end of the school year, Josephs realize she’d have to spend the Shabbos of her senior prom alone too; enter NCSY
Prom occurred the same weekend as New Jersey NCSY’s Spring Regional. When Josephs found out that there was a place for someone like her to go to instead of prom, she was ecstatic. She didn’t know what went on at an NCSY Shabbaton. “I had only met a handful of Orthodox Jews my entire life and suddenly, I was surrounded by 300 skirts and yarmulkes. I was pretty overwhelmed,” admits Josephs.
Josephs spent the first part of the Shabbaton convinced that these people were not for her, but in every speech, there was talk of “Hashem,” whom she longed to connect to. By the time shalosh seudos came, Josephs was so overwhelmed with emotion that she ran out of the room hysterically crying. “I knew that these were my people, but I didn’t yet know how I’d fit in. I knew the people back home would never understand why I would choose to become like this, but I was afraid that the people at NCSY would never understand who I was and where I came from.”
The weekend was especially moving for Josephs as the theme of the weekend was kedusha, translated as “holiness” but literally “separate.” As her classmates were busy with prom, Josephs chose to separate herself. When she got back to school, she realized that she could never go back to seeing things the way she had before.
After high school, Josephs enrolled in Columbia University and served as an advisor for both the New York and New Jersey Regions of NCSY. She learned at Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem to further her Jewish education. The idea for “Jew in the City” was born when Josephs interviewed close to 3,000 Birthright Israel alumni, who consistently repeated the same stereotypes about Orthodox Jews. Given the opportunity to educate on a large scale using the internet, Josephs realized Torah would sell itself. Shared Josephs, “I was educated, funky, and fun. I wanted to grow up and be an actress, so I chose to use that side of myself to serve Hashem.”
Jew in the City can be watched at www.jewinthecity.com.
This article originally appeared in NCSY’s IGNITE magazine Volumne 5 Issue 1