JewBelong, a nonprofit with a website offering resources for holidays and other rituals, doesn’t seem like a controversial organization. When it appeared on the scene several years ago, it set out to invite celebration of all things Jewish for all kinds of Jews — children from mixed families, secular Jews, converts. What’s not to like?
But over the last year or so, the organization has become a lightning rod for controversy, as it has shifted focus to call out antisemitism and advocate for Israel, largely through its signature hot-pink signs and snarky slogans, including four in and around the Twin Cities: I-94 & Dowling Avenue, Highway 280 & University Avenue, I-494 & County Road 6, and I-94 & Highway 101.
The signs, plastered on billboards and bus stops in major cities and college campuses, employ a social-media vernacular to make the causes sound hip, but have caused some on the left — including Jews who may have been among the organization’s original target audience — to cringe and complain.
“JewBelong is basically just Jewish cringe content, yeah? With a lot of money apparently?” tweeted Elad Nehorai. Another Twitter user noted that the money spent on JewBelong’s “crappy” slogans would be better put to use providing more tangible aid to Jewish communities.
If you were in New York during George W. Bush’s presidency, the hot-pink signs might feel familiar: They recall the provocative billboards for Manhattan Mini Storage that blared slogans like “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married” and, with a picture of a wire hanger, “Your closet space is shrinking as fast as her right to choose.”
The brain behind those storage ads, Archie Gottesman, is co-founder of JewBelong, whose original marketing campaigns — “So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about” and “When you need a ketubah and someone to tell you what it is”— were admired by some for bringing an openness and sass to the often stodgy world of organized Jewish life.
But the messages have not only moved in tone from sassy to strident; they seem to have shifted their target audience. Originally aimed at less-engaged Jews, JewBelong’s billboards and social media campaigns now seem to be speaking mainly to non-Jews, and many of the leftists who loved those Bush-era Manhattan Mini Storage ads chafe at the unapologetically Zionist and anti-woke messaging.
“If you still find a reason to hate the Jews, you’re not as progressive as you think,” reads one Instagram post. “Being woke and antisemitic is like being a vegan who eats veal,” says another.
Others invoke antisemitic tropes to undermine them: — “If we actually controlled the banks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be on the 100-dollar bill” — or poke fun at Jewish culture: “If you’re Jewish and your favorite bagel is blueberry with strawberry cream cheese, technically you’re not Jewish.”
Gottesman, 58, said in an interview that she sees her mission as engaging disinterested Jews, saying of the Jewish people: “We have a branding problem.”
As part of her efforts to make Judaism more visible and more accessible, Gottesman appeared on talk shows like CBS2News and Spectrum News before Passover this spring to promote JewBelong’s Haggadah, and hosted a Shabbat dinner on an episode of Real Housewives of New York in 2021. But Gottesman has also sparked ire among Jewish — and non-Jewish — groups devoted to supporting Palestinian human rights with her personal Tweets about Gaza, some of which she has apologized for.
Gottesman and some of her family members have been significant contributors to Jewish nonprofits for decades, and at first self-financed JewBelong.
The group’s most recent publicly available tax filing, for 2019, said its budget was under $400,000. But a Times Square billboard usually runs at least $5,000 a day, and JewBelong had seven billboards there for a month last summer, along with signs on bus stops and in other cities; the organization told Religion News Service it spent $400,000 on that campaign alone. Last spring, eJewishPhilanthropies reported that JewBelong got support from several major Jewish foundations, and Gottesman named a few more in an email to the Forward.
Today, JewBelong’s website, social media accounts and billboard campaigns are a mix of provocative messages about antisemitism and anti-Zionism and reassurances that if you eat a cheeseburger while driving on Shabbat, you’re still a good Jew. Which raises the question: What exactly is JewBelong selling, and who is it trying to reach?
Gottesman met Stacy Stuart, her JewBelong co-founder, doing marketing for Manhattan Mini Storage, a part of Gottesman’s family business, Edison Properties, which was founded in 1956 by Gottesman’s father, Jerry, who died in 2017.
In a telephone interview from Dubai, where she was on vacation, Gottesman told me she had been thinking about Judaism’s branding and accessibility ever since her husband converted for their wedding about 30 years ago. She began gathering resources to add meaning for him and her family to Jewish traditions that she sees as dry and off-putting — and liable to cause “Jewbarrassment,” a term that JewBelong trademarked in 2016.
She and Stuart left Manhattan Mini Storage and began offering their marketing expertise to make Judaism enticing and fun, just as they had for storage units. But it wasn’t as easy.
“There were Jewish organizations saying, ‘I want to do exactly what you did at Manhattan Mini Storage’ and we’d say OK,” Gottesman recalled. “And we’d write ads that were pushing the envelope, which is exactly what they’d asked for. And they’d say, ‘Well not that.’”
So in 2017, the pair founded JewBelong to sell Judaism to disengaged Jews, who JewBelong calls “DJs.” (“You may or may not want them picking the tunes at your next pool party,” the group’s website quips.)
Working for themselves, Gottesman and Stuart could be as edgy as they wanted. So they made campaigns about conversion for marriage — “Even if his mother still calls you ‘her’” — and lack of observance. When Jewish communities were in the news for not giving children a measles vaccine, they responded with a meme of an exhausted-looking woman: “Me after being asked for the 3rd time if my Jewish kids had their measles vaccine…”
“Good branding has got to be fast,” Gottesman told me. “It needs to be something that’s humor or something that’s a shock.”
Once people’s attention is captured, she continued, they might find their way to JewBelong’s website, where they would find various readings and the organization’s more fleshed-out Jewish philosophy; she’s not too worried about the impression they pick up from the pushy public presence in the meantime.
“The Jewish values that are in all of our traditions,” Gottesman explained, “sometimes you have to dig a little bit to find them. And JewBelong wants to make them in front.”
In some ways, JewBelong reminds me of Chabad, the Orthodox group that does aggressive outreach on college campuses and city streets, urging Jews to wrap tefillin and light Shabbat candles, hosting holiday meals and otherwise trying to bring people into the fold.
Like Chabad, JewBelong’s website is full of summaries of Jewish practices, often with quips and metaphors. (“Havdalah has helped more people transition than the gender assignment team at Cleveland Clinic.”) Tabs at the top offer drop-down menus for holidays, lifecycle events, antisemitism, and something called “jelp” that lists various other Jewish organizations.
When I asked Stuart and Gottesman about these parallels, Stuart — who said she had little engagement with her Jewish identity before meeting Gottesman — said she didn’t know enough about Chabad to say, but Gottesman, whose family was active in the Conservative movement, agreed.
Unlike Chabad, JewBelong often downplays Jewish law or texts, and skips swaths of terms or practices in favor of simplicity and emphasis on what Gottesman calls “Joyous Judaism.” Of Shemini Atzeret, for example, the site says: “It comes with its own prayers and traditions, but no one can really explain what the holiday is about.” (Chabad, meanwhile, explains the prayers recited during the festival, which follows Sukkot, and how its observance differs from that holiday.)
JewBelong also created its own Haggadah in 2020, updating it each year since then, and has its own Ten Commandments, which features exhortations such as “Get to Israel.” Suggested readings mix and match traditional Hebrew texts and quotes from Maya Angelou or Rupi Kaur, a South Asian poet who found fame on Instagram, and address events ranging from Rosh Hashanah to a breakup. (What’s Jewish about reading a Rupi Kaur poem to navigate your breakup is unclear.)
Gottesman said that her approach to Judaism “is not making it superficial” but “mining it for the beauty and love that is at the core.” JewBelong seems well aware of its critics, but shrugs them off with an unapologetic disclaimer section about its lax take on traditional observance.
And supporters like Ethan Zohn — a former soccer player and reality-show star who is on the group’s advisory board — love it; on the website, he calls JewBelong the “cool, new, trendy, no judgment, all-inclusive one-stop shop for all things Jewy.”
But if JewBelong’s Judaism is loose on law, it does not stray from politics, particularly around Israel. This spring, the second page of its Haggadah called out a “new and insidious form of hostility directed at Israel” and urged people to honor Ukraine by adding an olive to their Seder plates, which some saw as usurping a tradition that previously represented Jewish solidarity with Palestinians.
“Does JewBelong know that olives have been put on Seder plates to express solidarity with Palestinians for 20 years? Do they see the parallels between Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and Israel’s? Are they trolling or oblivious?” tweeted Raphael Magarik.
Gottesman was on the board of Zioness, a group founded to make space for Israel supporters on the progressive left, and still is on the board of Democratic Majority for Israel, an advocacy group working to strengthen support for Israel among elected leaders.
But Gottesman’s statements on the issue have often been sharper than others in those generally centrist organizations.
In 2018, for example, she tweeted “Gaza is full of monsters. Burn the whole place. Won’t matter. The U.N. will just give another meaningless sanction.”
Gottesman apologized for the tweet, promising to “do better,” but noting that she wrote it when Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza, was attacking Israel, and saying that “context matters.” The apology is posted on JewBelong, at the bottom of a section titled “Forgiveness Readings” that also includes poetry.
A new, pro-Israel and anti-antisemitism mission
Before the Israel-Gaza war in May 2021, JewBelong itself had not openly ventured into politics or focused its work on antisemitism. Then, suddenly, cheerful posts comparing masks to a “kippah for your mouth” were replaced with strongly worded ones equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism and pointedly reminding followers of the horrors of the Holocaust.
“We started it then because that’s the time when antisemitism became normalized,” Gottesman told me. “We saw a lack of solid messaging from the Jewish community.”
The hot-pink billboards about antisemitism went up in July, after the war. “You didn’t like it when we didn’t defend ourselves. And you don’t like it when we do. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room. #stopantisemitism,” read one splashed across a tall building in Times Square. Another in the same area said: “We’re just 75 years since the gas chambers. So no, a billboard calling out Jew hate isn’t an overreaction. #EndJewHate.”
Jewish organizations and people have a “tendency to not speak up, and it’s really negative, it’s bad for our children,” said Gottesman, a mother of three adult daughters. “What JewBelong is doing is getting antisemitism on the board along with Black lives and Islamophobia and Asians and gay people and trans people.”
Gottesman sent me emails with examples of praise for the campaigns, including one from a woman who said her grandfather broke down crying when he saw one of the billboards and asked her to drive past it several times. The group’s antisemitism posts on Instagram have plenty of likes and supportive comments. And public figures such as Rabbi David Wolpe and Deborah Lipstadt, now Biden’s antisemitism envoy, have tweeted their support.
(Wolpe, who recently announced his retirement from Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, declined an interview request, saying he did not know enough about JewBelong.)
The signs have also faced criticism — from both inside and outside the Jewish community.
Recently, a JewBelong sign on a bus stop in Borough Park, a Hasidic area in Brooklyn, was defaced with swastikas; a woman was arrested and, according to the New York Daily News, told the authorities that she was Jewish but doesn’t “agree with Judaism and how the Jewish people are.” (Stuart said that kind of attack “gives us fuel to keep going.”)
And leftist Jewish Twitter is filled with posts taking issue with the group’s antagonistic tone and hard-line pro-Israel stance.
Almost none of the critics I reached out to would speak to me on the record, perhaps worried about getting on the wrong side of such a visible and outspoken organization. But when I’ve brought up the group at various Jewish gatherings of young people in Brooklyn, it has immediately resulted in animated — and negative — responses.
Some questioned who JewBelong is trying to pick a fight with, hazarding guesses including Christians and progressives. Others derided the organization’s tone as “cringe” or “try hard.”
The organization’s presence has more than tripled its followers on Instagram over the last two years, and doubled its count on Facebook; the most notable bump was during and immediately after the Israel-Gaza war last May.
Tax filings that would detail its financial growth during that period are not yet public; the 2019 filing said Gottesman and Stuart were not taking salaries and working 10 hours a week, but now, both said that running the organization is a full-time job.
The eJewishPhilanthropies article last March said JewBelong’s supporters include the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Crown Philanthropies and the Rodan Family Foundation as well as foundations associated with the Gottesman family. In an email, Gottesman said the group has also gotten funding from Kraft Philanthropies, a foundation started by the owner of the New England Patriots, and that several individual donors have given $100,000 toward installing billboards about antisemitism in specific locations. Stuart Grand, a lawyer and hedge fund manager, financed billboards in Delaware, for example, and some campus ads were underwritten by Lawrence Berger, the chairman of a hat and apparel company and founder of a private-equity firm, and his wife, Kimby.
“We’re a nonprofit and there’s many donors who felt like what we’re doing is a very important voice,” Gottesman said in our interview. “A good amount of our growth has been from what I just explained to you, from people wanting to put a stick in the ground about antisemitism and they like the way we’re doing it.”
JewBelong goes viral
After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, JewBelong tweeted a photo contrasting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wearing a camouflage vest and striding past a military vehicle with the iconic photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders in mittens during President Biden’s 2021 inauguration. “What type of Jew are you?” the post asked.
Online, the backlash was instant. Some accused JewBelong of slandering Sanders and of pitting Jews against Jews; others said it was reinforcing an antisemitic stereotype. IfNotNow, a Jewish group devoted to dismantling the Israeli occupation, was one of several to decry the post.
The side-by-side of Zelenksyy and Sanders was created by another social media user, @shawndreyfuss59, whose account is now suspended, but thanks to JewBelong’s 35,000 Instagram followers, the group’s repost got more attention. The organization deleted the post, but continued to comment on the war over the next months, including a six-part slideshow listing reasons why Ukraine is not like Gaza.
Other JewBelong posts have also attacked Sanders. One shows him with his hand on his forehead, looking exhausted, captioned: “When you find out your ancestors escaped the Holocaust and you’ve been politically aligning yourself with antisemites this whole time.” It references “The Squad,” the leftist group of Democratic members of the House that includes Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, two of Israel’s toughest critics in Congress and its only two Muslim women.
When I asked Gottesman about the shift in mission from Jewish belonging to politics, she objected to my framing. “I wouldn’t call it a shift. I’d say it’s an addition,” she said. “Originally, and it still is very much so, our mission is for welcoming Jewish people who feel like they don’t belong.”
I also asked Gottesman about a JewBelong ad, which it posts repeatedly, that has prompted accusations of inappropriate proselytizing. “To all Jews by choice: Thanks for converting, now if you could bring just one more person…” the post said, prompting more than 200 negative comments and quote-tweets.
Gottesman seemed unconcerned about potentially violating a Jewish precept against evangelizing or encouraging conversion. “I think we can be standoffish and intimidating and unwelcoming,” she said of Jews, “and that’s a terrible, terrible waste of an opportunity.”
Jason Rosenberg, a marketing professional who used to work alongside Gottesman at 92Y, called JewBelong “hypocritical” for purporting to be all about a big tent and then alienating those who have different political views, especially about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jews critical of Israel already often feel sidelined by mainstream Jewish organizations, Rosenberg said, and while Gottesman has tried to do away with a religious purity test based on knowledge of jargon or ritual, it’s clear that there are political requirements.
“It’s very hypocritical to have an organization called JewBelong saying that any and every type of Jew should be belonging to a larger community,” he said, “but also say very divisive and harmful things that might — not might, have — ostracized a lot of the Jewish community.”
Gottesman was not shy about where she draws the line. “Listen,” she said, “when people are anti-Israel, I don’t think JewBelong is for them.”
This article was originally published on the Forward.